Current Affairs

All change, please: the UK’s political shakeup

Theresa May has been installed in 10 Downing Street, but the Labour Party remains embroiled in infighting and UKIP is looking for a new leader and a new purpose

Theresa May is the UK’s new prime minister, after her opposition – the Brexiteer and over-proud mother Andrea Leadsom – pulled out, surprising even her own backers. May’s coronation was a rare moment of certainty in the melée of recriminations and desperation that followed the June 23 referendum on the UK’s membership of the United Kingdom. Three weeks without any clarity has broken the wills of lobby journalists and stretched the credibility of political pundits, if not the entire political class.

With May installed in Number 10, the business of actually figuring out what Britain outside of the EU looks like can begin – assuming that she is able to resist the pressure on her to call an early election. Questions over what mandate she has to negotiate Britain’s exit will persist, although there may well be a few moments’ calm while the establishment catches its breath.

Outside of the Tory party, the fallout from the Brexit vote is still drifting down to earth. A putative coup against the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, stuttered, stalled, then finally started on July 11, as Angela Eagle launched an official bid.

Others may come out to contest a vote, which is already being billed as a fight for the soul of the party. One side are grassroots activists, many of whom are young and have only recently become members, and who see in Corbyn a refreshing, anti-establishment figure who promises genuine social change; on the other is the parliamentary party, for whom the leader represents a throwback who wants to turn Labour into a protest movement that will never get into government.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Nigel Farage is stepping down as the leader of UKIP. Farage says that he has achieved his goal of getting the UK out of Europe – a remarkable feat for the head of a party that has only ever won one seat in a general election, and that only through a defection from the Conservatives.

However, UKIP has built a sizeable base in former Labour heartlands, and whoever follows Farage faces the task of redefining the party as a real political force, rather than a depository for anti-government, anti-immigration protest votes.

Within a month, everything could have changed at the top of British politics, with the Liberal Democrats the only frontline party without a major shakeup. These are the runners and riders:

Conservatives: Mayday

In:

theresa-may

Theresa May

AGE: 59
CURRENT POSTS: MP FOR MAIDENHEAD SINCE 1997; PRIME MINISTER SINCE 2016

As home secretary, May promised to limit net migration to 100,000. In 2015, it was 330,000. That figure, released close to the end of the Brexit referendum campaign, may have helped to sway the vote towards Leave. May campaigned against leaving the EU, albeit quietly, but has said that “Brexit means Brexit”. A reverend’s daughter and self-described One Nation Conservative, May has pitched herself as a unity candidate who can guide the country through the turmoil sparked by the referendum result.

May has long supported a withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that it ties the government’s hands, and has been criticised by privacy campaigners for the so-called “snooper’s charter”, the The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which allows police and security services to access and monitor citizens’ phone and internet records. However, alongside her relatively hardline stance on individual rights, she has shown herself to be relatively progressive on labour rights, and has made some relatively radical proposals on giving employees a voice on corporate boards.

Out:

andrea-leadsomeAndrea Leadsom

AGE: 53
CURRENT POSTS: MP FOR SOUTH NORTHAMPTONSHIRE SINCE 2010; PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR ENERGY AND CLIMATE CHANGE SINCE 2015

Former banker Andrea Leadsom emerged to the surprise of many outsiders as a viable challenger to frontrunner Teresa May after favourite Boris Johnson pulled out, then backed her. Her failure to handle the pressure of press interviews may have convinced her and her supporters to drop her campaign, which was buoyed by her status as the only pro-Brexit candidate on the bill who wasn’t the increasingly toxic Michael Gove.

How committed she was to the idea of leaving the EU was never entirely clear. “I don’t think the UK should leave the EU. I think it would be a disaster for our economy and it would lead to a decade of economic and political uncertainty at a time when the tectonic plates of global success are moving,” she said in 2013, before, in 2016, adjusting that view to say: “I believe with absolute conviction that it is in the UK’s best interests to leave the European Union.”

michael-goveMichael Gove

AGE: 48
CURRENT POSTS: MP FOR SURREY HEATH SINCE 2005; SECRETARY OF STATE FOR JUSTICE SINCE 2015

The wild days after the Brexit vote have destroyed a few reputations, perhaps none more so than Michael Gove. The former Times columnist and political speechwriter has been cast as a Machiavellian backstabber after suddenly and successfully ousting his Brexit campaign partner Boris Johnson, the one-time favourite for the leadership.

The betrayal was all the more impressive, coming hot on the heels of Gove’s abandonment of his one-time friend and supporter, David Cameron, as the referendum approached. His time as education secretary in the last government marked him out as an anachronistic traditionalist, as he extolled the virtues of making children learn by rote and write lines as punishment.

Labour: Jexit?

Definitely:

jeremy-corbynJeremy Corbyn

AGE: 67
CURRENT POSTS: MP FOR ISLINGTON NORTH SINCE 1983; LEADER OF THE LABOUR PARTY SINCE 2015

Corbyn got onto the ballot for the 2015 Labour leadership election at the 11th hour, after MPs backed his candidacy to ensure that the party’s left had some representation. The Islington Spring that followed saw thousands of people join the party to back Corbyn’s vision of social equality over his more polished rivals.

