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Article / 11 July 2016 at 11:27 GMT

Saxo on Brexit: Leadsom pullout underpins UK crisis

Former managing editor, / Saxo Bank
  • Andrea Leadsom pulls out of leadership race
  • Leadsom withdrawal underpins extent of UK political crisis
  • Theresa May only candidate left in the race
  • Leadsom withdrawal comes after serious gaffes in leadership campaign
 That was the prize that Andrea Leadsom had chased, but she is just the latest
of the Brexit camp to take her leave from the ultimate race. Photo: iStock

By Martin O'Rourke

A funny thing happened at the weekend. The European football championships threw up one of the more unlikely of winners after a rather negative Portugal were able to see off host France and take the coveted title home.

Now this is not to denigrate Portugal. They were the beneficiaries of an expanded European football championship to 24 teams that allowed them to progress to the last 16 out of the group stages, despite only finishing third behind Iceland and Hungary. Under the previous 16-strong competition, Portugal would have been packing their bags and headed for Lisbon.

But in footballing terms, they were certainly behind the French, the Germans, the Italians and, I would wager, Croatia and Belgium too. They rode their luck and one can only congratulate them for doing so. But the best team (Germany in my view) did not win.

Of course, the parallel with Portugal's victory and what is going on in the UK leadership crisis might look somewhat stretched but let's examine exactly what is happening here.

The fallout from the referendum for the UK to leave the European Union had left the country with a two-horse race for the leadership of the Conservative Party and ultimately the premiership when prime minister David Cameron takes his leave, that perhaps leaves much to be desired.

There was never a problem with Theresa May. She's demonstrated that she is a political heavyweight more than willing to take on the establishment as witnessed by her head-on assault of the police federation in 2014. Was she the best the Conservative Party could hope to put forward? Possibly, possibly not, but there is clearly a case for arguing that under normal circumstances, she would have been among the front runners.

We can quibble that as a lukewarm 'Remain' campaigner, she might not have the out-and-out mandate necessary to see through the Brexit process, but speaking Monday lunchtime, her rhetoric was very much behind following the process through.

"Brexit means Brexit and we're going to make a success of it", she said.

What of Andrea Leadsom, her erstwhile rival for the leadership? Leadsom, virtually unheard of before the Brexit campaign and vote-to-leave win was catapulted into the leadership race by a series of chance events.

Firstly, the decision to hold a referendum afforded an opportunity to raise a profile that had hitherto been unnoticed. It is not something she has been averse to in the past of course as the row over her resume embellishments rumbled through much of last week.

Secondly, the Brexit victory helped propel her from the ranks into that of contender within hours as the Brexiteers rode a wave of enthusiasm for the exit vote.

Thirdly, the rapid breakdown of the Brexit coalition in the aftermath of the vote effectively took out her biggest rival for the party's right wing once Boris Johnson's chances were scuppered by justice minister and Brexit campaign manager Michael Gove. And Gove, in his own very act of treachery, overreached himself and shipwrecked his run at the leadership through the ruthless and all-too-visible ruination of Johnson's chances.

And thus it was that Leadsom emerged from the pack —  ahead of 
quite possibly at least 10 more candidates who would have been viewed as more suitable six months ago — to contest the most important leadership contest in the UK since the war.

Just a few days after she saw off Gove in the second round of voting, she was already floundering. The resume embellishment alone might have been enough to cast a dark shadow over her chances, but the hole she dug for herself at the weekend in an interview with The Times in which she suggested she as a mother would be a better candidate than Theresa May has indicated at best, a shocking naivety.

And if she was actually trying to undermine May's campaign by using the 'mother' card as a weapon, it was grossly ill-judged. It more importantly was indicative of someone not yet fit to lead and has no doubt played a key part in her decision this lunchtime to exit the race.

 Johnson's chances were wasted by his rival Michael Gove. Photo: iStock

The post-Brexit-vote fallout is remarkable. Johnson, Nigel Farage, Gove, and Leadsom led the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union and every one of them has since fallen on their sword. The only one to really do of his own choosing was Farage who announced he was stepping down as UKIP leader last Monday. At the time, we asked what next but not even we could have imagined the fragile coalition that held the Brexit campaign together would unravel this quickly.

May will presumably assume the leadership role now. It would have been near impossible 17 days ago to predict a 'Remain' campaigner would be in charge of leading the Brexit process but that is now what we have.

The political rupture at the heart of the crisis in the UK has become something of an existential threat to the political system that has served the country for so long. If we brush aside the crisis in the main opposition Labour Party for the moment, there had been talk of the formation of a new third party aimed at reclaiming the centrist ground which has seemingly been abandoned in lurches to the left and the right.

Such a move for now is likely to be put on hold given May's political stance. But the revolution underway is seismic and is unlikely to go away. The first-past-the-post system has by its very definition, cemented a virtual two-party system (embellished at various times by the likes of the Liberals) that has meant both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party are actually uneasy fragile coalitions of interests. A glance at how the Tory party has imploded in the past like it did in 1990 reveals this to be all too true.

The reality now is that the growth of other parties — the greens, UKIP, the Scottish nationalists, and so on — may have demonstrated that past-the-post has had its day. Among the many genies that the Brexit vote has unleashed, this was quite possibly one of the least expected.

At least the UK is likely to have its new leader sooner rather than later — surely they wouldn't allow Gove back into the race would they? — and that might at least provide the guidance at the heart of the crisis that has been sorely lacking, notwithstanding the efforts of Bank of England governor Mark Carney.

May will need to show the strongest of hands through this crisis. One can only wonder what Cameron thinks now of his decision to embark on that referendum promise as part of a cheap manifesto pledge.

Theresa, it's up to you! Photo: iStock

Martin O'Rourke is managing editor at Saxo Bank


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