Fiasco: How the Brexit Coup Failed

July 12, 2016
November 10, 2022
UK Politics

On Wednesday, July 13th, 2016, the United Kingdom will have a new Prime Minister in the person of Home Secretary Theresa May, who backed remaining in the European Union. She will take office with the backing of George Osborne, who as Chancellor practically ran the Remain campaign, and Philip Hammond, the Foriegn Secretary who also backed it. It is open to question, however, whether Boris Johnson, who made himself the face of the Leave campaign will be there. Once considered the future leader of the party, for May to offer him anything would now be taken as an act of magnanimity. As for Johnson's assassin, Michael Gove, at best he may receive a stay of execution that will provide only limited comfort to the thought that a personal enemy is now at Number 10. As for Nigel Farage? The self-proclaimed "leader of the Brexit campaign" according to CNN will be nowhere to be found.

If Brexit, was, as a columnist for the Financial Times has argued, a "coup by one group of public school boys against another", then it is a coup that failed miserably. Yes, 52% of British voters cast their ballots for the country to leave the European Union, but as is now apparent, that was never the prize at stake, nor was winning even a goal for many of those who lent their services to the Leave campaign. For them, the objective was Number 10, the cause was their own exclusion from power, and the plan was to coerce their way in, either by force, or by compelling their opponents to deal. In both regards, they have now failed miserably. David Cameron may be gone, but the inner core of his cabinet remains. Those who were on the "inside" in January are still on the "inside" now. Their foes, however, have not just been defeated but all but destroyed. Boris Johnson, once the Prime Minister in-waiting, appears for the time being a least a spent force, with no claim on the senior cabinet office that would have been his by right had he merely stayed out of the referendum campaign. Michael Gove has added the enmity of George Osbourne and Boris Johnson to that of Theresa May, and the only impact of his actions has been to make the latter Prime Minister. As for the right-wing backbench opposition, their ability to do harm is probably at its lowest ebb since Thatcher departed. Abandoned by their candidate on Monday, they have discredited what little belief there was that they represented a viable alternative for the party. In effect, the leadership of the Conservative party is in a stronger position than it has been in two decades by virtue of the fact that the internal "opposition" no longer exists.

When considered in context, the scale of the defeat suffered by the "Brexiters" is difficult to contemplate. The Major government during the 1990s was wracked by right-wing coup plots to such an extent that the Prime Minister resigned in 1995 in order to trigger a leadership contest in the naive hope that a decisive vote of confidence would somehow silence the plotting. Cameron, despite strong polling numbers, faced murmurings of discontent during almost every year of his leadership, something that even entering government after the 2010 election failed to counter. Coups were planned in response to the rise of UKIP, if Cameron did not promise an EU referendum, or if Scotland had voted secede. Briefly it seemed that winning a majority in 2015 might finally silence the doubters, but even before the referendum campaign was formally launched, discontent had again arisen in the usual quarters. Iain Duncan Smith, who himself was deposed as Conservative leader in 2003 in a coup, resigned in protest at the budget, which if not aimed at Cameron, appeared to be part of a wider plot aimed at preventing his succession by George Osborne, seen as the individual most likely to carry on the Prime Minister's policies.

It was no surprise then that the Right, which had never stopped plotting coups for most of the last 25 years, would see in Brexit the opportunity for internal bloodletting. That it allowed them to fight the battle they had wanted since the 1980s only added to the allure of making Brexit their Megiddo. But they could not have succeeded on their own. They were too small a minority within the parliamentary party, and their toxicity to the general electorate was too obvious. They needed allies. And it was these who would turn what was another flight of right-wing fancy into the long-awaited putsch.

