Earlier in the week, Parliament had seized control of the Brexit process — a nearly unprecedented move in a system in which the government sets the agenda, and then Parliament votes on it. But the government seemed frozen, unable to pass its Brexit deal and unwilling to either call a halt to the process or crash out of the E.U. with no deal at all. The House of Commons voted itself the power to hold “indicative votes” that would not be binding but would show the government where the majority lay. Many of the indicative votes involved matters that remained to be negotiated with the E.U., a process that can’t start until Britain leaves; the rest were the fond hopes of one faction or another, none of which had any hope of majority support.
Nonetheless, on Wednesday the House of Commons settled down to the exciting business of charting a path for the nation. Eight indicative votes later, members had voted down every alternative on offer. May’s Brexit process has been an unbelievable shambles; the parliamentary Brexit process turned out to be the same shambles, but noisier. How has one of the world’s oldest democracies come to this pass?
Mostly by accident. In 2014, the Labour Party changed the way it selects leaders, having previously given most of that power to Labour members of Parliament and the party’s affiliated trade unions. The result was an influx of young leftists who elected an unreconstructed 1970s radical named Jeremy Corbyn to head the party. In addition to the predictable foreign-policy dovishness and socialist leanings, Corbyn seems to have a wee problem with anti-Semitism. He terrifies many of the moderate members of Parliament in his own party, making for a less than fully effective opposition.
Conservatives, meanwhile, are hamstrung by their own accidents. First came the Brexit referendum itself, which was supposed to quiet the party’s Brexit faction by handing it a public loss but instead handed it the keys to the kingdom. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron went into exile, and May, his replacement, soon called an early election, seeking a bigger majority heading into Brexit negotiations.
Instead, Conservatives lost so much ground that May was left dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which is adamantly opposed to either rehardening the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or treating Northern Ireland as in any way separate from the rest of Britain. Since one of those two things must happen if Britain leaves — the Republic of Ireland won’t tolerate the customs barriers to the rest of Europe that would be necessary to keep its border with the north open — this is a bit of a pickle.
In ordinary times, a vote of no confidence would have been called and won by the opposition. Britain would be headed for a general election and, very probably, a Labour government. But with Corbyn atop the party, victory is uncertain, and Labour moderates are loath to empower him anyway.
Which is what has kept the shambles endlessly dragging on: Everyone is afraid that their negotiating position could worsen if anything changes, and no one is confident it would improve. The hard Brexiteers don’t want to shake things up too much because they fear a “soft Brexit” that isn’t really Brexit, or, worse, that their opponents will find a way to dash the thing entirely. Moderates fear bringing down May, lest they hand the reins over to Corbyn; May can’t go back on Brexit for fear of splitting her party. And Labour supporters worry that a general election might result in slightly more conservative and Eurosceptic parliament than today’s.
That stalemate reflects an equally bitter and irreconcilable division in the country. While there are some midway points between hard Brexit and full E.U. membership, no one voted for Norway plus; they voted Leave or Remain. The country obviously cannot be simultaneously all-out and all-in. Just as obviously, there’s no majority for anything in between.
The result is stasis in the face of crisis. But the stasis field is failing: On April 12, Britain must either formally exit the E.U. or start preparing for European elections in May. Britain is shambling toward something, and quickly.