The Guardian view on Brexit: the be­gin­ning of the end

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Editorial

Brexit is of­ten sold by its most com­mit­ted sup­port­ers on the right as a con­sti­tu­tional ver­sion of the eco­nomic doc­trine of Thatcherism, a clean break with the failed poli­cies of the past. These fa­nat­ics suc­ceeded in con­vinc­ing David Cameron, who was prone to flat­tery but supine in the face of ag­gres­sion, that a pop­u­lar vote in a ref­er­en­dum was a rem­edy for the un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive na­ture of West­min­ster pol­i­tics. Once they did away with Mr Cameron, they in­stalled Theresa May and car­ried on with leg­isla­tive ma­noeu­vring to en­able an ir­re­versible trans­for­ma­tion of so­ci­ety. The hard Brex­iters are ruth­less about the means, and in de­nial about the fall-out of their de­sires. Yet now the game is up.

The ev­i­dence is that a de­par­ture from the Euro­pean Union on WTO terms would blow up large parts of the Bri­tish econ­omy. There would be a lot of pain for some far-off gain. As it stands Mrs May’s Brexit plan will not get par­lia­men­tary ap­proval. She warns this means we will crash out as the law states the United King­dom will leave the EU on the 29 March at 11pm. But that can be changed if a min­is­ter pro­poses a new law eras­ing that time and date and par­lia­ment votes for it. The UK has op­tions. It can uni­lat­er­ally can­cel its with­drawal from the EU. The ma­jor­ity of MPs in par­lia­ment ac­cept hard Brexit utopias can­not be built. It is now a ques­tion of how, not when or if, they will move par­lia­men­tary mo­tions to demon­strate their strength. Their aim will be to get min­is­ters to de­fer or re­scind Bri­tain’s de­par­ture from the Euro­pean club. Mrs May, if she is still prime min­is­ter, at this point could do the coun­try a favour and stop her car crash of Brexit con­tin­u­ing. If min­is­ters refuse to bow to such a mo­tion then we will en­ter a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis whose size will dwarf any­thing we have seen so far in the con­tempt ar­gu­ments over the fail­ure to pub­lish min­is­ters’ Brexit le­gal ad­vice.

This marks the end of a long spell of party gov­ern­ment. In 2015 the Con­ser­va­tive party won the ma­jor­ity of par­lia­men­tary seats for the first time in 23 years. Mr Cameron be­came prime min­is­ter. His gov­ern­ment was re­spon­si­ble not to the par­lia­ment, but to Tory MPs who re­lied for their elec­toral suc­cess on the party or­gan­i­sa­tion, which in turn con­trolled the par­lia­men­tary party. The 2017 elec­tion saw Mrs May lose her ma­jor­ity and MPs lose their in-

stant al­le­giance to her and her ma­chine. She ought to have dropped the hard Brexit rhetoric then and there. In­stead she con­tin­ued and at­tempted to rule through de­cree while push­ing the big­gest geopo­lit­i­cal shift this coun­try has faced in decades. She fac­tion­alised her party, sharp­en­ing ide­o­log­i­cal di­vi­sions be­tween “Global Bri­tain” and “Make Bri­tain Great Again” Tories that have proved too wide to man­age.

The re­sult is Mrs May ended up only pass­ing bills that have com­plete sup­port within her own party, which was in thrall to rightwing ab­so­lutists. The dan­ger of this way of run­ning West­min­ster is that it ends up be­ing sel­f­re­in­forc­ing, mak­ing for more ex­treme par­ti­san­ship and deeper deadlock. Stud­ies show barely two in 10 peo­ple now think the cur­rent sys­tem of gov­ern­ing Bri­tain is good at per­form­ing any of its key func­tions. In par­lia­men­tary sys­tems, grid­lock is rel­a­tively rare. When prime min­is­ters can no longer com­mand leg­isla­tive sup­port, the im­passe is re­solved by a new elec­tion. If she at­tempted to do this any­time soon, Mrs May would surely be de­posed. The prime min­is­ter has caught her­self in a Brexit strait­jacket that gets tighter the more she strug­gles. There is scope for a Hou­dini-like es­cape for Bri­tain. But to achieve what seems the im­pos­si­ble re­quires a politi­cian pre­pared to imag­ine it.

Pho­to­graph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

An EU flag at­tached to a street light nearthe Houses of Par­lia­ment in Lon­don.

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