May can’t find an escape route.
Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
In the new Netflix series Russian Doll, Natasha Lyonne plays a woman stuck in a time loop who keeps dying at her 36th birthday party and reliving the same night over again. Many of us have had nightmares to that effect, but for the past two years, U.K. prime minister Theresa May has been living a real-life version of this nightmare as she has repeatedly tried and failed to negotiate a workable Brexit deal. The only difference is that in May’s case, it’s not her birthday party that keeps killing her, but rather her political party.
With just two and a half weeks to go before the U.K.’s scheduled exit from the European Union, May’s Brexit plan was soundly defeated yet again in Parliament on Tuesday, going down by nearly 150 votes. It was the latest in a long string of humiliations for May, who has been frantically trying to extract concessions and assurances from the E.U. ever since her deal was rejected by an even wider margin in January. Thus, May, who voted against Brexit in 2016, died once again on a hill she had never wanted to climb in the first place.
Now that May’s deal has been rejected, Parliament votes Wednesday on whether to leave the E.U. with no deal at all, which it is also unlikely to approve as most MPs, including most members of May’s Conservative Party, recognize that a no-deal Brexit would be highly disruptive (if anything, that’s a euphemistic description). Assuming that the no-deal vote also fails, another vote will be held on Thursday to decide whether to delay Brexit and buy more time. The other 27 E.U. countries would need to approve an extension, which some European leaders have warned they are not inclined to do without a very good reason.
The prime minister’s waking nightmare remains, as ever, a product of the fact that Brexit was sold to the U.K. public under false pretenses: that it could be effected quickly, completely, and painlessly. As negotiations got underway two years ago, it quickly became clear that Britain could have two sides of this triangle (at best), but not all three. May’s plan would see the U.K. withdraw from the E.U. gradually, providing a lengthy transition period during which the parties would figure out final-status issues, particularly the sticky wicket of the Irish border. Her plan, the only one Brussels has agreed to, would decouple the U.K. from the union in a (theoretically) decisive and orderly fashion. However, the withdrawal would not take full effect immediately and the U.K. could end up stuck in a customs union with the E.U. indefinitely if they fail to resolve those issues by next December.
An alternative plan floated by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, known as “Norway-plus,” would have the U.K. formally exit the E.U. but remain in the customs union and maintain the free movement of E.U. citizens across its borders: a quick and relatively seamless divorce, but an incomplete one that reneges on some of the fundamental demands of the Leave camp. There’s no vote scheduled for that proposal, but it could be revisited if Brexit is delayed. Again, though, Parliament would have to approve Norway-plus and the E.U. would have to agree to it, but there are no guarantees of either of these outcomes.
No-deal Brexit would fulfill the criteria of an immediate and complete withdrawal, at the precipitous cost of economic and social chaos. The hard-Brexit crowd on the Tories’ right flank, who prefer no deal to what they see as a bad deal, have given up claiming they could negotiate a better Brexit than May. Now they contend that the E.U. was never going to agree to a real Brexit anyway, so no-deal is the only way to get well and truly out of the union — and anyway, it won’t be nearly as bad as the doomsayers predict. Indeed, advocates of no deal are now talking up its potential upsides in terms of free trade agreements and deregulation, even though it means the U.K. will have to renegotiate a slew of trade deals it currently enjoys through its E.U. membership, most of which the government has not finalized in advance, as it claimed it would.
The anemic growth the U.K. economy has managed so far this year reflects businesses stockpiling inventory out of fear of not being able to import anything from their biggest trade partners after March 29. The country is bracing for temporary food shortages as trade is disrupted, and higher food prices as tariffs come suddenly into effect; there are also concerns about potential medicine shortages. Even if the inevitable chaos at U.K. ports and the Irish border is sorted out as quickly as possible, the shock will be economically, socially, and politically destabilizing for the country — not to mention completely avoidable.
If MPs refuse to pull the trigger on no-deal, it seems likely that they will vote to delay Brexit instead, which of course only kicks the can down the road for a few more months before they are forced to make the decision they don’t want to make. “Voting against leaving without a deal and for an extension does not solve the problems we face,” May warned Parliament on Tuesday, her voice hoarse from staying up late Monday night in desperate last-minute talks with her European colleagues.
Indeed, if Parliament decides to delay Brexit, assuming the E.U. allows it, there’s no reason to believe that another six months of squabbling will produce a way out of the impasse. The E.U. leaders, tired of beating this dead horse, have ruled out renegotiating Brexit again. The agreement they reached with May’s government was the absolute furthest they would go in accommodating the demands of the Brexiteers. They have no reason to make further concessions and have run out of patience with the U.K. The fact that there is no majority in the House of Commons for any conceivable course of action is not their problem, as E.U. officials have repeatedly made clear in so many words.
Pro-Brexit MPs, including those who would like to avoid a no-deal scenario, are afraid that if the U.K. doesn’t leave the E.U. on March 29, it never will. They are right to be afraid. Delay will breathe new life into the campaign for a second referendum, which Remainers believe they would win. Whether or not that’s true, another vote could take a year to organize and would only exacerbate the already deep divisions in the country’s body politic. The only way the U.K. can unilaterally avoid crashing out of the union is to revoke the withdrawal process entirely; anything short of that requires the consent of its negotiating partners. If Parliament keeps on rejecting no deal while not approving any deal, the only real alternative is to cancel Brexit.
That said, insofar as MPs’ main concerns include holding onto their seats, the political consequences of reneging on Brexit would be so calamitous that they might prefer to drive the country off a cliff rather than face their voters after having broken such a huge promise. If Parliament fails to act, the U.K. will leave with no deal on the 29th by default. Failing to act has a variety of political upsides for U.K. legislators: Labour can blame the Conservatives for the disaster, moderate Tories can say they made a good-faith attempt but were rejected by Brussels bureaucrats, and the far right gets everything it wants without having to lift a finger.
The only loser (other than the British people, of course) is Theresa May: With the country in chaos and her party divided against her, her government will likely collapse in short order — but at least she will finally get to rest in peace.
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