In November, we said that Brexit look destined to produce a state change, when so much energy had been pumped into the system that it became chaotic, like water becoming steam.
The jaw-dropping 230 vote magnitude of the defeat of May’s Withdrawal Agreement was worse than even the pessimistic score-keepers expected. This was a Napoleon-goes-to-Moscow level defeat, the worst loss a Government has ever suffered on a major vote.
Despite this epic defeat, May is expected to survive a no-confidence vote today, which she pressed the opposition to lodge. It was the one fillip she could get. The Tories aren’t about to hand power to Labour and the DUP will vote with them. But the spectacle of a complete failure as a leader still soldiering on is without precedent in the UK.
The UK is in the midst of a legitimacy crisis. Reader David summed it up well:
…. can I suggest that non-UK (and non-European) readers pay attention over the next week or so, at least? You’re about to see the unfolding of a political crisis the like of which happens in the Western world once a generation, if that. The combination of an essentially insoluble problem, an incompetent government, an enfeebled civil service, a bitterly divided political system, and government by convention and precedent rather than constitution, has produced a situation in which almost any outcome, including the most extreme, is possible. The effects on the British political system (and whether, indeed, it survives at all) are the real issue here, not Brexit, no matter how important that objectively is. Whilst I think the “sleepwalking” idea from the Grauniad is overstated, a more dangerous, related, worry is that Britain has had hundreds of years of political stability, and people assume that such stability (itself preceded by violence and revolution) will just go on forever. It may, but it also might not. And whereas in France, Spain or Germany, say, violent changes of political system are understood and lived with, that’s not the case in Britain.
British politics is broken. It may not be fixable in time to solve the Brexit mess.
The U.K. wakes up Wednesday with a government unable to govern — in office, but without the numbers to fulfill its central purpose: a negotiated exit from the European Union.
A defeat of previously unimaginable proportions Tuesday — 432 to 202 — has left the country adrift, floating towards no deal, with no party or faction in parliament able to command a majority for any way of moving off the course it has set for itself. The only thing MPs can agree strongly on is a desire to avoid an economically damaging no deal, but they currently can’t settle on a mechanism for how to do so.
And I hate to be mean to Labour, but they deserve it. Corbyn is still fixated on the idea of triggering a GE and taking power when he’s still deep in unicorn phase. Even last weekend, Corbyn finally conceded that Brexit might need to be delayed in the event of a general election, and then didn’t back down when he was asked how he could negotiate a new deal in three months. So Corbyn and May are stuck on the exact same failed strategy that they can somehow wrest a better deal from Brussels. And the patter that Corbyn has served up for what kind of deal he wants makes the Tory cakeism of 2018 look modest. From the Andrew Marr show on Sunday:
As a very minimum, a customs arrangement with the European Union that gives us a say in what goes on but that also avoids the whole issues of the problems of Northern Ireland, which this deal does. Secondly access to the market, the single market, which is crucial, as you were asking the Brexit Secretary earlier. Job losses in Jaguar Land Rover and other places as a consequence of this. And thirdly absolute legal protection of rights, consumer and environmental, and a guarantee that we’re not going to allow British companies to fall behind European standards in order to entice in American investment in the NHS and all those kind of issues that you know are felt very strongly about in the Labour Party.
Recall the Blairite wing has its own unicorn of a second referendum, which none other than Tony himself was pushing hard for a while.
While Blair appears to have gone back into his crypt, John Major surfaced in a op-ed in The Times. His proposal at least procedurally and time-table wise isn’t crazy. He argues for revoking A50 to have a second referendum. But the idea of revoking Article 50 is so far from anything the realm of perceived-to-be-viable options that it’s not included in polls. It’s not hard to imagine the uproar if any Cabinet minister or prominent MP were to propose this seriously.
Now that isn’t to say that that idea could not be sold to the public. Historical examples show that intense propaganda campaigns can achieve major shifts in popular views in as little as six weeks. But who would wield that megaphone? Normally it’s the government. This one won’t and Labour won’t sell that message either.
The EU is sticking to its guns. PlutoniumKun flagged an RTE story saying that EU leaders were actually relieved by the magnitude of the defeat, since it meant that it was obvious that there was no point in further negotiations.
EU Council President Donald Tusk said in Twitter diplo-speak a Plan B, like calling the whole thing off, might be in order:
If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) January 15, 2019
Jean-Claude Junkcer’s formal statement threw cold water on any hope UK hope that the defeat would shock the EU into making concessions:
On the EU side, the process of ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement continues.
The Withdrawal Agreement is a fair compromise and the best possible deal. It reduces the damage caused by Brexit for citizens and businesses across Europe. It is the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union…
The risk of a disorderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom has increased with this evening’s vote. While we do not want this to happen, the European Commission will continue its contingency work to help ensure the EU is fully prepared.