If the Right had for decades been persistent rebels by reason of principle, their new allies were driven by more pragmatic considerations. Michael Gove and his followers represented the first of these discontents. Gove had once been close to Cameron, both at Oxford and then as part of the Notting Hill set, and was one of the intellectual fathers of "modernization". Yet Gove's political skills never quite matched his intellectual prowess, and his dreams of reforming everything, of improving or abolishing the moribund structures of British education and Justice alienated entrenched interests. He was forced to resign as Secretary of State for Education due to his unpopularity with teachers, though Cameron brought him back after the 2015 elections as Justice Minister. If that was an act of generosity, it was not one for which Gove felt gratitude or intended to reciprocate. After nearly a decade as one of the three most prominent Conservatives in the country, Gove still had never held one of the great offices of state(Home, Foriegn Affairs, or the Treasury) and seemed to have few immediate prospects of doing so. The prominence of his wife, Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine openly sought a role in politics, eschewing the traditional British belief that political spouses should be rarely seen and never heard and driving Gove to the social margins. Always a dreamer, Gove led a faction of MPs similar to himself - closely identified with Cameron and with the entire "modernizer" project both socially and ideologically, but who for various reasons had seen their careers stalled. Nicholas Boles, who founded  Policy Exchange, the in-house think tank of the "Cameroon" project but who was stuck after six years in office as a Junior Minister for Skills, ran his campaign. Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose awkward mannerisms and public embrace of his wealth had blocked the road to cabinet office,and Dominic Raab, like Boles stuck in a junior ministerial job were prominent backers. For Gove and his followers, backing Brexit represented a coup by one group of "modernizers" against another. They would have Cameronism without Cameron or the current personnel.

Boris Johnson had no such intellectual pretensions, nor did his bid have any concrete ideological underpinnings. A "liberal" Tory as mayor of London who fought against Theresa May's efforts to restrict immigration and mocked Mitt Romney during the latter's visit in 2012, his support for Brexit came as a surprise to those looking for an ideological motive. But Johnson had another reason to gamble. No longer mayor after May 2016, and holding no cabinet office, he was at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to rivals for the leadership such as May, Osbourne, and even Gove, all of whom held important offices and could generate news on demand. By contrast, as a backbench MP, his influence would be limited, and as a result his political position in the party was likely to deteriorate as time went on. This spring he was still one of the most prominent politicians in the country, a potential future Prime Minister, and a man with a claim on high ministerial office. But if he did not use his power it would dissipate fast. The referendum campaign provided Johnson with the opportunity to solidify himself as Cameron's successor while his power and influence remained at their peak.

A hint of what happened later can be seen in the contrasting descriptions of Gove, who actually had a (small) parliamentary following, and Johnson, whose major product was "Boris Johnson" who had nothing other than those with a vested interest in advancing his career. That goes a long way to explaining why his campaign, always something of a perpetual motion machine, imploded when it lost momentum. But on a wider level, it explains why three disparate groups came together to run the Leave campaign. The Right had grassroots support, but its few leaders were low-profile and considered jokes by the country. Gove brought legitimacy, intellectual heft, and staff resources of six years in government as a Minister to the campaign, while Johnson provided a figure-head who could dominate headlines and appeal directly to voters in a way no one else involved could.

Ultimately, however, it was a "coup" against Cameron rather than in favor of Brexit. Only those on the Right had any interest in actually leaving the EU. Gove, who appears to have recognized his own poor prospects of being PM, seems to have seen in delivering Number 10 to Johnson a way of acquiring a key office, likely Chancellor, which had eluded him under Cameron. As for Boris Johnson, the campaign killed two birds with one stone. Cameron's own prominence within the Remain campaign meant that he would become a lightning rod for the party membership, while by leading the Leave effort Johnson would win the gratitude of the Right, and draw them away from Theresa May, who had backed Remain.

There were problems that stood in the way of this coalition winning government. For one thing, an alliance of three disparate groups of outsiders was still in the end made up almost entirely by those excluded from the center of power. Representative of that was the instrumental role played by Gove's staff in managing the Leave campaign. As the most prominent Minister, Gove had access to his own team of special advisers, something neither the Tory backbenchers nor Johnson possessed. It is no surprise then that Dominic Cummings, Gove's chief of staff, ran the Leave campaign. It was to be expected that this dominance, not least by Gove, that the dominance of Gove's staff in the Leave effort would carry over into a potential Johnson leadership bid, not least by Gove himself. But the nature of being an alliance united by a shared sense of exclusion from the spoils of office meant that there were far more leavers desirous of jobs than there were jobs to distribute and this would prove fatal after the referendum.

In the meantime, however, the referendum provided a perfect forum for damaging David Cameron. The nature of the campaign suspended the normal rules of politics, in which criticism of a party leader is not tolerated. Cameron was now acting not as the leader of the Conservative party but as the de facto leader of the Remain campaign, a role reinforced by the invisibility of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. As the campaign became more bitter, Cameron increasingly came to find himself forced to act as the face of a campaign message that was not his - that of a cosmopolitan liberal elite - and to be seen as implying large parts of the membership were racist, or after the murder of Jo Cox, had blood on their hands. This was particularly damaging. Immigration restrictionists on the right have faced charges of racism since the time of Enoch Powell, and as such, the charge has tended to develop into something of a left-wing "blood libel" in the eyes of many rightwingers. Cameron might be forgiven campaigning to remain in the EU on behalf of the City of London; to grant credence to the old charge that those who opposed immigration were racists or xenophobes was an unforgivable betrayal. And it likely made Cameron's continued presence at the top of the Conservative party an impossibility.

This appears to have been the intention of Gove and Johnson; to use the bitterness of the referendum campaign to render Cameron's position impossible, and to then use that as leverage to force him to agree to a transition on their terms. That they intended this to be a transition, and one with the illusion of being voluntary, is demonstrated by the letter by more than 70 Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs asking Cameron to stay on. Cameron, however saw through this, and that, as much as the success of the referendum, was something they failed to foresee or plan for. It has been widely reported how success in the referendum caught the Brexit leaders by surprise. Nigel Farage had conceded hours before the first result. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove cancelled their "victory" party in favor of an early night, one they did not awaken from in the morning. By the time they awakened the situation had massively changed.

It is hard to stress how important the absence of Gove and Johnson on the early morning of the 24th was to the ultimate fate of the Conservative party. No one had expected Leave to triumph, and at that instant, had Johnson come forward he would have been accepted by the media as the "leader of the nation". That would not have won him the leadership on its own. But it would have placed his personal stamp irrevocably on Brexit and made it hard either for any other Brexiter to beat him, or for the membership to reject him in favor of a rival who had backed the losing side. But Johnson and Gove slept, and by the time they awoke, the moment had passed, as it turned out, forever.

The Conservative party is first and foremost not an ideological party so much as an elite vehicle for holding power. That has occasionally involved being forced to coexist with members of the ideological right, but almost never in the leadership. As an alliance of interests as much as a political party, the Tories are more oligarchy than monarchy. Leaders, moreover, are ruthlessly removed when they become a liability to that oligarchy, but by and large the oligarchs remain. So too it was on the 24th. For those who had run the Conservative party since 2005 or even before, the collapse of their policy had been total. The public, and a much larger majority of Conservative supporters, had rejected the position championed by the Conservative leadership in favor of that presented by their internal opponents. But if the victors were disorganized by their victory, the behavior of the defeated shows why they, not their rivals, were the occupants of the great offices of state. In contrast to Johnson and Gove who slept through the morning as the results came in, senior cabinet ministers including Cameron, Osborne, Foriegn Secretary Philip Hammond, and Home Secretary Theresa May watched the results. The key question before them was not how to reverse the referendum, but how to prevent their foes from turning victory in the referendum into a victory in the battle for the Conservative party.

The ruthlessness with which they acted made a striking contrast to the sluggishness of their foes. Two critical decision, which seem to have been reached early in the morning of Friday the 24th, determined the fate of the nation. The first was that Cameron would resign immediately. Contrary to impressions, this was not a victory for Brexiters or something they had desired. In fact, as noted, they tried to dissuade him. Despite their victory, they were far from forming an alternative government, and were in no shape to either to assume power immediately or even to run a leadership campaign. The official party offices, the whipping operation, all were in the hands of their foes, while Johnson had never served in the cabinet. A lame-duck Cameron premiership of nine months or a year would allow them to build such infrastructure, especially if the price were senior offices for Johnson, Gove and their allies. In fact, this was the direction of rumors which suggested that Cameron would be asked to sacrifice Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, likely to be replaced by Gove or Johnson. The removal of Cameron's key political operative would have paved the way for the Johnson-Gove combination to establish themselves as the heir apparents to power, and leave their foes isolated.

Instead of sacrificing Osborne, Cameron sacrificed himself, triggering an immediate leadership election, one that the Brexiters were poorly prepared for. Not so for their opponents. If the Brexiters were at their weakest in an immediate election, the "establishment" were at their strongest. Of course, there were limits to this power. If it were to become a contest not between "insiders" and "outsiders" but rather between "Remainers" and "Leavers" then the Remain side could likely only win through a coup. It is likely for that reason that a second decision was made that Friday. George Osborne decided not to run for leader.

