The Brexit Vote: Political Fallout in the United Kingdom

Referendum Result Shakes Up British Politics

The result of the June 23 referendum on whether the United Kingdom (UK) should leave the European Union (EU) sent convulsions through the country's political establishment. The regional dimensions of the voting have also fueled questions about the future of the UK's political union. For additional information about the referendum result, see CRS Insight IN10513, United Kingdom Votes to Leave the European Union, by [author name scrubbed].

Theresa May Takes Over As Prime Minister

After 51.9% of referendum voters backed leaving the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation, originally expected to take effect by October 2016. Having led the unsuccessful campaign to remain in the EU, Cameron concluded that a new prime minister should steer the process of leaving. His departure comes after having been reelected in May 2015 with an absolute majority for the Conservatives.

Theresa May took over as the UK's new prime minister on July 13, 2016. As the longest-serving home secretary in modern times, May oversaw the UK's counterterrorism, policing, crime, and immigration policies for the past six years. A Member of Parliament (MP) since 1997, she now becomes the UK's second-ever female prime minister.

The contest to become the new leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister came to a surprisingly early conclusion. The initial favorite, former London mayor Boris Johnson, unexpectedly withdrew from the contest at the end of June amid reports of plotting by other senior party figures to undermine his candidacy. Voting by Conservative MPs narrowed the remaining field to two finalists, May and Energy Secretary Andrea Leadsom, with the approximately 150,000 members of the Conservative Party then expected to decide the winner in early September. Leadsom's subsequent withdrawal left May unopposed, however, allowing for a substantially accelerated transition.

May's leadership gets under way as the Conservative Party seeks to heal the internal rift that split its ranks during the bitter and intense referendum campaign, in which she aligned herself with the Remain camp but did not take an outspoken role. The party remains divided about what Brexit should look like and what comes next. Among the new prime minister's first tasks will be deciding how and when to enact the result of the referendum by invoking Article 50 of the EU treaty, which would begin negotiations on the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

During the leadership contest, May appeared to favor a "soft Brexit," with an unhurried timetable for negotiations and the possibility of retaining significant aspects of the relationship with the EU. Advocates of a "hard Brexit," by contrast, support a quick withdrawal negotiation and fewer residual ties with the EU. In either case, dissenting Conservative MPs could insist on a rigorous debate in the House of Commons prior to starting the withdrawal process, which could further deepen splits in the party. Although May has rejected any suggestion of calling an early election (the next general election is not required until 2020), pressure for a snap election could resurface during the next four years.

Labour Party Disarray

Following the Labour Party's defeat in the 2015 election, Jeremy Corbyn became the new party leader and leader of the parliamentary opposition. Although party membership subsequently increased, Corbyn's tenure has been marked by perceptions that the Labour Party has suffered from relative ineffectiveness and disarray under his leadership. This impression has been fueled by tensions between the two ideological branches of the party: Corbyn, an MP since 1983, retains the Labour Party's traditional roots in left-wing, democratic socialism, whereas many Labour MPs identify more with the centrist "New Labour" that came to dominate the party's outlook under former prime minister Tony Blair.

Tensions boiled over in the aftermath of the EU referendum. Many areas in the north of England traditionally considered Labour heartlands voted Leave, leading to accusations that Corbyn had failed to mount a vigorous campaign for remaining in the EU (Labour is generally considered a "pro-EU" party). Corbyn subsequently endured the resignation of most of his shadow cabinet and a lopsided vote of no confidence in his leadership by Labour MPs. Facing widespread calls to resign, Corbyn has vowed to stay on and challenged his critics to launch a formal leadership contest if they wish to unseat him. Former shadow cabinet members Angela Eagle and Owen Smith are the leading early challengers.

Exposed Fault Lines

Factors such as economic dissatisfaction, unease with globalization and immigration, and anti-elite or anti-establishment sentiments played a key role in the referendum outcome. For the most part, the result was a victory for the English countryside, with especially strong majorities for leaving the EU in the north and east of England, Yorkshire, and the Midlands. Most of the large cities, including London (nearly 60%), voted to remain. Outside of England, support for remaining in the EU was 62% in Scotland and nearly 56% in Northern Ireland, whereas 52.5% of voters in Wales supported leaving the EU.

Commentators have also highlighted the breakdown of voting by age group. Voters aged 24 and under overwhelmingly wanted to remain in the EU (75%), and a majority (56%) of voters aged 25 to 49 also wished to remain. A majority (56%) of voters aged 50 to 64 supported leaving the EU, and 61% of voters over the age of 65 supported leaving. Voter turnout was considerably higher among older age groups.

Return of the Scottish Question

The referendum result has reignited calls by some Scottish political leaders for Scotland to separate from the UK and join the EU as a newly independent country. The issue had been seemingly put to rest when 55% of Scottish voters chose to remain part of the UK in a September 2014 referendum, but advocates of independence now argue that Scotland should not be forced out of the EU against its democratically expressed will. The 2014 referendum was officially binding because it had the assent of Prime Minister Cameron and the British government. Future British governments may be more reluctant to agree to another Scottish referendum.