Adding more confusion to the muddled political mix created by the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote last week, Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who became the public face of the “Leave” camp, said Thursday that he’s bowing out of the race to lead the Conservative Party.
Johnson's chances of riding his Brexit insurgency all the way to 10 Downing Street were hurt after Michael Gove, a member of parliament for Surrey Heath, declared his own candidacy for Tory leadership and announced very publicly that Johnson wasn’t up to the job.
But Johnson’s public image hasn’t been helped by the continuing concerns about how the Brexit referendum would actually affect the U.K.’s place in the global economy. Johnson trailed Home Secretary Theresa May, a member of parliament who had campaigned against the Brexit vote, by a 17-point margin in polls of Conservative Party voters this past week.
The Labour Party faces even greater turmoil, with leader Jeremy Corbyn having suffered an embarrassing vote of no confidence by his own party, with only 40 members of Parliament backing him and 172 rejecting his leadership.
With one of the Brexit campaign’s top promoters stepping aside and the opposition in crisis, those who voted to leave may be asking themselves a single underlying question: What do we do now? And as the dominoes fall, analysts continue to speculate about the possibility of parliament reversing the Brexit referendum. But even after Johnson’s surprising announcement, the political risks of such a move remain large.
“Brexit passed because out-of-touch elites were using their ‘expertise’ to counter the people’s feelings of frustration and economic pain,” said Mabel Berezin, a professor of sociology at Cornell University, via email before Johnson brexited the race.
More than 30 million people voted in the referendum to decide whether the United Kingdom should part ways or remain as a member in the EU. Legally, the referendum itself isn’t binding and doesn't have to trigger any further action. In order for the voters’ decision to be made binding in the eyes of the law, parliament must first invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty on European union, which begins the formal and legal process of a member state leaving the EU.
“A refusal to exit from above, even if legal, could have dire consequences and produce a large and intense populist backlash, even greater than what is currently visible in the U.K.,” said Berezin, who is also the author of Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Cultures, Security, and Populism in a New Europe and Europe Without Borders.
The EU won’t have any informal or formal conversations about the Brexit referendum with the U.K. until parliament votes to officially begin divorce proceedings, according to European leaders. They also told Britain to get the ball rolling on leaving as soon as possible to avoid the possibility of any political and economic downfalls as a result of Brexit.
Shobita Parthasarathy, associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, says it's likely leaders in the U.K. will attempt to find ways to "soften the blow of the referendum result."
“I think it would take a lot more uncertainty and turmoil for MPs to overturn the will of the people, but it's not completely out of the question,” she says. “Everything is in flux right now, and under those conditions there may be new and creative attempts to re-establish political order in some way.”
Thus far, though, chaos rules.
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Jeremy Corbyn's name.