British Politics and Brexit 101: Political Realignment
The United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on European Union membership ended with the shock decision to exit the EU and started the leaving process that has come to be known as Brexit. After over 40 years of membership and integration, this decision has had profound effects not just in terms of Britain’s relationship with Europe and the wider world, but also within British politics and society. The referendum results exposed deep fissures within the United Kingdom and led to profound political realignments, with the Brexit issue likely to shape Britain for decades to come. Once considered a bastion of stability, Brexit has instead illustrated the United Kingdom as a nation in flux and undergoing a deep crisis of politics and identity. This 101 series will first investigate the reasons behind the decision to leave the European Union, before analysing the effects that Brexit has had on British domestic politics. British Politics and Brexit 101 is divided into six different chapters:
British Politics and Brexit 101: Before the Referendum – A Public Wedded to Brexit?
British Politics and Brexit 101: The Referendum Campaign – A Question of Europe?
British Politics and Brexit 101: The Fallout – Britain Divided
British Politics and Brexit 101: The Disunited Kingdom – Brexit and the Nations
British Politics and Brexit 101: Political Realignment
British Politics and Brexit 101: A Country in Crisis – The Future
With the 2010 and 2015 General Elections already displaying a much greater unpredictability in British politics, the 2016 Brexit vote only added to the sense of electoral destabilisation. With the Brexit vote cutting across traditional party lines, the situation was ripe for political parties to try and gain supporters by rallying Britain’s new Remain and Leave camps. However, simultaneously the parties had the challenge of maintaining their existing supporters who were often divided on the Brexit issue and the wider political and social outlooks that the Leave and Remain camps espoused. Accordingly, the years after the Brexit referendum witnessed two dramatic UK General Elections, vicious intraparty factionalism, and the growth of culture wars and political polarisation, all against the backdrop of exit negotiations with the EU and the post-Brexit degradation of political discourse. This article will chart the course of British politics from the 2017 General Election through to the dramatic 2019 General Election, which marked one of the largest political realignments in British politics since the birth and rise of the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century.
This article will first analyse British party politics in the run-up to the 2017 election. This will show how Labour had taken a sharp turn to the Left under Jeremy Corbyn — resulting in bitter party factionalism — and how the Conservatives under Theresa May tried to reposition themselves as the Party of Brexit — whilst simultaneously wrestling with the influence of the staunchly Eurosceptic European Research Group. The article will then show how the 2017 General Election led to a dramatic reversal in fortunes, with Labour climbing from 23 points behind in the polls to result in a hung parliament for Theresa May. This will set the scene for the second half of the article, which will show how Theresa May was doomed to failure in her exit negotiations in the EU, which precipitated the arrival of Boris Johnson as Britain’s new right-wing populist Prime Minister, followed by the stunning 2019 General Election realignment. This saw the previously impenetrable Labour “Red Wall” of ex-industrial Northern England fall one by one to the previously despised Conservative Party.
Post-Referendum Realignment and the 2017 General Election
One of the big political outcomes of the Conservatives’ surprise majority in the 2015 General Election — aside from the 2016 Brexit referendum itself — was the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as the most left-wing Labour leader since the 1980s (Gough, 2020). As noted in the first chapter, in common with many other Social Democratic parties in Europe, the Labour Party from the 1990s onwards sought to adapt by embracing free-market neoliberal economic reforms to grow the economy, whilst simultaneously funding public services and welfare through increased tax revenue and gaining electoral support from the political centre to maintain power. However, in the process, the political left had found themselves side-lined and marginalised, with all the main political parties in a broad ideological consensus that was relaxed about the rise of the super wealthy, growing inequality, privatisation, the outsourcing of public services, and big business interests (Gough, 2020). The 2015 General Election campaign saw Labour leader Ed Miliband, in the face of intense media scrutiny, once again hope to appeal to the centre by attempting to demonstrate economic credibility. This culminated in support for a less stringent policy of austerity than that of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. As a result, all of Britain’s main political parties were now in favour of austerity, with no effective opposition to this (Duncan, 2019).
