It has been 2 1/2 years since the British referendum on leaving the European Union. Since then, the British government has aggressively pursued its promise to deliver Brexit. Yet with three months to go, the United Kingdom finds itself in an almighty mess. Prime Minister Theresa May can’t get her own members of Parliament to support her agreement with the E.U. on how to leave, and she had to defeat a vote of no confidence from her Conservative Party this past week after postponing a vote on her Brexit deal that she was certain to lose. High political drama is becoming a weekly, sometimes daily, occurrence. The Conservatives, the Labour Party, Parliament and the country are split on what they want to happen next — though they all seem to agree that they dislike May’s proposal.
What is extraordinary is how much of the chaos is of Britain’s own making. At every stage where the government and Parliament might have tried to ease the tension, they instead discovered options that ramped up the potential for political, constitutional and economic crisis.
It was a choice by then-Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a referendum in the first place, after offering a Brexit vote as part of the Conservative Party’s 2015 election platform. Cameron then chose to allow his own ministers to campaign against his government’s position that the country should stay in the E.U., cleaving his party into two camps. Rather than bring his party together, these choices seem to have split it them further.
Since the referendum, in which 52 percent of British voters opted to leave, British politics has felt like a soap opera — one that could have been avoided entirely. The shock result, which even those in the Leave camp didn’t seem to expect, ended Cameron’s political career and propelled several of his colleagues back to the top. The subsequent 2016 Conservative leadership contest is best remembered for one Leave campaigner, Michael Gove, ending the hopes of a fellow Leave campaigner, Boris Johnson, which helped clear the way for May to become prime minister.
For a while, it was possible to imagine that the government would take a measured approach. It created an agency to implement Brexit — the Department for Exiting the European Union. It set about bringing in new officials with relevant skills, particularly on trade negotiations. At the 2016 Conservative Party conference, May said she would avoid triggering Article 50, the provision to formally begin the process of leaving the E.U., until Britain’s objectives were “clear and agreed.”
But many steps that could have forestalled strife were not taken. Though she had said she would not rush the process, May’s determination to deliver Brexit led to her announcement in October 2016 that she would start the clock on a formal withdrawal by the following March. Parliament voted to trigger Article 50 in March 2017, then passed legislation that set the date for exit. The hard deadline that now looms was put in place by those deliberate — and avoidable — decisions.
It was another choice by May to call a snap general election in April 2017, shortly after setting off the Brexit negotiations. The idea was to cement her bargaining position, but instead, in the June vote, she lost her party’s majority in the House of Commons. This meant she had to keep her lawmakers in the fold and maintain the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to deliver Brexit, or look for support from lawmakers from other parties.
May’s government has since mishandled its relationship with a Parliament characterized by Brexit divisions across party lines. It has resisted many opportunities to let Parliament understand the government’s plans for Brexit, arguing time after time that it did not want to show its negotiating hand to the E.U. This annoyed lawmakers: In a series of votes in recent months, the opposition, sometimes supported by Conservative rebels, forced the government to release sensitive papers on the negotiations. Parliament even held the government in contempt, an unprecedented act.
When the country has a full postmortem on Brexit, there may be some successes to look back on. Negotiating and planning for leaving the E.U. — under both deal and no-deal scenarios — has been the biggest policy effort by a British government in many decades. Government officials have taken on a gargantuan task, one that is being scaled up further as they find themselves planning for a no-deal Brexit: They are already war-gaming the various crises that could ensue, such as queues at the border or dwindling medical supplies and food stocks.
But after several years of bad choices, the paths currently on offer seem to tend toward more political drama, not less.
The next general election is scheduled for 2022, but Parliament can force another one sooner. That may prove necessary if the current government can’t push its policy into law. But it would also take crucial weeks out of the countdown clock before March 29 — and raise the question of what different Brexit policy any new or returned government would offer. It is also impossible for Labour to force an election without winning over key DUP and Conservative votes, and the Conservative Party seems highly reluctant, especially after May put down this past week’s rebellion.
Another referendum on Brexit could also prove inescapable if Parliament cannot break its deadlock. But a second campaign over the E.U. would probably leave the country more divided, rather than less. And it’s not clear what kind of questions would be posed, who would be able to campaign and how, and whether it would be legally binding on the government’s final deal (or if it even could be). It also seems inevitable that the country would have to delay this Brexit to hold another vote.
Some former Brexit ministers, such as David Davis and Dominic Raab, are now apparently pushing for Britain to leave the E.U. with no deal . This would require the government to negotiate dozens of bilateral agreements between Britain and its former European partners, on everything from landing rights for airlines to passports for pets. It would also require some British businesses to invest major sums of money in new systems or processes, establish a presence in the E.U., or find new markets. It is already too late to manage all that without major disruption.
So May’s strategy for the next few months boils down to this: telling people — her party, the rest of Parliament, voters — that there are no better choices left than to trust her. The bad options and the ticking clock are her strongest chips. Even before the challenge to her leadership, she was making defensive speeches about why people should support her deal and keep her in place. To her fellow Tories, she talks about the dangers of a general election and their fears of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government. To Parliament at large, she talks about the dangers of an exit with no deal. To Brexiteers, she talks about the dangers of no Brexit.
If this is the strategy, then May wants the uncertainty to increase, rather than lessen. Looking back on the experience of the past two years, with all its chaos, this does not seem a measured approach. But it may now be an inevitable one.
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