The conventional wisdom is often wrong, but rarely has Britain seen a summer so filled with surprises. The British vote to leave the European Union has uprooted the country's political establishment in unexpected ways.
It all started with Prime Minister David Cameron, who agreed to hold a once-in-a-generation referendum on continued EU membership after a startlingly strong election triumph. His 2015 retention of power atop a new Conservative majority government suggested Cameron was a leader with a winning touch, and he hoped to end the chronic feuding within his euroskeptical party with a resounding public endorsement of the EU. Instead, Cameron's referendum gambit split his party and his country down the middle, unleashing anti-immigrant and anti-government sentiments that helped deliver 52 percent voter backing for an EU exit. Within hours of the referendum result, Cameron was a political dead duck choking back tears as he announced his resignation.
Cameron's longtime internal party rival, former London mayor Boris Johnson, had led the anti-EU campaign and was the pundits' favorite to be the next prime minister. Johnson enjoyed strong popularity for his mix of eccentric wit and plummy-toned populism, and made no secret of his interest in the top job. One week after the vote, the Conservative front-runner called a press conference billed as the launch of his leadership campaign — and announced he wouldn't run. His supposedly loyal sidekick in the "leave" campaign, the charisma-depleted Justice Minister Michael Gove, had just withdrawn backing from Johnson in favor of his own previously concealed leadership ambitions. More than half of Johnson's supporters switched horses to Gove in what the Daily Telegraph called "the most spectacular political assassination in a generation."
Cameron set his party a 2½-month deadline to replace him. With Johnson's surprise demise, the field appeared open for another anti-EU candidate: Gove, Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom or former Defense Secretary Liam Fox. The plan called for Conservative lawmakers to whittle a five-candidate field down to two finalists, who would spend weeks vying for support from the party's 150,000 grass-roots members. The popular presumption held that Cameron's successor would have to be a prominent "leave" campaigner. Instead, rivals conceded rapid defeat to Home Secretary Theresa May, who had positioned herself in the mushy middle during the EU referendum, officially backing Cameron's "remain" camp but absent from the campaign trail. The final competitor, Leadsom, quit Monday after an ill-conceived comment that she'd be a better leader because, unlike May, she is a mother.
The referendum marked a personal triumph for Nigel Farage, leader of the rising right-wing U.K. Independence Party, which under his leadership for a decade had campaigned for an EU referendum. His party appeared poised to keep capitalizing on Conservative divisions and scooping up the votes of nationalists and the alienated poor as Britain's third most popular party. Somehow, it was this moment that the 52-year-old Farage chose to quit, saying: "I want my life back."
The political obituaries have been written for Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn ever since the referendum results. Like Cameron, he called on voters to remain in the EU after spending much of his career criticizing the bloc. Many analysts blame Corbyn's weak campaign for befuddling working-class voters and tipping the referendum verdict against Europe's cause. Within the week, Corbyn suffered a seemingly devastating vote of no confidence among Labour lawmakers and has struggled to keep posts in his opposition Cabinet filled as resignations reach farcical levels. Yet he's the only party leader who won't resign. Corbyn is counting on support from grass-roots party activists and labor unions to overcome the hostility of parliamentary colleagues, one of whom — Angela Eagle — has just announced a formal bid to oust him. The British political betting markets suggest she's unlikely to succeed. Given this era of the unexpected, maybe that means she will.
This story has been corrected to show that deadline to replace Cameron was 2 ½ months, not 3 ½ months.