Commentary / World

May's humbling offers a glimmer of hope

by Therese Raphael

Bloomberg

It was both a historic vote and decisive defeat for the government. But while it was called a “meaningful vote,” Parliament’s verdict on British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal Tuesday was actually anything but.

Tuesday’s ballot was all about tactics; not one MP thought it would decide anything. As the prime minister noted herself afterward, it makes clear what Parliament doesn’t want, but not what alternative can garner a majority among lawmakers. As such, it has left all factions even more entrenched.

“Remainers” are divided largely between those who want a second referendum and those who support a cross-party deal to keep Britain in the European Union’s customs union permanently or a Norway-style settlement that keeps the United Kingdom in the single market too. The Norway brigade (their preferred Brexit is now called Common Market 2.0) argue that a second referendum would be undemocratic and divisive. But they gloss over the fact that their own option would require allowing the free movement of people from the bloc, one of the things many Brexit voters clearly wanted to end.

For their part, most of those MPs holding out for a second referendum would be horrified at the idea of crashing out of the EU without an agreement. And yet it’s hard to imagine a referendum that would be supported by Parliament without a “no deal” option on the table. Who’s to say that economically catastrophic outcome might not win, given the resentment that would be unleashed among “leavers” about a second vote — whatever the polls say now?

If Brexit were a Hollywood film (and, yes, there is a British one already about the referendum campaign staring Benedict Cumberbatch and there will undoubtedly be more to come), its moment of peak confrontation and indeed revelation would have been when U.K. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, his deep voice booming, turned furiously to his fellow lawmakers Tuesday and challenged them to grow up: “What are you playing at? What are you doing? You are not children in the playground, you are legislators. We are playing with people’s lives.”

Cox put his finger on why May’s Brexit deal hadn’t the slightest chance of passing. Whatever voters had in mind in June 2016 when they cast their ballots, delivering Brexit has become a zero-sum game of multiple competing tribes in Parliament (the hard Brexiters, the second referendum crowd, the Norway brigade, the general election-seeking Labour Party, and so on), where each has to defeat the other’s preferred option in order to advance their own. That seems to mean taking the country to the brink of leaving the EU without a negotiated settlement.

May has refused so far to explicitly rule out leaving without a deal because she hopes that threat (Britain is on course to crash out of the bloc automatically at the end of March) will convince remainers and soft Brexiters to vote for some version of her deal. At the same time, she’s telling the hard-line Brexiters in her party that the whole departure might be canceled if they continue to thwart her plan.

In a pitch to Parliament before the vote, she even warned her allies in the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland that failure might lead to the one thing they dread more than anything: Irish reunification. As was seen by her 230 vote loss Tuesday night, none of these tactics have been working for her.

Intriguingly, there was a signal from May after the crushing defeat that this least consensual of political figures was finally prepared to listen to Parliament to break the impasse. She promised to reach out to other parties in a “constructive spirit” to find a solution that has broad support. Now this is something she should have done from the very beginning. The 52-48 split in 2016 practically begged for a consensus-driven solution to delivering Brexit. The battered pound actually moved higher against the dollar soon after Tuesday’s vote as markets interpreted her more humble reply as a sign that she will effectively rule out a no-deal exit, with a cross-party approach more likely to deliver a softer departure.

Indeed, if the opposition Labour Party loses the no-confidence motion it has called on May’s government on Wednesday, as expected, its stated policy requires it to support a second referendum, something its leader Jeremy Corbyn has resisted. If that were the only solution for which there’s a parliamentary majority, it would be difficult for May to resist. But it’s still not clear that the second referendum would win the day among lawmakers, any more than May’s deal or the Norway option.

Some “45 years of legal integration have brought our two legal systems into a situation in which they are organically linked,” Cox told MPs, likening the U.K.’s EU membership to that of a body. Separation is major surgery; it’s no game. “We cannot underestimate the complexity of what we are embarked upon doing.” That intricacy is finally being grasped. In the meantime, the clock is ticking on a no-deal Brexit.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

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