For weeks, May’s plan looked dead in the water. Die-hard Brexiteers within her Conservative Party said the agreement was far too soft, as it kept Britain within the continental bloc’s customs union, limiting its ability to shape laws and rules. The withdrawal agreement’s provisions regarding an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland was a non-starter for some in May’s camp, who feared an erosion of British sovereignty. And the opposition, composed largely of politicians who want to remain within the European Union, was never going to rubber-stamp May’s muddled compromise.
Even so, the prime minister’s decision to delay only darkened the clouds looming over Westminster: A parliamentary vote, even one that ended in failure for May, would have moved the procedural needle further along as the country lurches toward its break with the European Union — slated for the end of March. Instead, the enfeebled prime minister must once more go to Europe later this week to seek some way out of the impasse. It’s unlikely the gathered dignitaries in Brussels will give her all that much — Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, warned Monday that there would be no renegotiation of the agreement. And, at home, the prime minister’s time may be running out.
May’s political career will probably never shake the foul odor of two years of tortured dealings over Brexit. “She lives on only as a political zombie,” noted an editorial in the Guardian. “Ensnared by her own convictions, she has resorted to dilatory tactics because she has belatedly realized the full weight of their burden.”
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon decried the “pathetic cowardice by a PM and government that have run out of road and now need to get out of the way.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn warned that “bringing back the same botched deal, either next week or in January … will not change its fundamental flaws.” Steve Baker, a member of Parliament from May’s own party, offered a matter-of-fact conclusion: “This isn’t the mark of a stable government or a strong plan.”
Most of the right-wing populists and political opportunists who lit the fire for Brexit found things too hot after they narrowly won the 2016 referendum. In recent months, a number have stepped down from cabinet posts and brayed at May from the sidelines.
The prime minister, who took power only after the referendum, became the steward of a thankless task: On one hand, she had to clinch a deal with Brussels that preserved at least some of the benefits of trading within Europe’s integrated economy. On the other hand, she had to pander to the zeal of the hard-line Brexiteers, who sold a vision of a swift and easy emancipation that was never viable in practice. Through it all, May persevered, though her critics from all sides may ask to what end.
At this point, the way forward is difficult to chart. In a matter of weeks, even days, we could see a Tory leadership putsch or a broader vote of no-confidence against May in Parliament. Corbyn appears keen for new elections that would give the government a new mandate (and possibly put the veteran leftist in power). Others warn of the ultimate catastrophe: A no-deal Brexit in which Britain tumbles out of the E.U. without any kind of plan in place, sparking havoc at ports, corporate headquarters and supermarkets. It would undoubtedly exact a calamitous toll on the economy.
An increasingly emboldened camp sees another way out of this mess: Cancel Brexit altogether. Demands for a “people’s vote,” or a second referendum, are mounting, with opinion polls showing majorities in favor of a referendum that presented a number of options regarding Brexit, including not leaving at all. As if on cue on Monday, the E.U.'s highest court ruled that Britain could unilaterally reverse its decision to exit the 28-member bloc, were it so inclined. But the political will in Parliament is not quite there: Many politicians, including Corbyn, are wary of “betraying” the 52 percent who voted to leave the E.U. in 2016.
A second referendum would “cause lasting resentment and would fuel populist parties peddling the stab-in-the-back theory,” wrote the Economist last week. But it may be the most honest way of dealing with the current situation, which has revealed the extent to which the Leave campaigners were peddling a pipe dream that no one will be able to realize. To many watchers in Europe, Britain’s push for Brexit looks like a self-inflicted wound.
The Economist explained: “Hardline Leavers describe May’s plan as ‘vassalage,’ a ‘national humiliation’ and a ‘cheating’ of those who voted to leave. Likewise, the belief that approving the deal will get the whole divisive episode over and done with ignores the fact that, after Brexit day, Britain faces perhaps a decade of trade negotiations with the EU, involving more of the painful trade-offs between prosperity and control that the public have grown so sick of. All the while, the country will be falling further behind its potential. It is true that a second referendum would cause lasting anger and undermine faith in politics. But so would pushing through a deal in the name of the people amid evidence that the people were unconvinced.”
As long as confusion and crisis reigns, the chances of a new vote will only grow. The contradictions posed by Brexit itself would justify it.
A successful Brexit plan “has to be acceptable to two majorities, a majority of the Conservative Party and a majority in the House, as well as to the 27 nations of the European Union,” wrote Stephen Bush, the political editor of the New Statesman. “And it is not clear that such a Brexit exists.”