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Brexit – Has Boris been outplayed?

Boris Johnson. Source: The Independent
Boris Johnson. Source: The Independent
Boris Johnson. Source: The Independent

When David Cameron announced on the morning of the 24th of June that he would be stepping down as Prime Minister, it seemed like game over for Remain supporters. He admitted defeat, conceding that it would be left to the incoming leader to take care of the UK’s exit from the EU.

Surely one would have expected a rousing speech from the leaders of the triumphant camp after this?

Apparently not.

The Leave press conference on the morning of the 24th revealed an ashen Boris Johnson and an equally as nervous Michael Gove. This was not the image of a victorious faction. Certainly not the image which would inspire disillusioned and disorientated voters across the nation.

Amidst the very vocal confusion and antagonism that has swept the UK however, one very important thing seems to have slipped under the radar: none of our leaders seem in any way inclined to invoke Article 50.

Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which details the ways an EU member state can withdraw from the Union, must be triggered to give Brussels formal notification of the UK’s desire to leave. Cameron’s resignation gave as clear an indication as you need that Article 50 will not be invoked during the last few months of his premiership.

Many political observers theorise that Johnson was banking on a very slim remain victory, gaining just enough popular support for him to put himself in pole position to replace Cameron without having to deal with the upheaval involved in leaving the EU. Correct or not, it is plain to see that those who just days ago were bursting with enthusiasm at the prospect of leaving now seem in no hurry to actually make the vital move.

Beneath the ideological rhetoric which dominated the referendum campaigns, it has been largely forgotten that to begin with this was not a debate over whether or not the UK should stay within the EU. To a considerable extent, by voting we have fought a proxy civil war within the Conservative Party. Johnson and Gove found a way to exploit a division within the Conservatives for their own gain, aiming to replace Cameron and Osborne as the leading figures within the party. The ripples from this have caused an implosion within the Labour Party too.

At the time of writing, news broke that Jeremy Corbyn had sacked Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn from his position in the Shadow Cabinet after a supposed coup effort. On one hand, this was an effort at displaying some strength from Corbyn after a barrage of criticism over his referendum campaign, but this was also a clear sign that the Labour Party sees an urgent need for a change of leader. And what possible reason would they have for such a hasty switch? A general election.

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has already made it clear that his party will make remaining in the EU an integral part of their manifesto for the next general election. With the 5-year terms meaning that the next election can be no later than May 2020, it seems odd that the Lib Dems will be campaigning against something that will most likely be a done deal in four years time unless they are expecting one in the very near future.

So what does this mean in practice? Well, it’s difficult to say. Perhaps this is all conjecture. Perhaps the Leave campaign is just biding its time until Cameron steps down, paving the way for Johnson to step up and conduct a hasty exit from the EU. But at this stage the silence is deafening.

By resigning, David Cameron may actually have made an extremely smart move in political strategy. Johnson and Gove have suddenly been forced into action to navigate an exit which they never seemed to wholeheartedly support in the first place. Whoever has to invoke Article 50 will also have to bear the responsibility for the ever-growing number of catastrophic effects it will have on Britain, its people, and those abroad who will feel the ramifications.

The eurosceptic faction of the Conservative Party has two available options: they can ignore the outcome of the non-legally binding referendum, or they can invoke Article 50 and take responsibility for the destruction it may unleash. Either option will result in the wrath of at least half of the voting population of the UK, and the inevitable demise of the political careers of those who make the decision.

And so, as smoothly as saying “checkmate”, the axe has moved over the careers of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Well played Cameron.