How did it end up like this? It was only a dream. An independent Britain; free to strike its own trade deals with the world; free of the tyranny of the European Union’s tyrannical Commission. This was the dream behind Brexit. Only it hasn’t worked out that way. Today, Great Britain is trapped in a quagmire, from which its ancient and prestigious Parliament can’t find an escape. The pitiful Prime Minister Theresa May finds herself leading a government but without much power, after the failure of her Withdrawal Agreement, and the three votes vainly trying to pass it. If Theresa can take any solace, it will be in the fact that following Commons’ MP Oliver Letwin’s backbench coup, a solution to the Brexit mess still can’t be found. All the while, the British people wonder how did a great nation find itself in such a mess that it has had to beg the European Union for the second time for an extension of the Article 50 exit process. The European Union have been magnanimous in response to Britain’s self-humiliation, granting it another six months to figure out what type of Brexit it actually wants.
First of all, it is worth remembering that the crisis Britain now faces shouldn’t have even been possible under the old Constitution. Britain’s tradition of Parliamentary Sovereignty is an anathema to referendums. Margaret Thatcher once called them “the tools of dictators and tyrants”. It all began in 1975, when the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave the British people a referendum on being a part of the European Economic Community (as the EU then was). Wilson won his referendum in favour of membership of the European Community by over 30%, a majority large enough to end the issue for a generation.
However, by introducing the practice of referendums to British politics, he had forever changed the unwritten Constitution of the sceptered Isle, in ways nobody could possibly foresee. The second strike, the anti-European strike, against Britain’s ancient Constitution would be self-inflicted. Back in 1999, the European Commission decreed that henceforth, all elections to the European Parliament would use ‘proportional representation’, a practise Britain’s dominant political parties had resisted. This had radical repercussions which neither the British establishment nor the European elite could expect. By introducing proportional representation to British politics, the European Commission broke the stranglehold that the two great parties had held on British politics since 1945. In 2009, Nigel Farage led the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to second place in the European Parliament elections. Then in 2014, UKIP came first in the European Parliament elections. For the first time, a party other than the Conservative or Labour Party had won a national poll since 1945.
The delicate balance of Britain’s Constitution had been disturbed, leading David Cameron to promise that if he won the 2015 general elections, then he would hold a referendum on the membership of the European Union. Cameron lost, Britain voted to leave European Union and become independent of … something, which isn’t so clear. Today, the Parliament is broken into four factions neither of which is interested in compromise.
The most extreme faction is the Hard Brexiteers who can’t accept anything but a complete Brexit. Where Britain would be completely separated from the European Union’s regulatory framework, and then trade with the EU, under the terms of the World Trade Organisation. They consider this as restoring Britain’s rightful place as a free buccaneering nation, arguing any short term pain would be more than worthwhile. This would involve a rough and hard separation from the EU’s single market—an idea Most British companies find terrifying. This option is prefered by a core group of less than fifty Brexit-extremist Members of Parliament led by Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Theresa May’s preferred option is unsurprisingly her Withdrawal Agreement which manages the difficult task of both upsetting the remainers and leavers, coming short on both their desires. Nevertheless, it is still supported by a majority of the Conservative Party, which struggles with those rebelling against their Prime Minister.
The third faction, within the House of Commons, support the Soft Brexit, which would involve Britain remaining in the European Union’s Customs Union and regulatory framework. This group includes most of the Labour party and many Conservative party rebels. However, it’s ambition of a soft Brexit is undermined by the House of Commons fourth group: the anti-Brexiteers. This final group lead by Nicola Sturgeon (of the Scottish National Party) desires the complete revocation of the referendum, and the end of Brexit.
Thus, there lies the problem of the four groups who can’t compromise with one another. And if they don’t, then a Parliamentary majority for any response to Brexit won’t be found. In the last two weeks, Theresa May has seemed to motion towards a compromise with the Labour Party’s position of a Customs Union between Britain and the EU. But any compromise with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party faces stiff opposition from the Conservative backbenchers and grassroots. May and Corbyn are both incentivised to not walk away from the compromise talks to show the electorate that they are trying to find a solution. But they also can’t actually agree to one without alienating both their party’s grassroots. Hard Brexiteers thought that these stablemates would result in Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal on March 29, the original Brexit deadline. However, the European political elite has showed themselves to be just as worried about a no-deal, as the British establishment. Hence, their decision to give Britain another six-month extension, without any requirements from the British, wasn’t surprising.
If the Parliament can’t finally agree to a solution to Brexit, the only solution will be to dissolve it and elect again. However, following May’s previous disastrous election performance, when the Conservatives lost their majority to the Conservative backbenchers in marginal seats, it will be unlikely for her to call another one. Therefore, until May can be replaced as the Tory leader, another election seems off the table. This would be difficult, given that May has promised to resign the Conservative Party leadership only after her Withdrawal Agreement is passed in the Commons.
In summary, the British Parliament is split between four opposing factions with different responses to Brexit. No one can command a majority in the current Parliament, whether it’s a Hard, Soft or No Brexit. Theresa May once promised that Britain would leave on the 29th of March, that date is now three weeks past, and no end to the Brexit is in sight. Britain now faces another a six months of uncertainty as the Parliament squabbles over what to do. The current Brexit chaos is reminiscent of an old joke: a traveler asked a man how to find the local tavern, the man replied “Well, I wouldn’t start from here”.
Subscribe to The Pangean
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox