In a normal country, the stunning rebuke the British public delivered to the country’s political establishment last week by voting to leave the European Union would be an occasion for humility, soul searching, and, above all, a recognition that it wasn’t only the pollsters who kept predicting a “Remain” victory that were fatally out of touch. For a few hours on Friday morning, as the implications of what had just happened sunk in—the likely unraveling not just of Britain’s ties to the rest of Europe, but of the United Kingdom itself, with Scottish independence back on the agenda, Northern Ireland’s Good Friday agreement seriously undermined, and the whole European Union now at risk of dissolving under a rising tide of nationalism—Britain was that country. London, a cosmopolitan capital that voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, was a city in shock. Prime Minister David Cameron, who’d bet his own political future on a “Remain” vote, had resigned. The pound was in free fall, and as the scale of the self-inflicted damage to the economy became clear—the FTSE 100 Index lost £120 billion, its biggest drop since the 2008 financial crisis—the national mood was one of desperation rather than celebration.
By Monday, mourning and melancholia had given way to mania. In Britain, the rush to sign an online petition calling for a second referendum was so intense that it crashed Parliament.uk. The Belfast post office ran out of application forms for Irish passports. In Wales—which, despite getting more EU funds than any other part of the UK except Cornwall, voted to leave by a 2.5 percent margin—the Labour government scrambled to protect the region’s already precarious economy. And Cornwall itself, which also voted to leave, issued a plaintive plea to “protect” its EU subsidy. Meanwhile, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage admitted that his campaign’s claim that leaving the EU would free up £350 million a week to spend on the National Health Service was a “mistake,” and Daniel Hannan, a leader in the Tory Brexit camp, said that voters who expected the winners to deliver on their pledge to restrict EU immigration were “going to be disappointed.”
Cameron’s announcement that he would leave it to his successor—who likely won’t even be elected until the Conservative Party Conference in October—to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, starting the two-year clock on setting the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, only added to the sense of chaos, with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, saying “it doesn’t make any sense to wait.” Though that sense of urgency was echoed by both the French and German foreign ministers, it was notably not shared by Boris Johnson, the New York–born figurehead of the “Leave” campaign (and current favorite to replace Cameron), who declared: “I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe, and always will be,” adding that changes to the country’s relations with the continent “will not come in any great rush.”
This widespread confusion left the Labour Party with an open goal—if it hadn’t chosen just that moment to tear itself apart, with more than 40 members of party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet either resigning or getting fired, and deputy leader Tom Watson insisting that Corbyn had lost the confidence of his colleagues in Parliament. Corbyn determined to fight on, and thousands of his supporters packed Parliament Square on Monday—though most of the signs they carried had been printed by the Socialist Workers Party. The next day, Corbyn lost a vote of confidence by Labour MPs by an overwhelming margin, but actually forcing him out would require another leadership election, which could take weeks to organize, and which he might well win. Meanwhile, with both major parties essentially leaderless, Britain is in danger of becoming a zombie state, staggering through the summer with no effective government or opposition, the world’s fifth-largest economy—since Friday, the sixth-largest—at the mercy of panic and rumor, facing a stampede by both global capital and European labor for the nearest exit.