The 2015 election was a disaster for Labour. As shown in previous chapters, not only did the Conservatives win an unexpected majority, but Labour was wiped out in Scotland in favour of the nationalist SNP. There shortly followed a contest for Labour leadership. Ed Miliband’s altering of Labour’s policy gave party members a direct vote on the leadership for the first time (Duncan, 2019). Jeremy Corbyn arrived with an unashamedly left-wing position that marked a clear break with austerity and the established 35-year-old economic orthodoxy, in favour of public investment and greater redistribution of wealth (Duncan, 2019). This generated a massive wave of enthusiasm from the British left, much to the shock of many Labour MPs. People signed up as party members in droves to vote, leading to a decisive Corbyn victory with 56.5% of the votes, and the Labour Party growing to 600,000 members (Gough, 2020). In addition to left-wing economics, Corbyn had a long history as a backbench rebel MP against the New Labour government, including as a committed pacifist and advocate for various global human rights causes, with frequent attacks on British foreign policy (Duncan, 2019). This furthered Corbyn’s popularity amongst Labours’ young and highly enthused party membership, which had grown up with the intensely unpopular Iraq War. Nevertheless, these same reasons provoked a strong backlash from Labour MPs, who predicted this would make Corbyn an easy media target and would lead to the party becoming unelectable (Duncan, 2019).
Indeed, the media backlash was instantaneous and relentless, with Corbyn’s history of outspoken comments and meetings with controversial figures from groups such as Hezbollah being publicised (Syal, 2016). This in turn sparked a Labour membership backlash against Labour MPs, who they accused of undermining Corbyn and feeding the media narrative, with the party soon devolving into bitter factional infighting (Duncan, 2019). Against this backdrop was Corbyn’s meek campaign for Remaining in the EU, and his subsequent call the day after the referendum for Article 50 to be enacted immediately. This was influenced in part by Corbyn’s Old Left notions of the EU as a capitalist club, in stark contrast to the views of the younger left-wing members who considered the EU as an expression of internationalist values (Duncan, 2019). Labour MPs took this unenthusiastic Remain stance as a gross failure of political judgement and their cue to force another leadership contest in September 2016, just two months after the referendum. Yet, once again, Corbyn won the contest with an even-bigger majority from the membership, which felt Labour MPs were unfairly attempting to re-marginalise the left, with the party more polarised than ever as a result (Duncan, 2019). The hostile media was spurred on by this intense infighting — including MPs in public revolt against their leader — with support for Labour dropping as low as 24% in the polls by the end of 2016 (Smith, 2017).
As Labour devolved into post-referendum mutual recrimination, Theresa May as Prime Minister had been busy trying to reimage the Conservatives as the Party of Brexit. As shown in previous chapters, this involved a series of red lines in negotiating positions with the EU in favour of a Hard Brexit, including leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. This was to appease hard-line Eurosceptic MPs in her own party, in which she used divisive rhetoric attempting to appeal to Brexit voters and the Eurosceptic media. However, this simultaneously alienated many who voted Remain and put an early block on attempts to form a cross-party consensus-building solution for Brexit (Leigh, 2017). Yet Theresa May had also inherited David Cameron’s thin Parliamentary majority of just 12 seats to pass legislation. This meant the European Research Group (ERG) — comprised of notoriously uncompromising Conservative Eurosceptic MPs in favour of a Hard Brexit — could easily block legalisation resulting from concessions to the EU (Leigh, 2017). Article 50, which began the process of EU exit negotiations, was enacted by Parliament on March 2017, giving a two-year deadline for leaving the EU (Weale, 2018). With the Brexit process now in motion, and with Labour at rock bottom in the polls in which the Conservatives had a 21% lead, Theresa May thus called an early General Election for June 2017 in the hopes of winning a resounding Parliamentary majority (Leigh, 2017). With this, she could embark on her own strategy for EU exit negotiations without being held hostage by the ERG or having to appeal to other parties.
