The left wing advocates of an Out vote were right about one thing: the immediate consequence of the vote to leave the EU was a crisis in the Tory party. In the small hours after referendum day, as the count drew to a close, David Cameron announced his resignation – and by the next morning George Osborne had been sworn in as caretaker prime minister.
That fired the starting gun on a Tory leadership contest that was at first seen as a battle between Osborne and the long-tipped Boris Johnson, with Johnson’s chances boosted by his backing for Brexit. What few saw coming, however, was the hard-right insurgency that was about to sweep the party.
UKIP – triumphant after a victory it claimed as its own – set the agenda, calling for not only the fastest possible exit but the immediate closing of the borders and a re-application process for European migrants currently living in Britain. Osborne and Johnson both made concessions to this agenda, but not enough for the Tory base, who sought a Trump-like champion.
They found one in Priti Patel – employment minister, Brexit supporter, former Referendum Party member and hard-line Thatcherite. Under the slogan ‘Make Britain Great Again’ (borrowed from Trump but also once said by Thatcher), she quickly picked up an important endorsement from Liam Fox, who declined to run himself, and gathered nominations from the 40-strong Free Enterprise Group of Tory MPs.
Attacks on her past as a spin doctor for big tobacco, her vote against gay marriage and stated support for bringing back the death penalty all failed to damage her – if anything, they further motivated her fans. The grassroots connections formed during the Out campaign provided this UKIP-tinged activist base.
The story of the summer, then, was a resurgent hard right, with news bulletins dominated by a debate between the right and the even further right. Jeremy Corbyn came out with strong opposition but struggled to get much coverage amid a media narrative of ‘Britain heading right’. Meanwhile Osborne plunged in the Tory leadership polling, prompting comparisons to Labour’s failed Blairite candidate Liz Kendall.
Once the government triggered the official two-year notice period for quitting the EU, its first priority was to use the time to negotiate an alternative trade agreement with the bloc. Far from getting us out of the ‘bosses’ club’, the government’s opening negotiating position was to keep all the pro‑corporate, neoliberal elements of EU regulations in the new treaty, but without the attached social rights – or, of course, any democratic representation in Europe’s institutions. EU leaders heralded this as a ‘grown-up approach’, as did many of the corporate bosses who had supported In purely for trade reasons, particularly in the City.
The US – despite Obama’s ‘back of the queue’ rhetoric – was also more than happy to do a TTIP-style deal with Britain, relishing the opportunity to put back in the corporate courts provisions that stalled in the EU after they proved so controversial among European campaigners.
Workers’ rights were first in the firing line, as the government announced it was scrapping parts of UK law that were off-limits in the EU. This included cutting parental leave, paid holiday and breaks, diluting employee protections and abolishing huge areas of health and safety law. The unions focused their organising energies against this attack, but the changes were too technical on the surface to spark much wider interest. The tabloids, meanwhile, celebrated ‘the end of elf and safety culture’ by organising a conkers tournament.
In the end, with an eye on the Tory leadership contest, ministers went further than expected in what they called a ‘bonfire of red tape’: a free-market fundamentalists’ programme to build a new ‘British tiger economy’ that could compete by deregulation, cutting wages and scrapping environmental regulations. Funnily enough, the promised extra funding for the NHS in the event of an exit failed to materialise.
Soon after the referendum the recriminations began about who lost it and why. An insider account of the chaos in the official In campaign Britain Stronger in Europe was published, to general amusement. The author points out that Britain’s entire establishment and ‘dozens of expensive consultants’ all failed to notice they had named their campaign BSE – ‘and it was all downhill from there’.
The mess the establishment made of the In campaign looked much less funny a few months later, though. In the climate created by the Brexit vote, an emboldened far right stepped up its campaign against eastern Europeans, daubing Polish shops with the phrase ‘We voted out, now get out’.
This nasty campaign picked up passive support from a restive part of the public who felt that ‘Out means Out’ and were frustrated that their vote to leave the EU had had no visible effect on immigration. Keen to appease them, the Tories pulled Britain out of the European Court of Human Rights, despite it formally being separate from the EU, and reduced the already paltry number of refugees Britain had pledged to take in.
Patel’s eventual victory in the Tory leadership contest saw this trend accelerate further. Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s call for an immediate general election, her first act as prime minister was to make Nigel Farage a lord and invite him to join the government and help negotiate the terms of exit. She said this would ‘heal the wounds of the referendum and show the British people their vote is being put into action’.
The new coalition declared that Europeans living in Britain could stay, but only if they took British citizenship – by passing a citizenship test, meeting an £18,000 minimum income requirement and passing a skills assessment. While the effect was insidious rather than immediate, the rules were designed to particularly target eastern and southern Europeans. In the transition period their rights were gradually restricted, with many losing access to free NHS care.
It was not only in Britain that the right were the beneficiaries of Brexit. Britain was the first state ever to leave the EU, and the referendum result had a domino effect across Europe.
Far-right parties rose to power across the remaining EU, winning elections by pinning the blame for their countries’ economic crises on Europe and the euro, and declaring they wanted to follow Britain in leaving. Far from helping the people of Greece in their battle with EU-imposed austerity, Britain’s vote to leave boosted the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which started symbolically flying British flags on its marches alongside the party’s swastika-esque banners.
Now, as the European Union starts to disintegrate, and xenophobic parties call the shots across the newly divided continent, many remember a little too late that it is less than a century since Europe was riven by war.
As the left exit campaigners had said, the EU had a lot of problems. Unfortunately, Brexit did nothing but hand the initiative to the right – and make everything a hell of a lot worse.
Tom Walker is Red Pepper’s web editor and is supporting Another Europe is Possible