May’s plan to leave the EU is off to a disastrous start. How will it end?
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 instant 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 self-reinforcing, 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 straightjacket 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.