Instead, Theresa May’s poor election campaign saw Corbyn’s Labour unexpectedly rise in the polls as the campaign progressed, with much of the campaign becoming focused on domestic issues and the impacts of austerity, rather than Brexit (Duncan, 2019). Ultimately the 8th of June 2017 marked another shock election result. While the Conservatives won 42% of the votes, Labour had dramatically risen to win 40%, despite polls continuing to predict another substantial Conservative majority (Duncan, 2019). The dispersal of votes meant that Theresa May, rather than gaining more MPs, lost her Conservative majority — falling 9 seats short — marking a fateful and humiliating defeat (Cowley & Kavanagh, 2018). Rather than making the job of negotiating with the EU easier, May’s task was now far more difficult, with the ERG in a more powerful position than ever. As noted in the previous chapter, to pass legislation, Theresa May instead had to rely on an agreement with the Brexit-supporting Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, which gave her a precarious Parliamentary majority of just two seats (Weale, 2018). Meanwhile, despite Corbyn’s Labour remaining 64 seats short of a majority, they had gained 30 seats and a large vote share in the face of an overwhelmingly hostile media, low polling and many of their own MPs agitating against the leader (Duncan, 2019). This led many Labour activists to celebrate the election result as a victory by concluding it as a ringing endorsement of the potential of Corbynism to gain votes if only Labour MPs would stop rebelling (Gough, 2020).
This election was also notable for other reasons. Labour won their highest vote share since 2001, and the Tories since 1981 (Cowley & Kavanagh, 2018). Furthermore, the Tories gained their most Parliamentary seats in Scotland since 1983, with Labour and Lib Dems also making some progress in wrestling control back from the SNP. In England, with the Brexit referendum having been won, the vote share of UKIP — who had done so much to force the Brexit referendum in the first place, despite never having won a Parliamentary seat in an election — fell from 12.6% in 2015 to just 1.8% (Cowley & Kavanagh, 2018). Meanwhile, many of those who voted for the anti-austerity Green Party in 2015 switched their vote to Labour. Accordingly, it seemed like British politics might be reverting to the traditional two-party dominance, with a clear ideological ground between the two main parties (Cowley & Kavanagh, 2018).
Yet, despite Brexit not playing a prominent role in the election campaign itself, this two-party dominance showed some evidence that Labour and Conservative were drawing support along Leave and Remain lines. Votes showed a divide in generational, educational and socio-economic support that reflected the referendum result. 60% of those aged 18-24 voted Labour, and 61% of those over age 64 voted Conservative, with young voter turnout also notably higher than in previous elections (Holder, 2017). Furthermore, Labour increased their middle-class vote by 12%, whilst the Conservatives increased their working-class vote by 12% (Curtis, J., 2017). This was also reflected in the educational divide, with Labour increasing their share among university graduates by 17%, and the Tories gaining an 8% growth in voters with low academic qualifications (Curtis, C., 2017). Finally, there was substantial evidence of tactical voting in Remain seats to back Labour as the party best positioned to oppose the Conservatives’ Hard Brexit (Cowley & Kavanagh, 2018).
Accordingly, the Conservatives positioning of themselves as the Party of Brexit looked to be a success in rallying the Leave vote. In turn, whilst Corbyn had become very popular among Britain’s young graduate population, Labour was also lent support by Remain voters who were not necessarily energised by Corbynism. This gravitation of Remainers to Labour would suggest Theresa May’s polarisation of the Brexit divide was self-defeating for the Conservatives in costing them a Parliamentary majority (Lebrecht, 2017). Perhaps most fortuitously, despite the election being celebrated by Labour party activists as a ringing endorsement of Corbynism, Labour was losing support in its working-class ex-industrial heartlands, despite its left-wing economic policies. Ultimately, many of Corbyn’s highly energised young culturally left-wing members found themselves at odds with many of the traditionally working-class economic left. This would suggest that the growing divides in differing social and cultural values, exemplified by Brexit, were trumping traditional left-right ideological divides.
