Opinion: Quickly handing off the keys to Downing Street | Opinion | DW | 12.07.2016
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Opinion

Opinion: Quickly handing off the keys to Downing Street

Despite Conservative Party rules, the changing of the guard at Downing Street is taking place quicker than expected. An inner-party vote would not have been democratic anyway, DW's Birgit Maass writes.

Less than three weeks ago, things were still in order for Britain: The national economy was slowly improving, and unemployment was at a historical low. At No. 10 Downing Street, David Cameron was no doubt happy that, in his second term as prime minister, the Conservative Party held a solid majority and could govern without needing a coalition partner. Scotland's bid for independence had been averted, and Northern Ireland was at peace.

But, overnight on June 23, a narrow majority of voters made their will known and the next morning Cameron stood over a shambles of his own making. He had hoped until the very last that he would win the Brexit referendum and finally be rid of the nagging issue that his party had been fighting over for years: Britain's relationship with the EU.

Birgit Maaß Porträt

DW's Birgit Maass

Rather than mollifying his party, Cameron had overplayed his hand and cast the country into chaos. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, the pound plunged to historic lows, panic spread in London - where most residents were opposed to the Brexit - and Scotland threatened to leave the United Kingdom again. The opposition Labour Party began tearing itself apart, and one "Leaver" after another was abandoning the sinking ship: first the Conservative former London Mayor Boris Johnson, then UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and, now, Andrea Leadsom, a Tory candidate for prime minister.

Party rules stipulate an election campaign after a Conservative leader steps down. The Tory base was supposed to have several weeks to choose between Leadsom and Home Secretary Theresa May, who had campaigned for remaining in the European Union.

Leadsom's surprising withdrawal on Monday disrupted this orderly plan, and the party reacted quickly: May gets the job.

Beats the alternative

The Conservative base does not represent any real majority in the United Kingdom. On average, it is older and whiter than the majority of the people who live in the United Kingdom, and it is mainly situated in the south of the country: The will of such voters would hardly have lent legitimacy to the new prime minister. Moreover, no one would have been well-served if David Cameron had continued to govern as a lame duck. It is good that things are moving along so quickly and that Cameron has already ordered the moving van.

If Cameron had made clear from the start that he would step down in the event of a Brexit, voters would have perhaps considered the consequences of their decision and the turmoil in which the country might find itself. Instead, he claimed until the very end that he would finish what he had started and negotiate with the European Union himself.

Politicians are fundamentally mistrusted. For many voters, the Brexit was only nominally about the European Union. Most simply wanted to give their government the finger. Voters feel as if they are losing out because of globalization and that their country privileges the elite and the capital's financial district, the City of London.

Because the government cannot ignore this sentiment, it is right of May to take a clear stand: Brexit means Brexit, and there will be no second referendum and no elections in the immediate future. She has promised to unite the country and to rein in big business. We will have to wait and see if she has time to do so on top of negotiating the Brexit.

Ultimately, David Cameron will go down in history as the man responsible for Great Britain's leaving the European Union, despite the fact that he never really wanted it to.

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