The sudden resignation of British Defence Minister Michael Fallon is a symptom of the profound political crisis at the heart of the British elite ever since the British people voted by a clear majority for Brexit in the referendum last year.
I discussed this crisis the day after the vote took place, and it is important to say that it continues today unabated
There is something of a whiff of 1789 in the mood in Britain today.
The people have voted, the pro-EU liberal centre where Britain’s political class is located has discovered to its horror that the people have rejected it (decisively so in England outside London), but there is no clear sense of where things are going.
I get the strong sense that several of the leaders of the Leave campaign did not expect to win and were using the campaign more to gain leverage within the Conservative party than because they believed in the cause. Now that to their amazement they have won they don’t know what to do with their victory……..
The mood here is febrile with much of the political class struggling to understand a result that none of them truly anticipated or fully understand and with no-one having a clear plan for going forward. The extent to which the party leaderships in London have become disconnected from their supporters and have lost legitimacy amongst English voters has come as a shock. So much so that there are some people who are talking quite seriously about cancelling the referendum result and holding the vote all over again in order to get a different result. That of course has been done previously elsewhere in the EU. However trying to do it in Britain after a clear vote to leave the EU would be complete madness and would risk turning the mood here very ugly. I cannot seriously believe that in the end it will be done.
One way or the other Britain is going to experience a period of chaos and drift which will continue for several weeks if not months. As it happens I doubt a clear sense of stability or direction will emerge for several years. What the political landscape will look like then is anyone’s guess.
Gramsci’s famous maxim for once sums it up exactly:
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born”.
Since I wrote those words on 26th June 2016 David Cameron – the Prime Minister who called the Brexit vote – has gone, his successor Theresa May has been exposed as an empty suit, and an election which was supposed to consolidate the Conservative government’s authority has ended up badly weakening it.
After a great deal of hesitation Theresa May screwed up the courage in March 2017 to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union, supposedly setting in train Britain’s departure from the EU.
However it has since become painfully clear that she has no negotiating strategy to speak of, and no clear conception of how to prepare Britain for life after Brexit. As a result she was recently reduced to begging the EU to grant Britain a two year extension of time for the negotiations to take place, which the EU has however so far failed to grant.
The problem is that though everyone now seems to agree that Theresa May is discredited and that her authority is gone, no one in Britain’s Conservative government seems to have much idea of what to do either.
The result is that Theresa May – discredited after the election and with no authority to speak of – remains Britain’s Prime Minister because no-one within Britain’s Conservative government has a clear plan of what to do which commands the necessary support to take her place.
The result is paralysis, with the government no longer doing much of anything, and the government descending into increasing factionalism and infighting as it loses direction.
It is this atmosphere of gathering disintegration which has brought Michael Fallon down.
In the climate of chaos and drift that now grips the government someone – inevitably – has put together and is circulating a “black book” outlining the sexual misadventures of various Conservative MPs.
This appears to be a pretty indiscriminate affair targeting MPs of all factions. However it is adding to what is already a pretty febrile atmosphere, and is a symptom of the government’s loss of grip and authority.
Michael Fallon is the first victim, and it is quite likely that before long there will be others.
Needless to say that will reduce what is left of the government’s authority still more.
The situation in Britain’s opposition Labour Party is marginally better in that its leader Jeremy Corbyn unlike Theresa May has succeeded in consolidating his authority following a successful election campaign and seems to enjoy a high degree of personal support amongst the public.
However Jeremy Corbyn continues to suffer from the same problem that has beset him ever since he became Labour’s leader, which is that the vast majority of the members of Labour’s parliamentary party are bitterly hostile to him, and continue to do everything in their power to obstruct him.
That calls into question how stable any government he eventually forms will be.
Nonetheless the only route out of the crisis is a new government, which realistically only Corbyn can now lead. Preferably this should be after an election in which he wins a majority.
To those who worry that a Corbyn government would be a disaster, I would say (1) that he has been the most gravely underestimated politician in British politics over the last three years, making it at least possible that he will be a successful Prime Minister just as – contrary to all expectations – he has turned out to be a surprisingly successful Leader of the Opposition; and (2) that a drift towards disaster is anyway what we have now.
I expect this logic – unwelcome as it is to many people – over the next weeks and months to start to take hold.
If so then before long we will probably see another election, with a Corbyn government being formed shortly after.