An old-school peace activist, the Labour leader has spent most of his time in charge in open conflict with his own party, who voted overwhelmingly in support of a no-confidence motion against him in June. While some of his ineffectiveness can be ascribed to this rebellion, he has not distinguished himself at the dispatch box and his obvious ambivalence to the EU hamstrung Labour’s attempts to campaign for a Remain vote.

Corbyn’s case may have been strengthened by the findings of the Chilcot report into the Iraq War, which found that there were many, many failings in the lead-up to the conflict. The war is an emblematic issue for the Labour Party, and remains the original sin of the Blair era. That he was right from the start about going to war may remind party rebels why Corbyn is popular in the party’s grassroots.

angela-eagleAngela Eagle

AGE: 55
CURRENT POSTS: MP FOR WALLASEY SINCE 1992

A veteran of the Blair and Brown governments and an accomplished parliamentarian, Angela Eagle was the first to throw her hat into the ring to challenge Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Eagle’s supporters hope that she can be a unity candidate who bridges the gap between the membership that voted for Corbyn and the parliamentary party, which opposes him.

As an opposition speaker, she has shown herself able to get under the Tories’ skin better than her current boss – she was the target of David Cameron’s petulant stab of “calm down dear” in the House of Commons in 2011, and gave George Osborne a battering when he stood in for Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Eagle apparently hoped that Corbyn would resign rather than face a formal challenge, and her campaign may yet fail. Win or lose, taking on the leader is a huge gamble that could alienate her from her own supporters, the trade unions and Labour Party activists.

Maybe:

yvette-cooperYvette Cooper

AGE: 47
CURRENT POSTS: MP FOR NORMANTON, PONTEFRACT AND CASTLEFORD SINCE 1997

Yvette Cooper was a serious contender for the Labour leadership in 2015, but lost out to Corbyn’s unexpected surge. The daughter of a trade union activist, she has often espoused more traditional Labour policies, including the introduction of a 50p top tax rate, and the introduction of Scandinavian-style free universal childcare, but also talks up the need for a more business-friendly approach to politics on the left.

Whether this will allow her pitch herself as a unifying force, or mark her out as a target for New and Old Labour rivals remains to be seen.

Cooper has regularly railed against the misogyny of modern British politics – probably because she has routinely been the target of it. She is married to former shadow chancellor Ed Balls, and when he stood instead of her for the party leadership in 2010, opponents sniped that she was doing what her husband told her to. As she said at the time: “Sexism in politics is nothing new when you’re standing for election. But don’t stand for election and it’s almost as bad.”

Balls lost his seat in the 2015 general election; Cooper kept hers.

owen-smithOwen Smith

AGE: 46
CURRENT POSTS: MP FOR PONTYPRIDD SINCE 2010

Owen Smith joined most of Labour’s shadow cabinet in stepping down in late June, and has since been a vocal critic of Jeremy Corbyn, warning that the party could well schism if the leader insists on clinging to power.

Smith, who spent a decade as a radio producer at the BBC, is MP for the Welsh constituency of Pontypridd, once a mining area that has, like many Valley communities, suffered from post-industrial decline. The borough in which his constituency is situated, Rhondda Cynon Taff, voted to leave the EU, despite being a major recipient of European funding. What once were Labour heartlands did not listen to the party’s call to vote Remain; whether a leader from within these communities could bring them back into the fold is far from clear.

UKIP: Faragone

paul-nuttallPaul Nuttall

AGE: 39
CURRENT POSTS: MEP FOR NORTH WEST ENGLAND SINCE 2009; DEPUTY LEADER OF UKIP SINCE 2010

The world’s gone mad, and until we all stand up to these PC mind-benders, it will only get worse,” Paul Nuttall wrote in 2010. This worldview appears to be what drives UKIP’s deputy leader, who is one of UKIP’s few approved frontline media commentators.

Nuttall often appears to be Nigel Farage without the filter or charisma. He has positioned himself as a staunch opponent of ‘political correctness’, campaigning against the smoking ban and wind farms, and as a supporter of the death penalty. He does not believe in climate change, and once called for Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth to be banned from schools as propaganda.

While campaigning against the EU’s bureaucratic excesses, Nuttall’s attendance at the European Parliament demonstrated a predictable contempt for the process. He participated in less than 43 per cent of votes in Strasbourg between 2009 and 2014. MEPs are paid a salary of around €96,000 – £81,400 in today’s post-referendum sterling.

steven-woolfeSteven Woolfe

AGE: 48
CURRENT POSTS: MEP FOR NORTH WEST ENGLAND SINCE 2014; UKIP MIGRATION SPOKESMAN SINCE 2015

A barrister who was UKIP’s spokesman on one of its key issues – migration – Steven Woolfe has emerged as a real contender to replace Nigel Farage at the head of the party. Manchester-born Woolfe, whose grandfather was African-American, has worked hard to try to detoxify UKIP’s image as the successor to racist parties of the past.

During the referendum campaign, Woolfe made the case that EU migration was as big an issue for the children of previous generations of immigrants, saying: “The European Union’s most precious core principle, freedom of movement, whilst a boon for citizens of poorer EU countries seeking work in wealthier nations, has become an albatross on the prospects of British-born citizens and increasingly so for the ethnic community too.”

Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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