Queried about the Waterloo battle that witnessed the defeat of Napoleon and his dream of continental conquest, victorious British general the Duke of Wellington replied: “It has been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” Brexit supporters doubtless are equally apprehensive about the success of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union as the two-year anniversary of their momentous vote nears.
From the start, the Brexit campaign was fraught with uncertainty. It began as a throw-away promise by then prime minister David Cameron to placate Europhile MPs in his Conservative caucus, a concession he never thought he’d live to regret until that June 23 vote in 2016 in which a majority of Britons voted for “Leave.” Mr. Cameron resigned and in the race to succeed him three leading Brexit campaigners — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Andrea Leadsom — had their hopes dashed as “Remain” supporter Theresa May won the race.
Whatever euphoria Brexiteers initially may have enjoyed was soon dashed, too. Government plans to proceed with Brexit negotiations with the EU fell afoul of demands that Parliament be consulted. After legislation passed both Houses of Parliament and received Royal Assent Mrs. May, over-confident of her ministry’s support in the country, went to the polls against a seemingly weak opposition to strengthen her hand for future negotiations and badly miscalculated, losing her majority, her momentum, and her credibility in the process.
Now she leads a House of Commons where testy Irish nationals keep the minority government alive, and faces adversaries fore and aft, either Labour party opposition or her own fractious parliamentary caucus where “Remoaners” continue in force.
Nor can Mrs. May expect sympathy from the EU enemy across the Channel, which has no incentive to ameliorate Brexit negotiations and every encouragement to obfuscate talks: Whether by throwing a lifeline to Europhiles who rally for continued bureaucratic ties to the Continent and an ensuing referendum on whatever deal Mrs. May is able to stitch up; or by frustrating homegrown opposition to EU diktat that has broken out in Germany, Italy, and other EU members who, it is feared, are gaining strength by Britain’s lead. Sacre bleu.
Meanwhile, governing Conservatives are sensible of another date pressing ever closer upon them, stalking the March 2019 official Brexit deadline: the mandated general election in four years. A recent Conservative Home poll of party membership shows that 25 percent want the Prime Minister to resign now; while a whopping 66 percent want her gone before the writs are dropped in 2022, in the unlikely occurrence that the minority Parliament ekes out its entire mandate.
Mrs. May’s sole respite is that heirs presumptive are thin on the ground. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson and MP Jacob Rees-Mogg poll well among the rank-and-file, but Brexiteers do not enjoy deep bench-strength among their colleagues. Mr. Johnson bowed out from the 2015 leadership campaign to succeed David Cameron after erstwhile ally Michael Gove withdrew his support (Mr. Gove is a rumored contender as well), and is seen as a loose cannon who too-often speaks before weighing his words. As for Mr. Rees-Mogg, whose erudition and respect for political decorum earned him the sobriquet the “representative for the eighteenth-century,” he lacks ministerial experience, forswears any interest as leader, and professes support for Mrs. May ad nauseam. Tories, having discounted the resilience of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the past, are anxious about the absence of Brexit breakthrough and their ineffective Front Bench.
Yet, as this week is also the anniversary of Waterloo in 1815, a curious analogy presents itself when, with victory hanging in the balance between Wellington and Napoleon, Prussia’s Marshal von Blücher emerged from a wood to bolster allied forces and win the day. So may Europe’s freedom fighters bolster the Brexit cause. UKIP leader in the European parliament Gerard Batten remarks that “Rebellion is now stirring in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and elsewhere.” Unrest with Brussels diktat is on the march. “The tide is turning against the EU,” Mr. Batten observes; “When Britain leaves the European Union we can point the way for a Europe of independent democratic nation states”. Here are echoes of Pitt the Younger, Britain’s prime minister who took an early lead against Napoleon’s continental ambitions: “Let us hope that England, having saved herself by her energy, may save Europe by her example.” Brexiteers, with their aspirations for reclaiming British liberties still uncertain, may find that their example will be the saving grace both at home and abroad.
Stephen MacLean maintains the weblog The Organic Tory.