The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brits pretend they’re sick of Brexit. But truth is they’re obsessed.

A pro-E.U. demonstrator campaigns outside the British Houses of Parliament on Monday.
A pro-E.U. demonstrator campaigns outside the British Houses of Parliament on Monday. (Will Oliver/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

LONDON — Your average Brit will tell you they’re sick and tired of Brexit, that the country has had enough, it’s knackered. But clearly, they have not had nearly enough. Britain is obsessed with Brexit.

It’s a national humiliation, pretty much everyone agrees. But it’s mesmerizing — like a train wreck, on a loop. 

The brinkmanship, the dozens of “last ditch” and “cliff edge” summits and debates, the snakes and ladders — for those who like political drama, these are gripping times. It’s “Game of Thrones,” final season. 

Plenty of plot twists to come. Will Prime Minister Theresa May survive? Probably, for the short term.

But late Monday night, Parliament resolved to take control of Brexit through a series of upcoming "indicative votes," which will allow lawmakers to propose their own ways to exit the European Union. Will things get any clearer? Maybe not.

Speaker John Bercow presides over Britain’s House of Commons with the vocabulary of an Oxford professor and the vocal projection of a carnival barker. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

The prime minister conceded Monday that she doesn't have the support — yet — to pass her own Brexit deal. She warned of a "slow-motion Brexit." So new episodes are still being scripted.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that ordinary people hurry home to watch Parliament Live TV in the evening. The streaming service — Britain’s low-rent C-SPAN — is posting record-breaking numbers for a seemingly endless number of “nonbinding” votes.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow — the “Order! Order!” fellow with the colorful ties and erudite put-downs — has become a rock star, in need of a bodyguard.

Thousands of people protested in central London March 23 to demand a second referendum on Brexit. Organizers said more than 1 million people assisted the march. (Video: Amber Ferguson, Karla Adam/The Washington Post)

In ways once unimaginable, the public now knows who Chris Grayling is. The hapless transport minister paid a fortune to a company to run ferries if Britain crashes out of the European Union with no deal, only to discover the company had no actual ferries.

More than 5.5 million people have signed an online petition to cancel Brexit. The website has crashed. Multiple times.

Organizers said turnout for the “Put It to the People” march in London on Saturday exceeded 1 million, making it one of the biggest demonstrations Britain has seen — ever.

Oh, they care.

They brought their children to London. They brought their dogs. They made costumes.

Helen Farr, 41, a university lecturer, traveled from Southampton with her two children, ages 1 and 5, to be at the march. This was nonessential travel on packed trains with a child in diapers.

“You don’t travel across the country with two small children to spend hours walking in crowds unless you really, really feel it’s important,” she said, pushing her buggy through throngs waving blue flags of the European Union.

The atmosphere? “Positively febrile,” according to the British press. We had to look that one up. It means fevered, intensely and nervously active. 

An overexcited foreign correspondent in Brussels told the BBC that this was “the biggest E.U. story since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Across the pond, the report of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is big news.

But in London, the BBC revealed that the Ministry of Defense has set up an operations room in “a bunker” near Westminster to deal with a potential no-deal Brexit, under the banner of “Operation Redfold.”

The last time the British government was operating out of a bunker in Whitehall? The Blitz.

On Sunday, the airwaves were filled with stories about “coups” and “plotters” and how May was on the way out, in days if not hours. 

The Sunday Times front page: “Cabinet coup to ditch Theresa May for emergency PM.” 

The very same newspaper on Monday? Never mind.

The Sun tabloid printed a front-page editorial, “TIME’S UP THERESA! Theresa May has shown courage — but to seal her deal and deliver Brexit, she needs to resign.”

This made a big splash, for about 10 minutes. 

It’s not that some “plotters” wouldn’t mind seeing the prime minister off. 

Conservative lawmaker and super-Brexiteer Boris Johnson, one of the favorites to replace May should she resign, wrote in Monday’s Daily Telegraph that the government had “chickened out” on delivering Brexit and that if May wants to win support for her deal, she needs to show that the next phase “will be different from the first.” This suggested to some that he might be willing to back the deal, as long as May promises to step aside.

But here’s the problem. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox told BBC Breakfast on Monday that the government was “constrained by the fact that we have a Leave electorate and a Parliament that leans towards Remain, and the government doesn’t have a majority in the House of Commons.”

Finance Minister Philip Hammond told Sky News: “Changing the prime minister wouldn’t help us. Changing the party in government wouldn’t help us. We’ve got to address the question of what type of Brexit is acceptable to Parliament, what type of way forward Parliament can agree on, so we can avoid what would be an economic catastrophe of a no-deal exit.”

“Catastrophe” — his words, not ours.

This was supposed to be the week Britain left the European Union. But an extension has prolonged the agony. Tune in to the talk shows, and it’s more of the same debates over and over again: the vexing issue of the Irish “backstop,” the arcane internal tensions of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, the complexity of the customs union and, yes, the “Norway option.”

What might happen this week? What time is it? The state of affairs could change between luncheon and tea time. Or it could remain stuck where it is.

Will Brexit happen? When? And how? The uncertainty is maddening for business.

What on Earth is going on with Brexit now? Britain’s ongoing drama, explained.

Theresa May must pass her Brexit deal. The odds are against her.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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