May’s government is technically supposed to take Britain out of the European Union in just over two weeks’ time. But that and so much more about the political future of Europe’s second-largest economy is now in limbo.
Since taking office in July 2016 following the shocking victory of the Leave campaign in Britain’s Brexit referendum, May has been the steward of a tortuous and troubled process to negotiate Britain’s terms of divorce from the continental bloc. In the beginning, she confidently declared that “Brexit means Brexit,” a point made to emphasize her government’s determination to execute the mandate of the referendum, no matter the cost.
But over time, the bravura of that political slogan withered as May and the entire British political establishment came to reckon with the dizzying complexity of breaking out of the E.U. There were heated arguments over “hard” and “soft” Brexits, leading Brexiteers abandoned ship when the going got tough, and the hoary specter of the “Irish backstop” — an insurance policy to preserve a free and open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — ultimately doomed May’s attempts to woo over the hard-liners in her ranks.
Now, it’s not clear whether Brexit will mean quite anything at all. On Wednesday, Parliament will hold another vote on whether Britain should leave the European Union by March 29 without a deal in place. Experts have warned that a “no-deal” scenario would pose inordinate risks to the country’s economy, paralyzing trade, creating havoc at ports of entry and wrecking supply chains used to outfit everything from supermarkets to hospitals.
In the likely event British parliamentarians vote against “no deal,” they are expected to vote again on Thursday on whether May should seek an extension from the European Union to Article 50 — the process by which Britain notified the continental bloc that it was leaving. Though the E.U. would likely want to grant this extension, it’s still contingent on Britain persuading all other 27 members of the bloc that an extension is warranted. E.U. officials have made clear they are not interested in new rounds of talks with Westminster, and it’s difficult to see how the myriad intractable differences stymieing the passage of May’s current withdrawal plan will be resolved.
“Voting against leaving without a deal and asking for an extension does not solve the problems we face,” May warned on Tuesday, her voice hoarse from having spent previous days locked in talks. “The European Union will want to know what use we mean to make of such an extension, and this house will have to answer that question.”
They may come up with an answer the prime minister won’t like: Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, suggested to my colleagues that Parliament would take greater control of the Brexit process and push for a softer Brexit. That could split the Conservative Party and produce a renewed attempt to oust May from Downing Street, said Grant. “In such circumstances, it’s possible that the right wing of her party would try and bring her down in the hope of installing a different Tory leader,” he said.
Less is being said, for now, of the prospect of a second referendum. While many analysts see a new referendum — which would give the option of remaining in the E.U. — as perhaps the most sensible way out of the current mess, it remains politically unpalatable for both of Britain’s leading parties. On Tuesday, May argued that a second vote would put Britain on a slippery slope, paving the way for calls for a third referendum if some constituency or the other remains displeased with the outcome.
Instead of demanding a new referendum, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the opposition, urged the government to consider a “soft” Brexit that would keep Britain within a customs union with the European Union. He also said it was time for a general election.
Chuka Umunna, a Labour politician who recently broke ranks with Corbyn, in part over his timidity in opposing Brexit, decried the state of affairs. “Today’s circus in Parliament underlines just how broken our politics is with the leaderships of the established parties failing to lead, divided and lacking coherence,” he tweeted. “It is an utter disgrace and the British people deserve better.”
Across the aisle, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson took a very different stance, insisting despite all evidence to the contrary that “no deal” was the best way forward. “In the end, it’s the only safe route out of the abyss and the only safe path to self-respect,” he said.
Johnson was one of the main cheerleaders of the Brexit campaign, who promised that breaking free from Brussels would somehow put Britain on a path toward greater prosperity and power on the world stage. Instead, observers now point to the hubris, delusion and actual lies that brought the Leave campaign to victory.
Guardian columnist Rafael Behr lamented the “essential miscalculation” of the Brexiteers and May’s negotiating team: “The wildly implausible expectation that a bloc of 27 nations, each knowing the value of unity and solidarity, would be the weaker party in negotiations. The path to May’s humiliation began in the weird solipsism of an exiting country, having no notion of the relationship it wanted with the rest of Europe, imagining it might dictate the terms of its exit.”
With British politicians unable to forge consensus over what Brexit should be, and seemingly incapable of reversing its course, E.U. officials and everyone else will have to be prepared for more weeks and months of floundering. “Brexiteers have a dangerous adversary that they cannot name,” Behr concluded. “It isn’t any opposition party, or Brussels, or remainers. It is reality.”