Theresa May’s Doomed Exit Negotiations
With the 2017 election spectacularly lost, Theresa May now set about the task of negotiating exit terms with the EU to find a deal that would gain the broad support of the country and Parliament, whilst living up to the high expectations promised by the Brexit campaign (Glencross, 2018). This would have been an exceedingly difficult objective in any circumstances. Yet, with her Hard Brexit red lines drawn, with Remainers alienated, with any attempts at consensus building a post-Brexit future with opposition parties gone, and now with her negotiations dependent on maintaining DUP and ERG support for a wafer-thin Parliamentary majority of two seats, this task was doomed to fail (Glencross, 2018). The ERG, which numbered around 70 MPs — with a larger number of Conservative MPs sympathetic to their Hard Brexit ambitions — now had more influence than ever, and negotiations with the EU took on an adversarial nature.
The Brexit referendum claims that Britain would be able to pick and choose which aspects of European Union membership it wanted were quickly shown to be untenable (Glencross, 2018). The EU rejected attempts that would allow the UK to retain access to aspects of the Single Market without abiding by EU obligations. In turn, Brexiters sought to blame the EU for the failure to deliver a quick and simple free trade deal — as the Brexit campaign had promised during the referendum (Glencross, 2018). The ERG response to any sign of concession to the EU was to threaten and even actively encourage a “No Deal Brexit”, in which the UK would leave the EU with no exit treaty and enter the global markets on WTO terms, claiming this would pressure the EU and reluctant MPs into caving into Hard Brexit demands (Martill, 2021). Meanwhile, those expressing opposition to a No Deal were accused of showing a lack of belief in the UK’s ability to project power and influence and forge a new independent economic path, turning Brexit into an article of faith in which practical concerns could be dismissed (Bickerton, 2018).
These polarised Parliamentary dynamics, in turn, led the narrative in the wider public debate. Brexit campaign groups were deeming any unwanted concessions as a betrayal of the Brexit vote, joining the ERG in agitating for a No Deal Brexit (Igwe, 2022). Simultaneously, Remain campaigners began to rally around demands for a second referendum, this time on Theresa’s May final deal with the EU, which they termed “The Peoples Vote” (Igwe, 2022). This hoped to force a Soft Brexit, if not overturn the first Brexit referendum entirely. Meanwhile, allegations of illegal funding and misuse of data began to emerge regarding the Leave EU and Vote Leave campaigns (Electoral Commission, 2018). With the Remain and Leave camps hardened, May’s government spent the next two years in EU negotiations, whilst battling constitutional challenges from MPs opposing her attempts to bypass Parliamentary approval, and wrestling with the outsized influence of the ERG, whose members held many cabinet positions.
Of particular sticking point throughout the negotiations, as covered in the previous chapter, had been the need to maintain an invisible “Soft border” between the Republic and Northern Ireland which required an agreement on customs checks, knowing that a “Hard border” could threaten peace. May’s attempt to balance this necessity with her Hard Brexit red lines ultimately decided the fate of her negotiations (Igwe, 2022). By 2018, after the resignation of several prominent Brexiters from May’s cabinet, including Boris Johnson and her chief EU negotiator David Davis, a draft Withdrawal Agreement had been arranged. The agreement contained the “Irish Backstop” that would keep the UK in an indefinite customs union with the EU until alternative arrangements could be decided to prevent a hard border, much to the ERG’s outrage (Igwe, 2022). Nigel Farage, having resigned as UKIP leader in the aftermath of the referendum, formed the Brexit Party to provide an electoral threat once again to the Conservatives to try and force a Hard Brexit. Meanwhile, opposition MPs lamented that May’s deal would likely make Britain poorer, for still having to follow EU obligations despite remaining outside the Single Market and Customs Union. Labour for its part maintained a Soft Brexit policy of remaining in the Customs Union, and a close relationship with the Single Market (Gough, 2019).
