The UK’s Post-Brexit Political Bloodbath Is Crazier Than A Season Of House Of Cards
Brexit’s Political Fallout Rivals “House Of Cards”
American fans of the hit Netflix show House of Cards, featuring the ruthless and ambitious politicians Frank and Claire Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, may be only vaguely aware that the show is of British origin. According to the BBC, former Conservative deputy chairman Lord Dobbs
“wrote the novel House of Cards, which was adapted into a BBC drama that ran in 1990, at the time when his party was in the bitter process of removing Margaret Thatcher from power. He is also involved in the Netflix show of the same name which has become a global hit.”
Dobbs recently compared the expanding leadership crisis consuming Britain to House of Cards. Since the British people voted to exit the European Union on June 23rd, more political corpses have figuratively washed up than the body count of a typical season of the American House of Cards. The backstabbing and intrigue are worthy of Machiavelli, worthy of Shakespearean tragedy.
The tumult began immediately after the Brexit referendum results were final. Prime Minister David Cameron resigned within hours. Cameron had called for the referendum, despite being opposed to Brexit, in order to shore up his right flank among conservatives in the last election. Having then called the referendum to make good on an election promise, populists and the far right ran away with it, and anti-establishment protest voters ripped the UK away from the EU. It was a historic miscalculation, and Cameron’s career came crashing to an end.
Jockeying to replace the Prime Minister began immediately within the Conservative party. Many people eyed Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London, who was an early proponent of Brexit, to run to replace Cameron. But hours before Johnson was to announce his bid, his campaign office received a phone call from Michael Gove. Gove, the Conservative Member of Parliament and Justice Secretary who had brought policy gravitas to the Brexit campaign, was supposed to be Johnson’s biggest supporter, campaign manager and running mate. The two men had been friends and allies for nearly 30 years. Together, they would unite most of the Conservative caucus and launch Johnson to power. Instead, Gove called Johnson’s office to inform him, that he, Gove, would be running for Prime Minister. Gove had attended a Conservative gala the night before, where Tories had “buried the hatchet,” and had given no indication that he was plotting to throw Johnson to the curb. The announcement left Johsnon’s bid in shambles. It was a political backstabbing worthy of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar.”
Gove’s Machiavellian maneuvering may go even deeper than the knife he buried in Johnson’s back. British author and journalist Ed Smith argued in New Statesman that Gove was motivated by Cameron firing Gove from his position as Education Secretary.
“The Prime Minister, advised by his electoral strategist Lynton Crosby that Michael Gove was a vote-loser, sacked the then education secretary, a role Gove had performed with energy and conviction. …
“Had Cameron backed himself to win the election with Gove still at Education, it is unlikely that his former close friend would have been the first big-name Tory to declare for Leave. With the Brexit think tank led by Gove – who brought with him an inner circle of serious minds – a perception of intellectual equivalency entered the debate.”
Had Cameron kept Gove closer in his inner circle, the ambitious politician may not have struck out on his own during the Brexit referendum. This is exactly the kind of snub that motivates Frank Underwood to go after putative allies at the beginning of the first season of the American House of Cards.
On Monday, the Washington Post reported that Nigel Farage had announced his resignation from Britain’s UKIP party. The United Kingdom Independence Party is a right wing nationalist and populist party, roughly analogous to the US Tea Party. Cameron had called the referendum to woo its voters. Farage was one of the loudest voices calling for Brexit. Some of his appeals were considered highly misleading and racist by his critics. Farage and others seemed as surprised by their success on June 23rd as much of the political establishment. Having led the Britons to vote to leave the EU, with markets, treaties and careers crashing around them, Farage was forced to “walk back” a number of Brexit claims. Vox called him the political equivalent of the dog who caught the car. Having led his party to catastrophic victory, the only thing left to do was let go.
The Labour party also suffered from a crisis of leadership. Party rank-and-file slapped liberal leader Jeremy Corbyn with a no-confidence vote following his failure to steer Labour voters away from Brexit. Corbyn is also under a cloud of accusations of anti-Semitism within his leadership circle. Corbyn refused to step down following the vote, setting up the potential for a deep rift within the party, though negotiators were trying to work out a resolution within the party structure.
Despite all the drama, the main architects of Brexit may not be the beneficiaries of the political fallout. Two women waiting in the wings of the Tory party are primed to battle it out for leadership of the Conservative party, and thus the Prime Minister’s office. Following Gove’s perceived backstabbing of Johnson, supporters are drifting to pro-Brexit conservative Andrea Leadsom. Pro-Remain conservatives are coalescing behind Theresa May. Gove put pressure on the two ladies Monday by releasing his tax returns, in hopes of stopping the drift toward Leadsom. The leadership battle is likely to hinge on how much the Conservative party wants to moderate its Brexit position in pending negotiations with the EU. If it wants to salvage more of the relationship, it may back May. If it decides to go full steam ahead with an aggressive split, it will likely back Gove or Leadsom. Either way, nearly a generation of political leadership has been sacrificed to the political maneuvering of a single historic referendum. The intrigue is crazier than fiction, more Machiavellian than a season of House of Cards.
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