Friday was supposed to be “Brexit Day,” when the United Kingdom once again became a sovereign nation independent of the European Union. Instead, it was the day that the UK’s parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s awful Brexit deal for the third time.
Astonishingly, it’s not entirely Theresa May’s fault. Just mostly.
May has lost power in great chunks since grabbing the PM job when David Cameron resigned. She called a snap election in 2017 and lost her party’s majority in Parliament in the result.
Her critics in the UK and the EU have levied severe criticism for her action invoking Article 50 of the EU’s principal treaty, triggering the two-year period to negotiate an exit deal before she had any plan for negotiating such a deal. Those criticisms are all correct, but do nothing to resolve the crisis that Brexit has come to be.
May’s deal includes the “Irish backstop,” a provision designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. If invoked by the EU after a transition period that lasts until the end of 2020, the backstop would effectively keep the entire UK in the EU indefinitely.
The backstop is just one of the biggest stumbling blocks in May’s deal. (The Irish are being at least slightly more helpful than they were during Easter week 1916.)
The backstop, and other features of May’s deal, led Parliament to reject it by 230 votes in January and by 149 votes earlier in March. In the 29 March vote, May lost by only 58 votes. Before that vote, May promised that if her plan were approved, she’d resign. Despite her enormous unpopularity and clear failure as PM, even that wasn’t enough to get her bad deal passed.
Now, she’s reportedly planning a fourth vote this week. May apparently believes that if she can get Parliament to vote on the same question enough times that she’ll eventually win approval of her deal.
And she might. But the three votes that have already turned her deal down are decisive in one sense. They have already robbed any fourth — or fifth or whatever number vote — of legitimacy.
House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has tried to impose some parliamentary order on May’s continued votes. After the second vote, he ruled that another vote couldn’t be held unless the government’s motion was changed substantially. So May’s team made it different by chopping off half of it. The part that was voted down on Friday contained only the separation mechanism and left out entirely the provisions governing future relations between the UK and the EU. It was, as several critics said, a truly “blind Brexit.” No wonder it failed to gain Parliament’s approval.
In the UK’s system, the prime minister’s government — not Parliament – usually controls Parliament’s agenda. It votes on what the PM submits to it. Not anymore, at least on Brexit. Parliament has seized control of its own agenda and is making as much of a mess of it as May has.
In eight “indicative” votes last week, Parliament turned down every sensible alternative to May’s deal. Among the ones rejected are: leaving the EU without a deal; adding a permanent “customs union” to May’s deal, and adoption of a soft Brexit modeled on Norway’s complicated quasi-membership in the EU. Others that were rejected include holding a second Brexit referendum in the UK and canceling the Article 50 notice that the UK is quitting the EU.
The EU consented to move Brexit Day from 29 March 29 to April 12, presuming May’s deal is passed by then. If it isn’t, Brexit Day will be May 22, supposedly avoiding the necessity of UK candidates running in the coming EU elections. But if May and the EU agree on more delays, the UK will have to run elections for representation to an organization it’s supposedly quitting.
By those actions, the UK Parliament has stuck its head in the sand, refusing to take any responsibility for the wreck of the HMS Brexit. Why should they when Theresa May is willing to serve as the UK’s chief javelin catcher until the Brexit mess is over?
The only sensible outcome for the UK is a no-deal Brexit. That would free it up to negotiate trade agreements with any nation, which it can’t do as an EU member or as a member of a customs union with the EU. It would leave the issue of trade between the UK and the EU to the reasonable rules of the World Trade Organization.
But the Irish on both sides of the border — May’s ally, the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, and the Irish Republic — are both unwilling to risk uncertainty of controls on the border between them.
Time is the greatest limiting factor now. May won’t resign and isn’t susceptible to another intra-party “no confidence” motion until December. If she did resign, it’s very unlikely that the Conservative Party she supposedly leads would come up with a new leader before the May 22 Brexit date. Even if she called another snap general election, it can’t be held by then. Angry Tories have reportedly told her they’d block a snap election.
The most likely outcomes are the worst. May probably will — despite John Bercow’s efforts — get more votes on her deal until it passes. As I said before, the outcome of any further vote approving her deal cannot be legitimate. The other possible outcome – canceling or delaying Brexit indefinitely — will certainly be worse.
Theresa May is the most incompetent leader of the UK since Lord North. It was on his advice that mad King George III abused his American colonies and lost the Revolutionary War. She has, by lack of forethought, planning, and negotiating skill, enabled the EU to control the Brexit process. Its efforts have stymied any good option except a no-deal Brexit.
Eighteenth Century historian Edward Gibbon wrote that, “History is indeed little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” When the history of Brexit is written — from the 2016 referendum until the end — it will fit Gibbon’s axiom far too well.