Since 2013, everyone had assumed that Osborne, Johnson, and Theresa May were the three strongest contenders to succeed Cameron, with Osborne the favorite of the incumbent, May of the party, and Johnson of the country. Now Osborne decided to abandon any thought of a bid of his own. As he had no intention of backing Johnson, this meant a decision to unite behind Theresa May, a role in which he soon joined by Hammond and Chris Grayling. He brought with him the party whips, the party structure, and the entire weight of an economic establishment shaken by Brexit. Implicitly too, he had the backing of the Prime Minister. By Saturday, it was evident to the papers that those close to Cameron were canvasing support for May. "There is a special place in hell reserved for Boris. We need to get behind Theresa. She’s the grown up," a source close to David Cameron told the Independent. By Tuesday, the Johnson campaign was complaining that the party whip's office was working for May.

By the time Gove's wife Sarah Vine woke her husband up tell him that " he — we — are now charged with implementing the instructions of 17 million people,"  the window of opportunity for a successful Gove/Johnson coup was already closing rapidly. And it was not in the nature of the Conservative party to offer a second. By the time in the late afternoon, Gove and Johnson emerged to make a brief statement, the alliance behind May had already crystallized, and the question was now one of who would join her in the membership vote by coming second among MPs. After a weekend spent at Johnson's country home without any major media appearances and a poorly received column, even Johnson's claim to represent the Brexit alliance in the contest was coming into question. Johnson, evidently shocked that he won, appeared to be trying to walk back Brexit, serving to reconfirm the doubts of those on the right of the party who suspected that the "liberal Tory" had embraced Brexit out of personal ambition rather than conviction. The right also scented blood. With May's high profile supporters and official backing, it seemed increasingly likely that the final round would be between a "Remainer," May, and a "Leave" candidate. Given that a majority of Tories had backed Leave, it seemed improper that the Leave baton should be carried by someone like Johnson who might not even actually support Leave. It was even possible that in a Johnson-May race, the 60% of Conservative voters who backed leaving the EU would lack any candidate who shared their views. In any event, the right had enough MPs to potentially get one of their own to the final round. What need had they of Johnson?

The gradual desertion of the Tory right left Johnson, who lacked a large following of his own, increasingly dependent on Gove. This served to intensify the conflicts which already existed between Gove's team and those around Johnson. According to Ben Wallace, a close Johnson ally and MP, Gove had Cummings already "making plans for who and how to run No 10." Wallace accused Gove of leaking to the press as well, but what was really at stake seem to be two issues. The first, was the fight for patronage. Having largely participated in the coup not because they disagreed with Cameron(Gove's team included many of the authors of Cameron's program) but because they felt excluded from office, ultimately the most important question for many of those involved in the Johnson campaign was the distribution of the spoils. When it was made clear by Cameron's resignation both that there might not be any spoils(if they lost), and that if they were they would involve the entire government rather than just a share in a lame-duck Cameron one(if they won), the battle over patronage intensified. Gove and Johnson may not have had mutually exclusive policies, but they did have mutually exclusive interests in the sense that they both had individuals to whom they needed to provide jobs and not enough jobs to offer.

Equally important, the fact that they faced an immediate election campaign, rather than the delayed one they had expected, meant that putting together a viable campaign on short notice was essential, lest there be no spoils to distribute. If Gove's willingness to promise positions in a Johnson government irked the latter, then Johnson's seeming lethargy and unwillingness to allow Cummings and the rest of the Leave staff to seamlessly transition to the leadership bid seems to have thrown the former into a panic. As May's efforts continued to build steam, and other candidates, including the rightwing Leaver Andrea Leadsom appeared to attract attention, Gove seems to have lost faith in Johnson's ability to reach the final round. Convinced that Johnson would not do what was needed, Gove apparently decided that if he wanted a campaign that was run right he would have to run it himself.

Gove's betrayal was dramatic, the subject of much speculation, and became symbolic of the treacherous nature of British politics. In reality, it appears to have been as much an act of desperation as one of confidence. Blamed for dooming not only Johnson's bid, but also his own by association with infamy, the truth is likely more complicated. While it is true that Gove likely overestimated his own influence, especially over the rightwing press, as evidenced by the email sent by his wife which leaked the day before he announced, most members of the PR/Researcher axis inside the Westminster bubble shared those views.Furthermore, it is unclear how much better Boris Johnson would have done. Gove managed 48 votes in the first round out of 331. Gove did have to deal with charges of treachery, but Johnson's campaign up until the point he had announced had been a disaster, and many Brexiters already doubted his integrity. Given how limited was his support, and how total was Theresa May's, it is worth asking whether Boris necessarily would have made the final round had he stayed in. At least by running, Gove could define his own campaign. If he did not, he would have gone off he bridge in the Boris Express.

