LONDON — Political paralysis is a story well-known in the United States, as the very recent and long standoff over the government shutdown reminds. But few countries are more mired in gridlock, dysfunction, division and weak leadership than Britain. It is as if the worst of America has come to Britain, with a few local touches thrown in.
The long Brexit fight over the terms by which Britain leaves the European Union has exposed and heightened the troublesome state of British politics. The surprise decision by voters in June 2016 to leave the E.U., rather than to remain a part of the economic and political alliance, has resulted in a never-ending debate and a sense of exhaustion and sharpened lines of conflict that have split the country in half and divided the parties as well.
Prime Minister Theresa May has been dogged in trying to find a way out of this mess, in her negotiations in Brussels as well as in attempting to produce a coalition at home with numbers big enough to win support for a separation agreement.
May has been singularly unsuccessful and, with the recent defeat of her main proposal, will go down in history as the prime minister who has had biggest loss in the House of Commons. Another politician might have taken such a crushing rejection as reason to step down, as indeed former prime minister David Cameron did when the Brexit referendum in 2016 turned out as it did.
Instead May reacted as if it were just another bump in a road that has been one pothole after another. You don’t like what I sent you, let’s talk more, was her response, as if talking would produce something in a matter of days that seemingly endless talking had not produced in two years. When she came back with so-called Plan B early last week, it proved to be barely different from Plan A. Its fate will soon be decided.
Her inventiveness and creativity do not equal her doggedness. Her political skills have repeatedly been called into question. A year ago, she called a snap election, believing she could enlarge her parliamentary majority and give her a stronger hand in the Brexit negotiations. Instead, she unexpectedly lost that majority and has been weaker ever since. The gamble of a second election was described humorously as the biggest political mistake in Britain since Cameron had called for the Brexit referendum itself.
To be fair to the prime minister, there is not a lot of maneuvering room left after months and months of discussions with E.U. leaders, who are not making the terms of the divorce easy. Nor is there much give in the views of the members of Parliament. She is scratching at the edges. Meanwhile, the March 29 deadline for leaving the E.U. nears, deal or no deal.
The Brexit debate can be bewildering to outsiders, as terms like “customs unions” and “backstops” are tossed around in ways that suggest they are part of normal conversation. Perhaps they are in British households.
One of the stickiest Brexit issues involves keeping an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Lawyers and politicians haven’t found a way to resolve that and some other obstacles, which has left Britain with few options.
One option is a so-called softer Brexit, which essentially would keep the country in the European trading system. But that is deeply opposed by hard-line leavers. May’s critics say she will resist this at all costs, fearing an irreconcilable split of her party. She would not want to be remembered as the modern prime minister who destroyed the modern Conservative Party. Critics say she is putting party ahead of country.
Another option is a hard Brexit, or a no-deal Brexit, which would result in Britain heading off into the unknown after March 29 with no clear set of terms for its relationship with the E.U. Some hard-liners favor this approach, seeing it as a true declaration of sovereignty from the bureaucrats in Europe and an expression of confidence in Britain’s capacity to create its own destiny in the world.
There is also the possibility of calling for a second referendum, to give the public another opportunity to express its views after two-plus years in which politicians have failed to agree. But that is considered a risky proposition.
No one can be certain about the outcome of a second referendum, though those who favor staying in the E.U. believe public opinion has shifted in their direction. Some analysts also worry that a second vote, no matter its result, would result in an even bigger cleavage in British politics — with unpredictable consequences for the country’s politics and its institutions.
Recent polling — prepared by the Economic and Social Research Council under the auspices of Queen Mary University of London and University of Sussex, and presented last week at a conference in London — showed the wide and emotional gulf between the parties.
The survey found 60 percent of Labour voters would feel delighted, 8 percent pleased and 14 percent relieved if there was a second referendum. Among Conservatives, however, 58 percent of rank-and-file Conservatives would feel betrayed, 15 percent angry and 6 percent disappointed.
There are a few other options. One is to move the deadline to a later date, a kick-the-can-down-the-road strategy that is used often in the United States when a deadline looms on funding the government. But that gets complicated because of this spring’s elections to the European Parliament.
It’s possible that the prime minister’s proposal that was massively defeated two weeks ago could come back and look more attractive on the eve of the deadline. There is even talk that another general election might be needed to resolve things.
May finds herself in this position because the Conservative Party is badly split over Europe and whether Britain should be part of Europe or not. There is nothing new about this; it has divided the Tories for generations. But after the Brexit referendum, it has become the paralyzing condition for the party and the country.
The Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is more clearly opposed to leaving the E.U., but not unanimously. To the dismay of many Labour voters, Corbyn, however, is willing to see Britain leave the E.U.
May survived a party vote of no-confidence in her leadership and a no-confidence vote for her government. That reflects the fact that, inside her party, there is no consensus about a successor and, that among divided conservatives, there are fears that Labour would win a general election. Corbyn meanwhile is popular with the party members but less so among Labour voters; a majority of the general public says he is doing a bad job as leader.
The absence of effective leadership at the top of the parties has greatly complicated matters as Britain tries to find a resolution. But more fundamentally, the divisions within the country provide little guidance to the politicians. Brexit is the great divide in British politics, but tribalism remains a powerful force that prevents cross-party cooperation.
The current state of things shows the limits for May and the other politicians. At some point, a resolution to the question of how, or whether, Britain separates from the E.U. will have to be found. At this point, given everything that has happened, no one has any confidence in predicting just how it will end.
It has gotten so bad here that those following the process find it a relief to talk about President Trump rather than Brexit.