EU referendum: The Conservative Party reaction

Throughout British political history, there been regicides so dramatic they shook politics to its foundations. The deposing of Robert Peel over the corn laws; the ejecting of Herbert Asquith by David Lloyd George at the height of World War 1; and the ousting of Margaret Thatcher over Europe a little over 25 years ago. The impacts of all were felt for years after they occurred, reshaping parties and the contours of political debate.
These historical precedents hang over the Conservatives following David Cameron’s resignation. The Prime Minister’s departure this morning – following a divisive referendum in which he was personally attacked by his colleagues – will cast a long shadow over his party.  Those who took on Cameron so directly and now aspire to his position – most obviously Boris Johnson - will face accusations of treachery which have often bedevilled those displacing an incumbent Prime Minister. In this case, they must also contend with the backdrop of economic chaos, constitutional uncertainty and diplomatic turmoil.
A taste of just how Johnson’s referendum triumph could turn to ashes came this morning when he left his Islington home. The former London mayor was met with a hostile crowd who booed and jeered him, preventing him from giving a short victory speech. There will be very different sentiments among anti-EU MPs and activists who decide the Tory leadership, and Johnson certainly starts the race to succeed Cameron as the favourite. But already there are indications he will face questions over his actions in the campaign and ability to unite the country at a moment of grave instability.  
Johnson’s main Brexiter-in-arms Michael Gove is popular with the Tory grassroots and appears to have enjoyed his time in the spotlight during the referendum. However, he has denied any ambitions to the leadership, and in any case his conduct during the referendum would be subject to the same scrutiny. Junior ministers who played a prominent part in the Leave camp might fancy their chances in a leadership contest – Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom in particular – but they lack the profile and experience to displace Johnson in the Brexiters’ lane.
And what of the remainers? Many of those backing the In camp took reasonably prominent roles in the referendum campaign, including Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. These, mostly mid-ranking ministers, will struggle to gain much traction in a Tory selectorate delighted by Britain’s exit from the EU. Someone on the Remain side who could make the running is Theresa May: the Home Secretary shied away from the stump and sought to rise above the fray as her colleagues descended into open feuding. However, her poor relations with Johnson and Gove, coupled with the sense she subtly undermined David Cameron during the referendum, could pose her problems. 
With Cameron pledging a successor in place by the Conservative conference, his party will have some time to digest the political and economic turbulence today brings in its wake. But the enormity of the Prime Minister’s departure – and the complicity of several leading Tory players in it – is only just starting to become clear. All who participated will get a prize they never wished to receive.

Robert Isherwood

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search