BOSTON, England — Here in the fens of Lincolnshire, the shock troops in the 2016 campaign for Britain to leave the European Union won their greatest victory.
The hardcore pamphleteers and zealous door-knockers, who urged their wards to “take back control” of their borders, their money and their futures, triumphed by the largest margin of any district in Britain, with 75.6 percent voting to withdraw from the continental trading bloc.
And now? They’re seriously miffed.
“I say, let’s get on with it, please!” said Yvonne Stevens, a retired proprietor of a tea shop and member of the local council. “Let’s get out. Knock us on our backsides. Go on! We’ll be on the floor looking up. We’ll sort it out. Just get us out of Europe.”
Stevens and her fellow Brexiteers are pushing for the once-unimaginable — to leave the European Union with no deal at all.
Parliament is scheduled for a historic vote Tuesday evening on Prime Minister Theresa May’s unloved, half-in, half-out compromise exit plan. Members of her own Conservative government acknowledge that May’s deal — negotiated over the past two years in Brussels — might fail to win support. Many in the political press are predicting a devastating, career-defining defeat.
If May’s deal survives, then Brexit lurches ahead, and Britain leaves the European Union — kind of, sort of — on March 29 as planned.
If May’s deal dies? Chaos.
The newspapers and airwaves on Sunday were filled with reports of coups and plots, with some members of Parliament allegedly scheming to wrest control of Brexit from a battered May and her revolving-door cabinet.
Meanwhile, opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is threatening (again) to call for a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons “soon.” Corbyn probably has enough support to stage the vote — but not enough votes to actually topple May.
And then? More delay.
Some, including former Tory Prime Minister John Major, argue that the “only sensible course” to prevent the doomsday “no-deal” scenario is for Britain to delay Brexit by revoking Article 50, the E.U. provision that sets the timetable for departure in March.
The idea is that with some breathing room — and a definitive rejection of her deal in Parliament — a properly chastened but newly reinvigorated May could go back to Brussels and demand more favorable terms.
The problem? European leaders have repeatedly said there is no better deal.
Others, led by those who oppose Brexit, say there should be a second referendum, a do-over, to decide again whether to really, really leave or remain. The electoral commission has advised that staging this second “People’s Vote” would take at minimum 21 weeks.
There is, of course, another option — one that was viewed as reckless, almost unthinkable just a few months ago, but has been gathering growing support among hard-line Brexiteers, and that is for Britain to leave the European Union with no deal.
Without May’s two, maybe three years of negotiated transition, Britain would immediately be treated by the E.U. as a “third country,” subject to potentially onerous immigration controls, trade tariffs and border inspections.
Out: today’s frictionless trade, where an order placed in the morning crosses the English Channel in the afternoon.
In: gridlock at the ports. Also possible: airplanes grounded, holidays canceled, store shelves emptied. And worse, according to a string of think-tank analyses, economic forecasts and government reports.
“Make no mistake, no-deal cannot be ‘managed.’ And it’s certainly not desirable,” Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, the U.K.’s largest business lobby group, warned in a speech Friday.
In the placid farming and market town of Boston, which holds the prize as the most Brexit-loving city in Britain, the campaigners to leave say they are ready to roll the dice with no deal.
“I think all the doom and gloom is exaggerated,” said Stevens, the pensioner. “It’s scaremongering is what it is.”
Anton Dani, a local Brexit campaigner, cafe owner and councilor, agreed. “I think it’s time to say no deal. Let’s close the borders. Let’s keep our money.”
Michael Cooper, another town councilor who campaigned hard for Brexit, says he is no fan of May’s agreement but prefers it to crashing out of Europe.
“If Theresa May’s deal gets binned, we’re left with nothing,” he said.
What he cannot abide is the idea of a second referendum. (“We would win again,” he said.) Or Brexit being snatched away.
As he strolled down the commercial streets of Boston, he pointed out all the restaurants and shops — Taste of Lithuania and Baltic Foods — catering to the tens of thousands of Eastern European immigrants who poured into Boston over the past 15 years to work in the fields and food processing and packing plants — to do the low-wage, manual labor that native-born Brits won’t do in the vegetable garden of England.
“The reasons for Brexit haven’t changed,” said Cooper, who said he was not against the newcomers but that “too many came too quickly.”
A recent poll found that “no deal” was popular among Conservative Party voters, many of whom think that the government’s warnings are intended to stoke unfounded fear.
The survey, by Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, asked what would be voters’ first preference in a three-way referendum where the options were leaving without a deal, leaving with May’s deal or remaining in the European Union. Conservative Party voters preferred leaving without a deal (43 percent) to May’s deal (27 percent) or remaining (23 percent).
Among dues-paying Tory activists, support for no deal soared to 57 percent.
Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University who led the research, said warnings of a doomsday no-deal Brexit didn’t seem to faze May’s fellow Tories.
“The problem for Theresa May is, the threat of a no-deal is what she is using to whip her own MPs into line,” Bale said. “But it doesn’t look as if for many of them it’s as frightening of a prospect as one might imagine.”
A survey of members of Parliament, conducted for the group UK in a Changing Europe, found that Leavers in the House of Commons were “highly skeptical” about the likelihood of disruption in the event of no deal, with two exceptions. They assumed the pound sterling would probably drop in value and there would be delays at the ports.
Anand Menon, a professor at King’s College London, said: “The House of Commons is clearly very divided. It is hard to see, given the numbers, how the prime minister can get her deal through. That being said, it is hard to see how any outcome can command a majority.”
Boris Johnson, the arch-Brexiteer and former foreign secretary who resigned in protest over May’s compromise deal, argues that the British public has been “bombarded with warnings” but remains unperturbed.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson said “the more systematic the efforts to make their flesh creep,” the “greater has been their indifference and their resolve.”
Rosalind Watson was protesting outside of Westminster on Friday with a group of Brexiteers, whose numbers have been growing over the past month as Brexit heads into the home stretch.
Watson came to London from Birmingham, where she works as a caregiver. “I voted to leave, and we expect it to happen, and as the months have gone on, we realized it might not happen. It might be taken away from us,” she said. Watson carried a placard that read: “Leave means leave.”
But she wasn’t a fan of May’s deal, which she said would make Britain an E.U. “rule-taker.” She would prefer to leave without a deal.
“I think we should give it a try; we can always go back in,” Watson said. When asked about the predictions of economic ruin, she wasn’t convinced.
“We don’t know until we try,” she said.
Adam reported from London.