Theresa May’s Third Brexit Loss Closes More Doors
On Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Theresa May rose in the House of Commons to make a point of order. “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House,” she said. Parliament had just, for the third time, rejected the withdrawal agreement, or “divorce deal,” that she had negotiated with the European Union to manage Brexit, by a vote of 346–288, and the situation, she said, was “grave.” As a result of the vote, the U.K. is on track to leave the E.U. on April 12th (the date had originally been March 29th) with no deal at all—that is, with no new arrangements on trade or travel and with deep insecurity for British citizens residing in E.U. countries, Europeans in the U.K., and businesses. Chaos at the borders remains the default. But, as May suggested, the situation may even be even graver than that. Parliament does appear to be approaching some sort of limit. If the M.P.s can’t figure a way out—and time is very short—Brexit could bring the British political order down with it.
Some of the actions that May took this week, in her desperate attempts to get the deal approved, have increased the potential for upheaval. On Wednesday, she promised members of her Conservative Party that, if they would only vote yes on her deal, she would resign before the next stage of Brexit negotiations. That won some Tory votes, but it mostly served to turn attention to the many striving Tories who may want to replace her, including some, notably Boris Johnson, who are widely loathed. (May’s promise did help to get Johnson and his colleague Jacob Rees-Mogg, who had both previously decried her deal as a form of slavery, to vote for it. Dominic Raab, who was May’s Brexit secretary, but quit because he said that he found the deal unbearable, also voted for it. He, too, is a likely contender for her job.) Indeed, the net effect may have been to cost her Labour votes, since voting for the deal also meant voting for uncertainty about which unlikely character might be leading the operation next. When May appeared before the House, shortly before the vote, Wes Streeting, a Labour M.P., said, “I’ve got to say sincerely to her, she may have sacrificed her career to put the country first, but there are plenty of people who aim to follow her who always put themselves first, above the country.” Only five Labour M.P.s voted for the deal.
Streeting’s comment was actually far from the most bitter; any assumption of good faith seems to have broken down. At times, so has basic decorum. Sir Mike Penning, a Conservative M.P., said that the alternative to May’s deal was “sticking two fingers up to the British public.” The journalist Nicholas Watt, of the BBC, said that he’d asked a cabinet member why May was holding the vote when defeat seemed certain. The reply—as Watt quoted it, in full, on the air—was “Fuck knows, I’m past caring. It’s like the living dead in here.” During the debate on Friday, Deidre Brock, an M.P. for the Scottish National Party, which opposes Brexit, rose to say that she wondered if Watt’s source had been Theresa May herself. (Not remotely likely.) Brock added that she saw the remarks as “an insult to the living dead,” and the deal itself as a “pile of manure we are being offered as an appetizer for the slurry to come.” For good measure, she threw in a reference to “useful idiots in the Labour Party.” She meant the ones who might vote for the deal. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, keeps repeating that it’s all a “shambles,” and that May “refuses to listen.” After the votes were counted on Friday, he said that he wanted a general election. So did Ian Blackford, the Parliamentary leader of the S.N.P.
Officially, many of the Labour Party’s objections to May’s deal had to do not with the withdrawal agreement itself but with the “political declaration” that accompanies it, which lays out the aims of further negotiations over a future relationship with the E.U. There is a great deal to negotiate: the main asset of May’s deal is that it provides for a transition period until the end of 2020, during which time most aspects of that future relationship, including the status of the U.K.’s border with the Republic of Ireland—which, after Brexit, would be its only land frontier with the E.U., and one whose openness has been central to peace in Northern Ireland—would be worked out. A great liability of the deal, for Brexiteers, is that the U.K. will remain in a customs union with the E.U. until negotiations over the Irish border succeed. (This is the “backstop.”) And the great liability for those who want to remain in the European Union is that, orderly or not, her deal still means Brexit. In a final attempt to get votes—and to get around a rule that blocked bringing the same piece of legislation multiple times in one session—May peeled off the political declaration on Friday, allowing the M.P.s to vote on the withdrawal agreement alone. That move didn’t help, either.
In other words, the matter has moved well beyond Parliament taking “control” away from May, as it did on Wednesday, when it put alternative Brexit plans to a vote. There were eight choices on a green ballot (it was supposed to be pink; the aesthetics of the disaster are about all that Parliament appears able to focus on). M.P.s could vote on as many as they wanted, including the Labour plan for Brexit, which the Party officially supports. None of them achieved a majority, though two—a Brexit softened by a customs union with the E.U., and holding a “confirmatory referendum” on any plan—came relatively close. A headline in the Guardian summed up the expressed voice of Parliament as: “No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.” The members are going to try again on Monday. But that effort may be scuttled by another issue, one that has been immensely frustrating for their counterparts in the European Union: the way that the M.P.s’ gaze seems to shift to some vague distant point every time an actual deadline is put in front of them.
The timing is crucial. If the deal had been approved, the U.K. would have automatically received a Brexit extension to May 22nd. All the other twenty-seven E.U. countries now have to agree to any further extension beyond April 12th. That date has meaning: it is the latest, legally, that the U.K. can call elections for the European Parliament, scheduled to begin on May 23rd, which the E.U. believes it must do if Brexit is not complete by then. It’s not clear that the U.K. is getting that message. On Friday, Geoffrey Cox, the British Attorney General, after acknowledging that the necessity of elections was the E.U.’s “stated position,” said that “some lawyers, of course, disagree.” After the vote, Martin Selmayr, a top E.U. official, replied to a tweet from a British lawyer, highlighted by Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC, which implied that there might be a farther-off deadline for calling off Brexit, even without holding elections, with this terse reminder: “On 12 April, right before midnight #lastchance.” Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, has called an emergency summit of E.U. leaders for April 10th. The Europeans have emphasized that they are moving on to contingency planning for a No Deal, while Parliament keeps doing whatever it’s doing. One priority for the E.U. is supporting Ireland, the country that would most immediately be affected by a No Deal. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is heading to Dublin next week. A German official said, “This is not a social call.” In a statement, Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Prime Minister, said, “It is not clear that the U.K. has fully understood that No Deal is not off the agenda. Rather, it’s a growing possibility.” He said that Ireland was preparing “intensively.”
Holding a general election will take time. And the toxicity of Brexit means that there would be rancorous fights in each of the two major parties—both of which are sharply divided between Remainers and Leavers—about which positions each would run on, and, in the case of the Tories, who would lead them. The British system relies, to a great extent, on party discipline. May is Prime Minister because she, supposedly, has the “confidence” of the House, but at the moment there’s not a lot of confidence in anybody. M.P.s now speak about a “constitutional crisis.” In recent weeks, a number of them broke away from the Conservative and Labour parties to form what they called The Independent Group. On Friday, one member, Anna Soubry, a former Tory, announced in Parliament that the group had now organized as a party, called Change U.K. The new party’s position is that there should be a second referendum; that would take time, too. In May’s remarks before the vote, she said that, if M.P.s approved her plan, they would not be “closing any doors,” given that there would still be the political declaration to fight over. That would be true if the only doors available were marked Brexit. Approval of May’s deal would have ruled out options such as the exit from Brexit that Soubry and her colleagues, among others, still seek. After April 12th, absent an extension on the E.U.’s terms, all of the options will be gone. There will only be No Deal. Doors are closing all over Europe. Everyone has a limit.