It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment in the last eight days at which Britain’s politics became officially more absurd than America’s. Last week’s Brexit vote, shocking as it was, was just the starting gun. Since then both the Labour and the Conservative party leaderships have collapsed. The “Leave” campaign has swiftly backtracked(paywall) on its promises. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, after enduring a stunning no-confidence vote, appeared to compare Israel with the Islamic State. The Conservatives’ Boris Johnson, the cheerleader of Leave and presumed next prime minister, bowed out after beingstabbed in the back by his own sidekick, Michael Gove. And a leaked letter from Gove’s wife exposed the Tory party’s leading figures as little more than the puppets of media barons.
The US primary season was by turns hilarious and horrifying, but it fulfilled its purpose: There are now the requisite two candidates for president, and the one who is a racist liar with no idea of how to govern is pretty unlikely to win. Britain has no credible leadership on any side, nor are there any clues as to where it might emerge. With astounding swiftness, the UK has replaced the US as the political laughingstock of the world.
This compounds the disaster of the referendum itself. If, as some hopeful pundits speculate, Brexit may yet be halted, it will take extraordinary leadership to mollify the pro-Leave voters who will feel cheated. If Brexit goes ahead, it will take equally extraordinary leadership to steer the economy through its impacts, and to negotiate new trade deals with an unforgiving EU and other countries. (Perhaps they should appoint Donald “I make great deals” Trump as chief negotiator.)
When Trump was on the ascendancy in America, many British politicians could hardly hide their smug disdain. How hollow that looks now.—Gideon Lichfield