On Wednesday night UK Prime Minister Theresa May survived an unprecedented no-confidence vote from within her own Conservative Party. Although 200 of her party members continue to back her, 117 opposed her continuing on in the wake of a series of Brexit setbacks.
She is heading back to Brussels to try to salvage her Brexit deal. She has sought to paper over the difficulty the UK now faces, claiming that in meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday, December 11, the EU was actually expressing “shared determination” to help back her deal.
The UK’s experience with Brexit is emblematic of the instability sweeping Western democracies. From the US under Donald Trump to the Yellow Vest protests in France and the rise of far-right and extreme-left parties across Europe, the countries that were known for global stability in the 20th century are increasingly the basket cases of the 21st.
The real story of the chaos sweeping the British Parliament under May’s leadership is that it has sabotaged the ability of London to negotiate a Brexit deal in its favor, under which it leaves the EU amicably and with its sovereignty intact. Instead, the EU has watched May’s eroding base and pushed a hard bargain intended to send a message to other countries that might want to leave the EU: If you leave, you’ll suffer.
But this is short-term thinking in Brussels because the long-term problems in the EU are not related to what happens in the UK, but rather with systemic issues such as border controls and immigration.
EU leaders have said there is “no renegotiation on the Brexit deal,” according to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk.
HOW DID we get to this point and what are the larger global implications?
The Brexit vote
took place on June 23, 2016. For two years the UK has slowly negotiated its plan to leave. It now appears that May sought to conceal the growing failure to achieve a real separation from the EU, of the kind the voters had endorsed.
To understand this we need to go back in history a bit. The UK voted to leave by 52% to 48% as 46 million wo years after the Scottish referendum had failed by 44% to 55%. The Scottish referendum seemed to set the stage for Brexit. The latter was part of a global surge in what some call “populism” but also a search for change from the status quo. Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband were seen as status quo. It is no surprise that far-left Jeremy Corbyn rose to power in Labour in September 2015, a year after the Scottish referendum.
Something else happened as well. The UK general election in May 2015 saw the Scottish National Party obliterate Labour in Scotland. All but three of Scotland’s 59 seats went to the SNP. This shows that British politics was entering a period of uncertainty between 2014 and 2016, experimenting with radicalism.
After the Brexit vote, prime minister Cameron resigned and May, formerly home secretary, became Conservative leader in July 2016 and took the reins of government. Her first statement as prime minister buried the Brexit issue at the end. It was the most momentous reason for her rise to power, yet she had opposed leaving the EU. This set the stage for the unraveling that was to come.
“We will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world,” she said in July 2017, “as we leave the European Union.” May sought to downplay, and keep silent about, the process. She triggered Article 50 to leave the EU in March 2017, giving herself two years to deal with negotiations.
May had wanted to “strengthen her hand” in Brexit negotiations and chose to go to elections in 2017. It was a stunning setback. Labour gained 30 seats and the Conservatives lost 13 in the June 2017 election. For a year May’s government dithered on negotiations. Early signs of trouble came in June 2017 when she had to fight off discussion of Parliament having a “meaningful vote” on Brexit if it looked like the UK would leave the EU without a deal. May and her government sought to push off any real discussion of Brexit, leaving the Commons in the dark.
In July 2018 it began to unravel. Boris Johnson quit as foreign secretary, claiming that May’s Brexit plans would leave the UK with the “status of a colony.” Brexit secretary David Davis also resigned, along with Steve Baker, his deputy. This first round of resignations came after May had “hammered out a compromise” at Chequers. Tusk mocked the UK and May’s government, calling Brexit a “mess” and hoping the idea of it would “leave with Davis and Johnson.” Clearly, May’s real problem was selling her idea of a deal to her own party, not the EU. The Johnson and Davis resignations began a rush for the door, as a half dozen other MPs resigned.
On November 9 transport minister Jo Johnson also quit, saying the UK should have another referendum. “To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis.”
In mid-November both Dominic Raab and Esther McVey resigned. Raab had taken over as Brexit secretary from Davis. McVey felt that May’s opaque deal did not “honor” the result of the referendum. “We have gone from no deal is better than a bad deal, to any deal is better than no deal.” Raab said he couldn’t support the deal “in good conscience,” and Suella Braverman, who also resigned, said that the deal was a “betrayal.”
May had sought to concentrate power in her own hands on how to deal with Brexit, since being elected in 2016. In a November 26 document, Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox warned May’s government about the deal leaving the UK without the ability to negotiate separate trade agreements with third countries after leaving. This is what Johnson had been concerned about in July, but nothing had changed from July to November.
On December 4, by a vote of 311 to 293, the government was held in “contempt” of Parliament, a humiliating defeat.
IT’S NOT clear where this leaves Brexit, whether the UK will be locked into a bizarre arrangement where it leaves the EU but doesn’t have all the powers of an independent country, or if it will have a “hard Brexit” and leave without a deal, or if it will have a new referendum and choose to stay.
The larger context of May’s failure is the overall tendency of leaders in Western democracies to ignore questions from the public. In France the Yellow Vest protests had shown Emmanuel Macron flip-flop on new policies. But these protests were not just about Macron, they were about feelings that the government was unresponsive. They, like Brexit and other earthquakes, were dismissed as populism.
But it’s not populism that led the UK government to not make plans for Brexit and blunder on over the last year without being open to Parliament about its choices.
“Our country deserves better,” said Corbyn in early December. He rightly said that May “plowed ahead” and ran away to Brussels. “So she’ll bring back the same botched deal that works for no one.... She needs to step aside.”
Western democracies have been saddled with a crop of leaders in the first decades of the 21st century that do not advance a vision for the future. They tend to look for answers in the last century, while neoliberal policies and globalization cause concern in their polities.
The post-Cold War era was supposed to being prosperity and peace, but it has brought unprecedented uncertainty. This is similar to the uncertainty that swept the Western democracies in the first decades of the 20th century. We forget today that the peace of 1918 came as Soviet-inspired extremism had swept Russia, then Berlin, Bavaria and Hungary in 1919. In 1922 Benito Mussolini came to power, and in 1923 Hitler embarked on the Beer Hall Putsch.
We may not be seeing a repeat of that rapid change, but the 21st century increasingly seems symbolized by the flip-flopping failures of ideas like Brexit, where elected leaders are incapable of responding to their own publics or party, laying the groundwork for worse to come.