More than six years later, Trump’s rhetoric seems prescient for reasons he may not have intended. The right-wing populist shocks that hit both Britain and the United States in 2016 exacerbated internal dysfunctions within both countries’ right-wing parties. Divisions within the Tory majority over the terms of divorce with Europe caused political unrest in Westminster for many years; the inter-factional power struggle that followed ended the terms of office of three successive Conservative Prime Ministers in varying degrees.
The turmoil of the Trump presidency ended two years ago in the riot at the Capitol by thousands of his supporters. That foreshadowed the havoc of the past week, where a crop of far-right lawmakers in the House, some steeped in Trump’s election denial, blocked the confirmation process for new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). It took him 15 rounds of voting to secure a post that should have been a mere formality due to the meager new majority of Republicans in the lower chamber of Congress. The country had not witnessed this magnitude of deadlock since the run-up to the civil war.
McCarthy’s quest for power saw him make concessions to his party’s extremists, another sign of Trumpism’s grip on an entire wing of American politics. “The good news for McCarthy is that he’s now in the position he’s been striving for for a decade,” my colleague Aaron Blake wrote. “The bad news is that he will now be less of a speaker, thanks in part to his own concessions, and will run a very fractured and unwieldy conference in a way that could make him regret ever taking the job.”
How Kevin McCarthy survived the GOP uprising to become Speaker of the House
The Brexit referendum, meanwhile, was a cynical political calculation. It was endorsed by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who was keen to keep right-wing nationalist voters on his side and likely assumed that a referendum to leave the EU would never win. When the unlikely happened, Cameron resigned, and a string of his successors staggered through years of erratic bickering between Britain and the EU over the terms of Brexit.
The bitter disputes and parliamentary battles that have consumed British politics over the past half-decade — and in particular pitted more centrist Tories against their own party’s hardliners — will increasingly reverberate in the halls of the US Capitol. “The US and the UK are simply at different points in the cycle,” wrote Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, noting how the anti-establishment passions unleashed by Brexit swept through the political body and tarnished it, in some cases stimulating disastrous ideological grandeur.
Britain’s latest prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is seen as a more able and pragmatic figure who could stabilize an economy in a steep downturn and bolster the ruling party’s dwindling electoral chances. But the Conservatives’ knives are being sharpened for him and Sunak could face a revolt from his right flank over a number of policies in the coming months. That includes the Sunak government’s expected inability to strike thousands of pieces of EU legislation from Britain’s statute books by the end of 2023. It’s a move that business and union leaders warn could be disastrous if rushed, but which the Brexiteer vanguard believe must be done to finally secure a clean breakout from Europe.
“Whether it was the Commons patrol of the two years leading up to the 2019 election or the psychodrama of the three years since, Brexit-era conservatism has proved as unhinged as Trump-era republicanism.” wrote Freedland, before pointing to the chaotic, albeit brief, tenure of Britain’s last deposed prime minister. “When it comes to arson politics, the craziest wing of the Republicans are mere novices compared to a master arsonist like Liz Truss.”
Rishi Sunak and the curious arc of history
The new Republican-led House could test that analysis. McCarthy’s concessions will allow the far-right to have undue influence on legislative affairs and could hinder any efforts later this year to raise the federal government’s artificial debt ceiling. The prospect of a large-scale government shutdown looms.
In the opinion of Pippa Norris, Harvard political scientist, the members of the GOP’s far-right Freedom Caucus who objected to McCarthy’s bid to become speaker are “the exact equivalent” of the bloc of hardline Brexiteers that undermined successive Tory prime ministers who weren’t as Eurosceptic as she was. Their intransigence may mean less in coming years as public attitudes to Brexit sour further and Labor are in pole position to secure a parliamentary majority in the next general election.
The House GOP radicals are now poised to exert their influence. “Because the US relies so heavily on conventions — rules that are considered binding out of sheer practice, but without any possibility of legal enforcement — much depends on political actors behaving correctly by seriously trying to follow the rules,” he wrote. Kim Lane Scheppele. , professor of international affairs at Princeton University.
“But the days of political politeness are long gone in the US,” she added. “Instead, playing the rules has become a favored political pastime, more on one side of the political spectrum than the other, if truth be told. And that is why I fear that not governing will win out over ruling in this new Congress – to the detriment of everyone.”