‘The British government is falling apart’
Are we approaching another British political meltdown? As Brexiteers declare war on Philip Hammond, the chancellor, and EU talks are stalled, many predict another general election is coming.
David Cameron called a referendum on Britain’s EU membership to “lance the boil” of a debate that had spread like a virus across British politics for 40 years. In or out, he believed, the argument, both in the country and the Conservative Party, would be over. How very wrong he was.
Now his successor, Theresa May, looks set to be yet another Tory victim of the Europe question. After a disastrous general election, a farcical party conference and an impasse in the Brexit talks, the government appears limp and riven with divisions.
Tory MPs are split between those who accept that no Brexit deal is a possibility, and those who want to agree one at all costs.
Last week a fresh row erupted as Hammond labelled the EU “the enemy” and said they should "behave like grown-ups". The chancellor later described this as “a poor choice of words”.
Hammond, who backed Remain in 2016, has been the target for much Brexiteer ire for saying that Brexit has caused “a cloud of uncertainty”. Nigel Lawson, a former chancellor, said Hammond’s stance is “very close to sabotage” and called for him to be sacked.
Writing in The Times Dominic Lawson dismissed Hammond’s “safe pair of hands” reputation. But The New Statesman’s George Eaton believes his only sin is “his refusal to hail Brexit as a moment of national rebirth”.
Meanwhile Labour appears buoyant, enjoying a lead in most polls, albeit narrowly. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, has said: “The government could collapse at any time. We’ve got to divide and demoralise them.”
How long can all this go on for? If Theresa May loses the support of 48 of the party’s MPs, she faces a leadership challenge.
But there are a few big problems: the Tories’ split over Brexit means they are not even close to agreeing on a successor to May. And among many, caution is key. A swift coup before Britain officially leaves the EU could jeopardise Brexit itself. And it could lead to another general election and the likely prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming the next prime minister.
Is it all about to fall apart?
“The government can’t continue in this zombie-like state,” say some. The current situation appeals to almost no-one: not the Brexiteers pining for control of their dream nor those on the left for whom power is so close. As James Forsyth writes in The Spectator, disastrous weeks are “the new normal” for May. That cannot last.
“What can be done?” reply others. Conservative MPs remain petrified of the prospect of Corbyn taking over the country, so they will remain paralysed. There is little public demand for yet another election. And Tory optimists believe there is always a chance that May will, one day, be popular again.
- Will Theresa May still be prime minister this time next year?
- Who do you want to be the next prime minister?
- Define how Theresa May will be remembered in one word. Compare your answers with those of your classmates.
- Design a graphic illustrating the splits in British politics over how to handle Brexit.
Some People Say...
“Brexiteers need to be in charge of Brexit.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The British government is teetering. Theresa May’s approval ratings are at an all-time low, and her government’s negotiations with the European Union are deadlocked. Chancellor Philip Hammond has attracted the ire of many in his own party for not budgeting for “no deal” and for failing to sufficiently embrace Brexit. Meanwhile bookmakers make Labour favourite to win the next general election.
- What do we not know?
- When that next election will be. The end of the current government term is officially 2022, but there are few who believe the Tories can govern for five more years without a change of leader, which is likely to trigger another vote. We also do not know who the next Tory leader will be. The current favourite is Boris Johnson, followed by David Davis and Amber Rudd.
- Tory victim
- Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, and David Cameron were all hampered by the Europe issue during their time as leader of the Conservative Party.
- Nigel Lawson
- One of Margaret Thatcher’s closest allies, Lawson served as chancellor from 1983 until 1989, overseeing the deregulation of the financial markets. He was the president of Conservatives for Britain — the Tory campaign to leave the European Union.
- Safe pair of hands
- Hammond is nicknamed “Spreadsheet Phil” on account of his supposed obsession with data.
- Opinium’s most recent poll had Labour on 42% and the Conservatives on 40%, although ICM’s most recent poll had the two major parties equal on 41%.
- 48 of the party’s MPs
- Two weeks ago a coup led by Grant Shapps, formerly both a minister and chairman of the Conservative Party, was rumoured to be supported by 30 MPs, both Leavers and Remainers. Despite urging fellow Tories to no longer “bury our heads in the sand” and join the revolt, the plotters failed.