LONDON – Britain’s Conservative prime minister is stepping down. The Labour Party leader is barely clinging to power. And now the head of the U.K. Independence Party, a key architect of the dramatic vote to leave the European Union, has resigned as well.
It has left the country with a power vacuum just as someone needs to step up and own the talks on how Britain will exit the EU.
The June 23 referendum results have ripped through British politics like a buzz saw, and it will likely be weeks before some clarity emerges.
The new Conservative Party leader will be chosen Sept. 9 and will become prime minister. The contenders are talking in general terms about “Brexit” plans, but their words aren’t yet backed by any authority.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage said Monday he is leaving his party post because he wants his life back after years of political intrigue. But observers note he’s keeping his seat in the European Parliament and may well be hoping for a formal role when the new prime minister takes power and, most likely, starts Brexit talks with EU leaders.
“There’s always a chance of him returning, but his future relies on other people supporting him and asking him to do something,” said George Jones, government professor emeritus at the London School of Economics. “He goes out on a high as the man who caused this.”
On top of Prime Minister David Cameron’s and Farage’s departures, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is clinging to office despite having lost a confidence vote by his party’s lawmakers.
Jones said Britain is gripped by a power vacuum at the top.
“There isn’t any leadership, there can’t be, but in an emergency Cameron can take decisions,” he said. “It’s a strange situation. All the parties are in disarray. The unexpected has happened. It’s first of all necessary to set up a government that can act, and there’s a timetable set for that.”
The Conservative Party leadership race will offer some clarity, since the winner of the party contest will become prime minister and presumably take responsibility for key Brexit decisions.
The race has been shaped by the virulent feud between leading “leave” campaigners ex-London Mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who torpedoed Johnson’s bid for the top spot with his own last minute entry.
There are five contenders, including Gove, with Conservative lawmakers set to start voting on their favourites Tuesday.
Media attention has focused on Home Secretary Theresa May — who opposed Brexit during the referendum campaign, but now backs it — and Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom, who made her first major speech Monday.
She cast herself as a passionate supporter of the Brexit cause, although she opposed it as recently as 2013, promising negotiations would be relatively quick and effective in terms of giving Britain the power to control how many immigrants will move to the U.K.
“Freedom of movement will end, and the British Parliament will decide how many people enter our country each year to live, work and contribute to our national life,” she said.
Leadsom is one of the least-known among the five candidates to replace Cameron, but gained attention as one of the strongest voices for a vote to leave the EU.
Earlier, Treasury chief George Osborne announced plans to cut U.K. corporation tax to less than 15 per cent to encourage companies to invest and ease business concerns about the country’s vote to leave the EU.
Osborne says the cut is meant to underscore that Britain is “still open for business,” despite the referendum result. A cut of about 5 percentage points brings Britain in line with Ireland’s 12.5 per cent rate.
He is urging the Bank of England to use its powers to avoid “a contraction of credit in the economy.”
Some London-based businesses are considering leaving for other cities like Dublin, Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Paris to benefit from the large EU common market.
Amid the uncertainty, a prominent law firm says it may go to court to force a vote in Parliament on the referendum. The law firm Mishcon de Reya, acting on behalf of a group of anonymous clients, argues that the referendum wasn’t legally binding and that it is up to Parliament to have their say before the next prime minister invokes Article 50, triggering the start of negotiations for a U.K. departure from the EU.
Cameron has insisted that it will be up to the next prime minister to trigger Article 50.
It is far from clear what arrangements will emerge between Britain and other EU countries. Britain’s immigration minister said Monday he can’t guarantee that EU citizens who live in the U.K. will be able to stay after the country leaves the 28-nation bloc.
James Brokenshire told the House of Commons that “EU nationals continue to be welcome here” and “their right to enter, work, study and live in the U.K. remains unchanged” since the referendum.
But he said a guarantee that they would be allowed to remain after Britain negotiates its EU exit “would be unwise without a parallel assurance” from other EU countries that British citizens can continue to live there.
A final split from the EU is likely several years away. Opposition politicians are demanding that the government ease the uncertainty of around 3 million EU citizens by guaranteeing they can stay.
Associated Press writer Jill Lawless contributed to this report.