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British Politics Enters the Meltdown Phase

British Politics Enters the Meltdown Phase

Friday, 15 March, 2019 - 09:00
Theresa May promised lawmakers as many as three votes on Brexit this week, but it was the first that counted most. On Tuesday, MPs used it to deliver a second defeat to her Brexit agreement.

The margin was narrower this time: The government lost by 230 votes in January and by 149 the second time. But no still means no. The result makes an extension of the negotiations almost inevitable, puts into question May’s future as prime minister, and makes it more likely that the course of Brexit will need to be decided, one way or another, by the public.

There are now two more votes: Lawmakers will vote Wednesday on whether to exit the EU with no deal at all. If that too is rejected, as expected, they will vote on whether the government should seek to delay the March 29 exit date. 

The unraveling of May’s divorce deal must ultimately be blamed on her deeply flawed negotiating strategy. She sought to please hardliners in her own party by committing early and hard to leaving both the single market and the EU’s customs union so Britain could strike its own trade deals. But she failed to build a consensus within her party, or across parliament.

If anyone gave much thought to Ireland at the time, it didn’t show. Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Britain is required to keep the only land border with another country open. Yet May also promised the Democratic Unionist Party, the fringe party that she had to rely on for her parliamentary majority after her disastrous showing in the 2017 election, that Northern Ireland would be treated no differently from the rest of Britain. There would be no customs border in the Irish Sea. So where would these checks take place? The political calculation seems to have been that Ireland had too much at stake economically to let those factors get in the way of a deal that the UK wanted. What a mistake that has proved to be. 

It's easy for Brexiters to throw blame at the EU, whose unity and consistency has been infuriating for British negotiators. But that's a bit like blaming the opposing goalkeeper for making so many saves. The EU didn't want to leave the border question to the vagaries of British politics by allowing it to become part of the trade negotiations; Ireland also understood its greatest leverage was during the divorce talks. Of course, Europe is a loser too; but it chose unity and preserving the single market over a deal at a higher price.

If May’s strategy was flawed, the salesmanship was awful. She held rounds of talks in secret, constantly playing for time when things looked tight. She needed allies, if not friends; in the end, she alienated almost everyone around her. 

The impossible job of finding a solution that would appease opponents of the deal fell to Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, the lawyer whose original advice scuppered May’s earlier attempt to get parliament to approve her deal in January. Cox was constrained by May’s red lines and the EU’s refusal to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.

In the end, even he could not square the circle and provide an ironclad legal guarantee that Britain could unilaterally exit the backstop – the mechanism by which the EU would keep the country in the customs union and so keep the Irish border open.

The three documents the government published Monday night fell short. Cox declared them “material new legal obligations and commitments” that reduce the likelihood of being stuck in the customs union to very small. But he acknowledged that he couldn’t go further than that. Ultimately, he told lawmakers, this is a political decision. 

The voting down of the deal says a majority of MPs are still unable to come to terms with the trade-offs inherent in the decision to leave the EU. Parliament can’t decide and the prime minister is out of cards to play.

Getting unstuck will require more than just an extension to the March 29 deadline, something the EU should grant, out of both humanitarian concern and self-interest. A three-month extension is not, on any past experience, sufficient time to organize a new referendum, even if MPs could agree on the question and terms. If that is the preferred course, Europe would need to be asked for more time.

Another general election has become more likely and may well be the best route forward. It would force the parties to set out their positions in their manifestos: Would they rule out a no-deal exit? That would make it a de facto referendum not just on Brexit, but also on the country’s future economic direction, where the two parties have very different visions. A majority government would have a clear, voter-approved road map; a minority administration would have to reach across party lines in a way May never did.

Given opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s low public approval rating and his party’s serious antisemitism problem, Conservatives, even in their current state, might like their chances. But who would lead them and on what platform? May’s premiership looks terminally ill now; and she proved to be a terrible campaigner in 2017.

It’s possible that she could be induced by her cabinet colleagues to resign on her own accord. Then Conservative MPs would have to put two leadership candidates to a vote by the wider party membership if they are unable to agree on just one. The Tory membership is small and strongly favors Brexit; it is likely to jump at a chance to put the charismatic Boris Johnson, who supports a no-deal Brexit, in charge if his parliamentary colleagues allow him to make it on to the shortlist. That threat alone may be what is keeping May in office, though there are other more moderate candidates out there, notably Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

So far, the week in which we were finally to have some real certainty on Brexit has plunged the country into further political turmoil. May has shown she can’t lead a negotiation, can’t lead a party and can’t run a government. It’s hard to see what she could get past parliament after this. A prime minister is nothing without the confidence of the House.

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