I urge the United Kingdom to clarify its intentions as soon as possible.
The “ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement continues” is wonderfully deadly.
The Guardian’s live blog didn’t have much better news from the Continent this morning. For instance:
Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas says the ball is now in Britain’s court to bring clarity to the chaos…
Extending Article 50 would be complicated in the light of upcoming European elections, he said, and anyway, an extension would require a clear idea as to what London wanted.
“It will only make sense if there’s a way which has as its goal to reach a deal between the EU and Britain and at the moment there’s not a majority viewpoint in the British parliament”.
And this tidbit:
Sophie in ‘t Veld, a deputy leader of the liberal group in the European parliament, is sticking to the Brussels line that this crisis is for the UK to sort out.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast she said: “We got a lot of questions last night saying ‘what is the EU going to do now’. Well all the options have been on the table, it is for the UK now to decide what to do. I would strongly recommend all the parties to come together and unite in the interest of the UK.”
May does not appear to be changing course either. Well, that’s not completely fair. In her speech after her defeat, she did show a willingness to work with Labour. But this is still mind-bogggling:
…if the House confirms its confidence in this Government, I will then hold meetings with my colleagues, our confidence and supply partner the Democratic Unionist party, and senior parliamentarians from across the House to identify what would be required to secure the backing of the House. The Government will approach those meetings in a constructive spirit, but given the urgent need to make progress we must focus on ideas that are genuinely negotiable and have sufficient support in this House.
Thirdly, if those meetings yield such ideas the Government will then explore them with the European Union.
Mr Speaker, I want to end by offering two reassurances. The first is to those who fear that the Government’s strategy is to run down the clock to 29 March. That is not our strategy. I have always believed that the best way forward is to leave in an orderly way with a good deal, and I have devoted much of the past two years to negotiating such a deal. As you confirmed, Mr Speaker, the amendment to the business motion tabled last week by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) is not legally binding, but the Government respect the will of the House. We will therefore make a statement about the way forward and table an amendable motion by Monday.
The second reassurance is to the British people who voted to leave the European Union in the referendum two and a half years ago. I became Prime Minister immediately after that referendum. I believe it is my duty to deliver on their instruction and I intend to do so.
And in case you thought May might have softened her message with her tone of voice, Richard North points out:
In terms of her demeanour, the prime minister did not come across as defeated. If she was “humiliated”, as some would have it, she didn’t show it. If anything, she seemed more determined and uncompromising than she had been before the vote.
Clever of May to respect the three-day demand rather than the 21 days she was allowed in the Withdrawal Act. But she can’t come up with anything meaningfully different in such a short time, save maybe petitioning the EU for an extension. But doing that also requires primary legislation, at a minimum amending the hard coding of the Brexit date in the Withdrawal Act.
And recall that the EU has to agree, and the EU has previously said they won’t extend unless the UK has a “settled view” of what it wants. Philip Hammond does appear to have gotten that message, but that doesn’t mean he’s in a position to speak for the government, as the subhead of this Financial Times story underscores ‘Parliament’s pantomime’ greeted with corporate fury as no-deal messages from ministers clash :
Meanwhile, the chancellor set out the sequencing by which Article 50 could be extended, delaying Brexit. He said the EU would not consider it unless and until the government had a clear plan — drawn up by MPs of various parties — that would have to be agreed before an extension could be requested.
The government was in no mood to consider “unicorn” requests, he added.
Politico’s morning European newsletter derided May’s planned next steps:
WELCOME TO DAY 1 OF A NO-DEAL BREXIT. The British parliament voted down Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement with the EU for an orderly Brexit. Her government now hopes to renegotiate the deal, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC in an (excruciating, for him) interview. The gist of what Theresa May’s government now wants: For the EU to get serious on what it is ready to give in exchange for an orderly separation. Really.
Really! There’s still hope in London that Brussels just hasn’t taken Brexit seriously so far, but will now do so in response to the devastating defeat for a plan the EU never wanted to be activated in the first place (but has spent the past two and a half years negotiating).
Odds of a deus ex machina are low. Richard Smith and I spoke today and neither he nor I see a mechanism for the situation changing. I had an argument with some Americans via e-mail who were insistent that John Bercow would enable Parliament to wrest the steering wheel from May.
May is very wedded to delivering Brexit. And she still seems to think someone will blink if she persists. The only thing that might change this dynamic is if the UK gets an extension and the idea of an Article 50 revocation gets traction in a big way in the coming months. But what is that path by which that occurs? Businesspeople, who you’d expect to have been making a forceful public case for the costs of Brexit, have been almost entirely missing in action. So perhaps I am suffering from a lack of imagination, but despite the high drama of yesterday;s vote, nothing fundamental has yet changed.