It was always a given that Brexit would end in chaos; the only question was how much.
Extricating a member-state from a legislative union would be fiendishly difficult under the best of circumstances — with a thumping majority, a clear plan and an accommodating negotiating partner. But with a majority of 52 per cent, no plan and a partner, in the European Union, that was determined to make an example of Britain? Chaos was the best-case scenario.
All these difficulties were waved away by Leavers during the referendum campaign in 2016. But in truth the seeds of the present stalemate, in which a majority of the country wants neither to leave the EU nor remain but rather hopes by some miracle to do both at the same time, were present in the referendum itself.
The referendum question, though it was clarity itself by Canadian standards, reduced the whole issue to a binary yes or no, without people having the foggiest notion what they were voting yes or no to. Leave … on what terms? Conversely, all of the flailing attempts since then to define those terms have failed for lack of a decision-making process with the same simplicity and legitimacy as a referendum.
The process instead has been to develop a plan on the fly by means of an approximately nine-way game of chicken — between Prime Minister Theresa May, the Leave and Remain factions within her Conservative party, the Ulster loyalists in the Democratic Unionist Party (on which the government’s shaky grip on power depends), the leader of the Labour Party, its Leave and Remain factions, and the Speaker of the House. Oh, and the EU, which is to say not only the European Commission but its 27 other member states, all of whom must approve whatever the EU and the U.K. negotiate between them.
So it is that, less than 48 hours before what was initially to be the deadline for agreement on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal — the precise terms of any post-divorce relationship with the continent would still need to be negotiated — the country still cannot decide on a plan. Perhaps it will in time for the extended deadline of April 12. But even that will be for naught unless the EU can be persuaded to accept it. If not, then Britain crashes out of the EU with none of its existing trade access secured — the unimaginable horror of a “no-deal” Brexit.
And yet the deal the EU has accepted, the one that May negotiated, has few takers. It’s not hard to see why: Britain would risk ending up as entangled in EU rules and regulations as before, but without any say in how they are decided. Again, this was entirely predictable: If the EU had little reason to bend to Britain’s demands at the outset, it had even less as the country’s divisions grew and May’s government weakened.
In two attempts to pass the deal through Parliament, May’s government went down to two of the largest defeats in British political history. You would think that would finish both her and it. Yet not only does she remain prime minister (thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, passed during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which requires an explicit confidence vote to defeat a government), but she seems determined to try a third time. To Remainers, she pretends that the alternative is no deal; to Leavers, no Brexit.
So desperate is May to see this, her flagship policy, pass that she has even offered to step down, as an inducement to Tory rebels to vote with her. And indeed the gambit succeeded in luring some prominent Leavers her way, notably Boris Johnson, who announced his support for a deal he had earlier denounced as a recipe for permanent vassalage and worse. For what is the death of England beside the chance to become Conservative leader?
Unhappily for May, however, the prospect of future negotiations being led by Johnson or some other hardliner may have turned enough wavering Labourites against the deal to seal its doom. Which, logically, would mean May stays.
Is there any ray of hope amid this gloom? Yes, there is. It is the emergence of Parliament, not only as a place of robust criticism of the government’s handling of the negotiations — the refusal of MPs, even of the prime minister’s party, to be whipped or blackmailed into submission is in stark contrast to our own Parliament’s supinity — but as the seat of a possible solution. In a remarkable departure, Parliament voted Monday night to seize control of the process from the government.
Eight different Brexit plans were put to a vote on Wednesday night, ranging all the way from no-deal, to various forms of “soft Brexit” (think: sovereignty-association) to a second referendum. MPs were permitted to vote for as many of these as they like, by paper ballot. None was expected to attract majority support, and indeed none did. But in a novel experiment, the ones that attracted the most votes — a very soft Brexit in which Britain would maintain a customs union with Europe, and a second referendum — are to go to a run-off vote next Monday.
May has not said she will accept the result of these “indicative votes” — assuming she is still prime minister then — raising the prospect of a constitutional crisis, and perhaps a snap election. And whatever the result of that standoff, it still doesn’t solve the problem of getting Europe onside. But it at least holds out some hope of answering the question Europe has been asking from the start: What does Britain want?
It would perhaps have been better if that had been sorted out before the referendum, rather than three years later, but then Rome wasn’t unbuilt in a day.