Theresa May finally brought her deal to Parliament in 2019. Ultimately, finding a solution that would appeal to a majority of Parliamentarians proved impossible. Parliament decisively rejected May’s deal twice (Martill, 2021). MPs then also rejected eight alternative Soft and Hard exit strategies for negotiations, with no majority in favour of any of them — even assuming these alternatives would be accepted by the EU. The only Parliamentary majority was in favour of avoiding a No Deal, thus necessarily extending Article 50 past the March 2019 deadline (Martill, 2021). With May’s exit deal dead in the water after two years of negotiations, she was finally forced to resign. Her Brexit task was difficult enough. Yet her early decision to alienate the Remain population and pander to the ERG by dedicating her government to a Hard Brexit, whilst ignoring the implications of this for Northern Ireland, made such a task unachievable (Martill, 2021).
Boris Johnson, Brexit Populism, and the Fall of the Red Wall
With May announcing her resignation in May 2019, the Tory party was now to pick its third leader, and by extension the country’s third Prime Minister, since the 2016 referendum. Boris Johnson had served as one of the most prominent Brexit figureheads in the referendum campaign, and later as Theresa May’s Foreign Secretary, before resigning in 2018 in protest at the concessions of her Withdrawal Agreement (Alexandre‑Collier, 2022). Before entering politics, Johnson had been a prominent newspaper columnist and editor, with a history of Eurosceptic journalism. Yet during this time Johnson also gained a reputation for ambitious opportunism, and as Mayor of London had endeared himself to some people as an unorthodox and informal politician (Alexandre‑Collier, 2022). Just days before he publicly came out in support of the pro-Leave campaign in February 2016, he had written an unpublished article arguing in favour of staying in the EU, which was later leaked (Shipman, 2016). Nevertheless, the Brexit referendum offered Johnson a springboard to national prominence (Alexandre‑Collier, 2022). After pulling out of the post-referendum 2016 Conservative leadership contest, by 2019 he was the firm favourite of the Conservative Party membership and Eurosceptic MPs to become the new leader.
In July 2019 Johnson entered Downing Street as Britain’s new Prime Minister. His first task was to set out his new strategy for EU negotiations. These plans revolved around keeping the bulk of Theresa May’s deal, whilst withdrawing from the “Irish Backstop”. Instead, he would demand alternative arrangements to prevent a Northern Irish hard border, coupled with intensified threats of a “No Deal” exit on the 31st of October 2019 (Cooper & Cooper, 2020). The Brexit referendum and Theresa May’s Premiership had already weakened Britain’s constitutional Parliamentary restraints on the Prime Minister’s executive power. In a sign of just how far British Parliamentary principles had been eroded, Boris Johnson took this a step further. With Parliament fighting to block the possibility of No Deal, Boris Johnson called the early prorogation of Parliament on the 9th of September (Sirota, 2021). Prorogation is the act of ending a Parliamentary session so MPs can return to their constituencies. However, Johnson hoped to use the prorogation for the purposes of preventing MPs from having enough time to pass legislation to prevent a No Deal before the 31st of October, in a gross undermining of Parliamentary democracy (Sirota, 2021). By the 24th of September, the Supreme Court declared the prorogation unlawful and immediately void (David, 2019; The Supreme Court, 2019).
