‘Brexit dream’ turning nightmarish for U.K.
Even with U.S. President Donald Trump scheduled to visit the United Kingdom this week amid massive protests, it’s still all Brexit, all of the time in the sceptred isle — and the long struggle over the nature of the deal that will define Britain’s relationship with the European
Union post-exit allegedly reached a turning point last weekend.
“They had nothing else to offer. They had no Plan B. She faced them down,” said a senior government official about the hard-line Brexiteers after Prime Minister Theresa May got them to sign up to a so-called “soft Brexit” at a crisis meeting last Friday.
But the armistice between the
Leave and Remain factions in her fractious Conservative Party lasted less than 48 hours.
On Sunday morning hard-line Brexiteer David Davis, the ludicrously titled secretary of state for exiting the European Union, reneged on his support for May’s negotiating goals and resigned in protest. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed suit, claiming May’s plan meant “the (Brexit) dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”
The sheer fecklessness of the “Brexit dream” is epitomized by Johnson, who first compared May’s negotiating plans to “polishing a turd,” then came round to supporting them for about 36 hours, and finally resigned, saying they would reduce the U.K. to a “vassal state” with the “status of a colony” of the EU.
At no point did either of them offer a coherent counter-proposal.
And what is all this about? A negotiating position, devised by May with great difficulty two years after the referendum that yielded 52 per cent support for an undefined Brexit, which could never be accepted by the European Union. Its sole virtue was that it seemed possible to unite the Leave and Remain factions of the Conservative Party behind it. But the unity imposed by May broke down before the weekend was over.
All four of the great offices of state — prime minister, chancellor (finance minister), foreign secretary and home secretary (interior minister) — are now held by Conservative politicians who voted Remain in the referendum. Yet they are unable to persuade their party to accept even a soft Brexit that preserves Britain’s existing access to its biggest trading partner, the EU.
The Brexiteers’ power lies in their implicit threat to stage a revolt that overthrows May, fatally splits the Conservative Party, and precipitates an early election that brings the Labour Party to power. They may not really have the numbers to do that — it’s widely assumed that a majority of the Conservative members of parliament secretly want a very soft Brexit or no Brexit at all — but May dares not test that assumption.
Horrified by the prospect of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives are doomed to cling desperately to power even though they can probably never deliver a successful Brexit. And time is running out.
The U.K. will be leaving the European Union on March 29 of next year whether there is a deal that maintains most of its trade with the EU or not. If there is no deal, the U.K. crashes out, and chaos ensues.
This situation is almost entirely due to the civil war within the Conservative Party. The only reason there was a referendum was because former prime minister David Cameron thought that a decisive defeat in a referendum would shut the Brexiteers up. He miscalculated.
They won the referendum with the help of a rabidly nationalist rightwing press, spending well beyond the legal limits in the campaign — and, it now appears, with considerable support from Russia.
There’s still a chance that reason will prevail before the U.K. crashes out of the EU. But the odds are no better than even.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is
Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).