Why Brexit is sucking the oxygen out of UK politics

It has been a tumultuous few weeks for Prime Minister Theresa May. Will her Brexit plan work or is her job in peril? 

By: /
July 20, 2018
Pro-EU demonstrators wave flags outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster London, Britain, July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

It is no secret that British Prime Minister Theresa May has suffered a terrible Brexit-related few weeks, with the resignations of two senior cabinet members and rumours of a leadership challenge. Every day presents a new turn — Thursday’s meeting between new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier is just the latest in a string of events that continue to monopolize the concerns of British media, voters and politicians. 

So how did May get here? And what’s likely to happen next?

In many ways, May's current crisis stems from the lack of clarity over what Brexit is, and what it means to different people. This vagueness goes back to former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision several years ago to call a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU.

During the referendum campaign in 2016, there was remarkably little discussion of what exactly Brexit would look like. For Brexiteers, Brexit was a political statement of freedom from Europe, and an assertion of sovereignty. It was a grand vision and a slogan — not a serious policy proposal. It isn’t even clear whether some Brexiteers wanted to win the referendum. Their cause would have been better served by a loss and continuation of a grievance campaign against Europe.

There was very little discussion of what Brexit should look like because Brexit, in reality, is incredibly technical and legally complex. There are a host of granular, complicated issues that must be resolved, including the Northern Irish border, membership of some sort of customs union, air traffic harmonization, and membership of bodies like Europol and Euratom.

In the two years since the referendum, there have been few substantive proposals from cabinet or Brexiteers on what exactly Brexit should look like. May has spent two years trying to find a serious proposal supported by her cabinet to put to the European Union. 

Impossible negotiation

Yet May is in an impossible position, caught between factions of her own cabinet and party — those who favour a ‘soft’ Brexit featuring some integration with Europe, and hardliners pushing for a complete break from any European institution, rules or policies. These hardliners have held May hostage, threatening a leadership challenge if she doesn’t deliver a ‘hard’ Brexit. Yet a hard Brexit is impossible for political and technical reasons and would be rejected by the EU.

May has been trying to find something between a realistic, soft Brexit and a hardline-but-impossible Brexit. Last week, she held a retreat for her cabinet to finally hammer out a starting negotiating position. Bear in mind, Britain will exit the EU automatically in March 2019 and yet it still doesn’t have even that starting position.

"Hardliners have held May hostage, threatening a leadership challenge if she doesn’t deliver a ‘hard’ Brexit."

It is also important to note that May did not have to trigger Article 50 — which started the two-year countdown to Britain being automatically ejected from the EU — when she did, in March 2017. She could have waited until she or the Brexit campaign had a negotiating position or substantive policy. Instead, the clock is now in its final nine months, and the chances of Britain crashing disastrously out of Europe without a deal increase by the day.

At the cabinet retreat, nicknamed the Chequers summit, May finally thought she’d found a compromise. She set the stage carefully, issuing public threats to hardline Brexiteers to resign if they disagreed with her policy. She invited them to put up their own proposals, or to shut up. And shut up they did. For 48 hours, they kept quiet, then, once safely chauffeured back to London in their ministerial cars, Brexit Secretary David Davis resigned, swiftly followed by Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary. Both felt the Chequers agreement was too soft. To compound the situation, hardline Brexiteers in parliament, who form the so-called European Research Group, have successfully amended a customs bill as a response to the Chequers agreement, meaning the government's position no longer actually reflects the Chequers agreement.

In any case, the EU is very likely to reject the Chequers agreement, as it tries to split the EU’s so-called founding ‘four freedoms’ — the freedom of goods, services, capital and people. The EU considers its four founding principles to be indivisible, whereas the Chequers agreement proposes different rules for freedom of goods versus services. Subsequently, there has been yet another cycle of leadership challenge rumours, with hardline Brexiteers threatening to find a way to remove May if she does not adhere to a hardline Brexit policy. 

Deep divisions

Lest you make the mistake of thinking the resignations and leadership vote threats were about principles, they are, in fact, internal Conservative Party divisions playing out on the national and international stage.

Brexit was never a serious policy proposal. It was always ancillary to, or a convenient vehicle for, the leadership ambitions of a series of Conservative men. It isn’t, for example, even clear whether Johnson is actually a Brexiteer, as he has in the past made pro-EU statements. It however is widely believed he is very interested in May’s job; a position boosted by United States President Donald Trump’s support for him in The Sun.

Regardless of their motivation, Brexiteers have two possible ways of ousting May. The first is by replacing her as leader of the Conservative Party. To do this, the powerful backbench group known as the 1922 Committee needs to collect 48 calls from members of parliament to trigger a leadership vote. Or, Brexiteers could table a vote of no confidence, in an attempt to trigger an election. Under the UK’s Fixed Term Parliaments Act, triggering an election is more difficult than previously, and in any case, there is no guarantee the Conservatives would win. Some polling shows the Labour Party ahead.

So where is this heading? May has defied the odds since becoming prime minister. Her leadership has been on a knife-edge and she’s managed to survive thus far, so don’t count her out. However, time is ticking and the EU’s tolerance for British vagueness is shrinking.

This week has seen increased calls, including from Tory backbenchers, for a second referendum on any final deal. Others are calling for parliamentary approval instead. However, it is not clear that there is actually a workable arrangement acceptable to the EU that would pass either public or parliamentary approval. Speculation has also started about an election fought over various conceptions of Brexit. And, finally, even if no deal can be negotiated with the EU, Britain will still leave automatically in March 2019.

A small faction of hardliners would prefer no deal at all to what they see as a bad deal, but most know this would be disastrous. Yet because Brexiteers cannot come up with a workable arrangement, it has become even more likely there will be no deal at all.

What is clear is that the entire British government has been consumed by Brexit. It has sucked the oxygen out of politics, and left no bandwidth for other issues. Serious issues, such as the deportation of legal British citizens of the Windrush generation and the bungling of a universal welfare credit that has left thousands in financial peril, have received scant attention compared to Brexit. May has lurched from leadership crisis to leadership crisis, and that shows no sign of changing soon.