Democracy sometimes brings out the worst of outcomes. Such is how Britain ended up with its Brexit mess.
On Friday, Prime Minister Theresa May gave up her sad and futile efforts to steer a Brexit deal through a toxic House of Commons. She surrendered and said she was resigning as PM. It was a poignant moment as she accepted her failure and announced, in near tears, that she would be calling it a day on June 7.
History will not be kind to her, but I think it won’t be too brutal either. She was in office when Britain had brought on herself perhaps the most divisive problem in peacetime. It required a politician of truly superhuman talents to push it through successfully. Her predecessor, David Cameron, found himself out of office in 2016 when he called an unnecessary referendum on whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union. It was a huge mistake. Cameron, who favoured remaining in the EU, had imagined the voters would vote to remain. He thus chose to give the bluff to the hardliners in his Conservative Party, who favoured leaving the bloc. Instead, the voters disagreed with Cameron and voted to leave.
Enter May as the PM replacement. She made her own big mistake by calling for a general election that wasn’t due, hoping to bolster her parliamentary majority and thus be in a strong enough position to negotiate a favourable Brexit deal with the EU. Unfortunately for her, that election saw her already slim majority whittled down such that she had to scamper for a coalition with the Democratic Unionist party of Northern Ireland, which has caused May even more Brexit pain.
At the heart of the British conceit surrounding Brexit is that the country imagined it was better off without the EU. A hard-right wing of the Conservative Party believe so, and they have repeatedly resisted May’s Brexit compromises with the EU. Yet every sensible person, from bankers to businessmen to farmers, knows Britain has stood to gain from EU membership, from its giant single market, from its customs union, and its free flow of labour, especially the skilled variety. A complete break with the EU — what they call “no deal” or “hard” Brexit — will mean Britain will be cut off from these membership benefits. She has been scrambling to strike trade deals with Commonwealth countries like India and Nigeria and South Africa, but these cannot compensate for her exclusion from what has been the most successful trading union in the world.
May’s likely successor is a rabid opponent of the EU whose politics can only be described as that of a demagogue: former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. It is a measure of the sorry state the Conservative Party is in that Johnson is being considered a front-runner. Yet Johnson or whoever succeeds May will not find the going over Brexit any easier. The election to succeed May will be confined to Conservative Party MPs. They are riven with factions, which rules out the incoming PM being able to railroad a Brexit deal, other than to leave Europe altogether, which is anyway what Johnson and his ideological soul-mates want. (The “soft Brexit” option May wanted would maintain, among other things, beneficial market access to the EU and avoid application of non-tariff barriers to trade). The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Coburn, is a mighty vacillator but is believed to favour a repeat referendum, which if the vote went for remaining in the EU would overturn the result of the earlier referendum and make the Brexit headache go away. But that will only happen over the Conservative hardliners’ dead bodies, as they have vowed.
It is not outlandish to picture the Conservatives splitting along factional lines. Johnson is hardly a unifier and his spell as PM, if indeed he takes over from May, would be a bumpy one indeed, both for its effect within his own party and Coburn’s Labour. The Conservatives are further being put under pressure by another out-and-out demagogue, Nigel Farage, who has become a favourite with “hard” and “no deal” Brexiteers. (Conveniently he fronts an outfit called the Brexit Party). The picture will only be clearer when a general election is called, which Labour could very well win amid the confusion in the Conservative Party.
The trouble ahead for Britain with Brexit cannot be understated. London greatly prides her status as a leading global financial centre. This will come under threat as big banks may opt to relocate to continental Europe so as to take advantage of the single market. Besides, trading with the EU under non-preferential rules where British goods would have to go through customs procedures will have a negative impact on the British economy.
May’s parting advice to her faction-ridden party and others boiled down to this: Learn to compromise.