While dramatic, it seems likely that the Gove-Boris deal then did not change much. The competition in which they had been engaged, now against the right's Andrea Leadsom and the maverick Stephen Crabb, was for the second spot on the membership ballot against May. May dominated counts of pledged MPs from the start, never dropping below a majority. As a result, the campaign functionally became one among the also-rans to see who could make it into the last round and hope that the membership fulfilled every negative stereotype held by the left about them. In this contest, Leadsom always had an advantage. Gove was ultimately a liberal; an ambitiously intellectual one, but nonetheless a liberal, pro-migrant, pro-gay rights, and most of his natural support was on the other side, with May and the Remainers. Perhaps on an ideological level Gove might have commanded the second highest amount of support, but it was hopelessly split, and functionally he could only fish in the Brexiter pond. And there, Andrea Leadsom was supreme. Not only was she a committed Brexiter(if one ignored a few comments from several years back), but she was also a social conservative. With the opportunity to install one of their own as Prime Minister without the pesky matter of needing to win a general election, Tory members had no reason to back Gove, who was not stronger(to their eyes) in either the Conservative party or the country at large.

The inevitability of outcome became clear on the first MP ballot. Theresa May won an absolute majority, and Stephen Crabb rapidly saw the writing on the wall, leading him to drop out and endorse her. There was some talk about May's supporters strategically voting for Gove, but Gove's own efforts to encourage that backfired. They were always likely to as Leadsom was unlikely to be terrifying to a majority of those who remained opposed to May.

The Conservative contest largely ended on the second ballot. While only Gove was eliminated, May led Leadsom by a margin, 199 to 84, which an effective Leadsom leadership a near impossibility. Jeremy Corbyn demonstrated the difficulties of leading a party with the support of only 25% of MPs, and the qualitative difference was even greater. Leadsom herself admitted this when she withdrew. Ironically, this came after a weekend in which Leadom's comments about motherhood led to a media storm, and over which the consequences of continuing the campaign were brought home to Leadsom. She might be able to beat May, but she could not lead the Conservative party, and the most likely outcome of a continued campaign would have been a falling pound, substantial damage to the party, and the personal destruction of Leadsom's reputation. She made the wise choice.

She also had the option to lay down her arms to fight another day. As a representative of the traditional right, rebellion is expected of her. The Tory right's very nature is to plot, and that has not changed the need to provide them with representation in the cabinet. Leadsom will be unlikely to receive anything senior, but she will receive nothing. Not so for her erstwhile partners in the Leave campaign. If Johnson and Gove managed to win the Brexit referendum, their coup to take over the party failed miserably. And while the party can forgive ideological rebels, those who attempt(and succeed at) regicide for reasons of personal ambition are seldom treated as gently. Michael Gove has now made enemies of three disparate constituencies within the party. In addition to the resentment of the Cameron circle at Gove's destruction of the Prime Minister's career, he is also a longtime enemy of Theresa May. That does not even consider the remaining resentment felt by Boris Johnson at Gove's behavior.

As for Johnson, he has not fallen as far, but he did not have as far to fall. His loss comes int he form of potential destroyed. Before the referendum campaign he was one of the party's rising stars, a Prime Minister-in-waiting, who would have been entitled to a senior cabinet role, perhaps May's own Home Office, after he completed his tenure as London mayor. Johnson may not be done for good, but his reputation and image are in tatters. He now occupies the position held by Chris Christie in the 2016 GOP primaries, a previous frontrunner too stubborn to realize his time has passed. In the immediate future, he will be luck to receive a junior cabinet role, a far cry from where he was six months ago.

If Brexit was a coup, it was one that backfired on its instigators. Three weeks later, those who were in power on June 23rd are still in power, if anything even more entrenched than they were then. Their opponents have seen victory turn to sand in their hands. Defeated and discredited, they face what is for at least the moment the most united party leadership in decades. No doubt there will be discontent and whinging on the backbenches, especially as Brexit moves into the realm of implementation, but  it will likely be years before they can recover to the level at which they can cause May the sort of trouble they inflicted on Major and Cameron. At the end of the day, at least for the Conservative party, the center held.Sh


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