British Prime Minister Theresa May gets into a vehicle at Downing Street, as she faces a vote on Brexit, in London, England, March 13, 2019. (Henry Nicholls/REUTERS)
In January 2019, less than three months until Brexit day, the House of Commons voted to reject Theresa May’s deal with the European Union by a crushing majority. On Tuesday, with less than three weeks until Brexit, the House of Commons did the same again to an amended version of this deal. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has warned Britain that there will be “no third chance.” Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union on March 29, with or without a withdrawal agreement.
Britain’s attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, inadvertently damned May’s deal this week when he revealed that “the legal risks remain unchanged.” The deal would not have allowed Britain to get out of the backstop (a customs union preventing a hard border in Ireland) after formally leaving the European Union. This arrangement would render post-Brexit Britain subject to the jurisdiction of the European Union indefinitely. Such an arrangement flies in the face of the sovereignty Britons voted for in 2016. In rejecting this deal by 391 to 242, parliament has escaped a trap. However, it faces several more.
Technically no deal is still the legal default although parliament voted against that as well on Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday, parliament will vote on whether or not to extend Article 50, the law stating that Britain will leave the EU on March 29. A delay will likely pass.
Although extending Article 50 would be no small task. In addition to passing the statutory requirements for British domestic law, Parliament would require the European Union’s blessing. This would take time to secure — something Britain is short on – and as Theresa May explained, the EU would want to know how a Brexit delay would serve its interests. On Tuesday she asked the Commons: “Does it [parliament] wish to revoke Article 50, does it wish to hold a second referendum, or does it want to leave with a deal but not this deal?”
The fact that the prime minister is entertaining such options — an even softer Brexit, or no Brexit at all — is an affront to her party, and the voters more broadly. Approximately 70 percent of Conservative constituencies voted to leave in the European Union referendum. A recent poll by the Economic and Social Research Council found that 76 percent of Conservative party members (i.e. ordinary members nationwide, as opposed to members of parliament) would prefer to leave with no deal than to remain in the EU.
Moreover, 17.4 million people voted to leave the European Union and both main political parties — Conservative and Labour — promised to honor this result. If Brexit is fumbled or sabotaged by the politicians voters will be justified in feeling an enraged sense of betrayal.
At this point, there aren’t many good options. We still favor cashiering May for a more committed and less politically compromised replacement, and support a no-deal exit over a delay that is only a way-station to ignoring or reversing the Brexit vote, which is what what much of the political establishment hopes for. One way or the other, Britain seems to be stumbling toward, at best, a Brexit not worthy of the name, and as painfully and chaotically as possible.