Nevertheless, Johnson’s actions and heated populist rhetoric over the willingness to exit with No Deal met Parliamentary outcry not only from opposition MPs but also from several moderates within his own party. Johnson’s decision to promote MPs based on loyalty, rather than on ability or experience, further alienated moderate Conservative MPs — with many leaving the party or being expelled for voting against Johnson (Alexandre‑Collier, 2022). As a result, the Conservatives were increasingly dominated by their hardline Brexit wing, who themselves were split between populist nationalists and free market libertarians (Hayton, 2022). Nevertheless, 17th October 2019 marked the last-minute announcement of a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement. To prevent a Hard Border in Northern Ireland, the “Northern Irish Protocol” was established. This meant Northern Ireland would remain attached to the EU Customs Union and free movement of goods, with a de facto customs border instead placed between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom (Cooper & Cooper, 2020). The anger amongst Northern Irish Unionists was instant. Despite the Conservative party’s previous deal with the Northern Irish unionist DUP, and despite the Conservative Party being a traditional defender of the Union, the Brexiters had now shown themselves willing to sacrifice even unionist interests so long as Brexit was done on their terms (Cooper & Cooper, 2020).
Regardless, a new exit agreement was now on the table. Article 50 was extended until 31st January 2020 to allow ratification, and Johnson called a new high-stakes General Election for December 2019. This hoped to win a decisive majority to pass the new deal and secure Johnson’s Prime Ministership. Most polls since the June 2017 election had shown that those who considered leaving the EU to be a wrong decision were consistently around 46-47%, outweighing those who thought it was the correct decision, at around 40-42% (Smith, 2019). Nevertheless, these figures had barely changed since 2017, with remarkably little variation despite the years of political turmoil. This shows how both Leave and Remain had become stubborn and unbending identities in British politics and society, reflecting fundamental differences in outlook (Smith, 2019). Johnson identified this 42% of unrepentant Leavers, including many ex-Labour voters of the ex-industrial North, as his key constituency on which to fight the election (Alexandre‑Collier, 2022). Indeed, Brexit Party voters had begun gravitating back to the Conservatives almost as soon as Johnson became Prime Minister (Hayton, 2022). Furthermore, three and a half years after the referendum, with continual political turbulence and back-and-forth EU exit negotiations, Brexit fatigue had set in among the wider population (Cooper & Cooper, 2020). This opened the possibility of winning support for his Withdrawal Agreement even from the 25% of Remainers who wanted to see a deal done as soon as possible (Cooper & Cooper, 2020).
As Cooper & Cooper (2020) argue, by making a No Deal such a real and imminent possibility, Johnson was able to win support for his Withdrawal Agreement as a better alternative to No Deal, despite much of Johnson´s deal being unchanged from Theresa May’s Agreement. Accordingly, the Conservative election campaign slogan was simple, but effective: “Get Brexit Done” (Cooper & Cooper, 2020, p. 751). Despite the Withdrawal Agreement leaving a great many future issues unresolved, it would mark the formal exit of Britain from the EU. Aside from Brexit, to shore up his Northern English support, Johnson further promised a policy of “Levelling Up”, in which the government would invest in poorer regions to help decrease Britain’s vast regional inequalities — marking a decisive break from the rhetoric of austerity (Alexandre‑Collier, 2022). Meanwhile, Labour since the 2017 election had continued to be riven by negative media coverage and bitter internal divisions, including persistent accusations over antisemitism and controversies such as Corbyn’s failure to forcefully condemn a 2018 assassination attempt on British soil by Putin’s Russia (Duncan, 2019). Furthermore, Corbyn’s perceived lukewarm stance and reluctance in taking up the policy of a Peoples Vote further alienated many committed Remainers who had backed him in 2017 (Cooper & Cooper, 2020). By September 2019 the Conservatives were once again far ahead in the polls as the Remain coalition that propped up Labours 2017 vote splintered, with the Liberal Democrats and SNP gaining pro-Remain votes. Whilst the Conservative campaign focused on Brexit, the Labour campaign tried to emphasise domestic issues, as it had in 2017 when clawing it is way back in the polls. However, with the Brexit deadline looming this was to less effect (Cooper & Cooper, 2020). Come election day, the Conservatives won 43.6% of the vote and an 80-seat majority of 365 seats, meanwhile the Labour vote fell to 32.1% dropping to 202 seats (Gough, 2020).