Drama, confusion and despair in divided Britain
There was a day of high drama in British politics on Wednesday. The previous night, 15 percent of Conservative Party Members of Parliament had called for a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Theresa May. They mostly hailed from the Brexiteer camp of the party. The vote of no confidence followed on the heels of May pulling the vote on her Brexit deal that had been scheduled for Tuesday. She did so because she did not have the numbers required to pass the deal through the House. She instead endeavored to ascertain if EU leaders could give the UK assurances that would make the deal more palatable to her enemies. The optics of pulling the vote looked bad because the House felt tricked out of having its say on the withdrawal bill and the political declaration in a “meaningful vote” — whether it passed or not.
Rebels struck when the PM was on a whirlwind tour of European capitals precisely to consult with her counterparts. She even had to cancel a trip to Ireland to meet with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in order to fight for her survival. Ireland matters because the Irish backstop is a big bone of contention. The backstop is designed to ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic if the parties cannot agree on a deal after the stipulated transition period is over. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up May’s minority government, and Brexiteers oppose any arrangement that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.
Back to the vote of no confidence. The PM needed 159 votes and in the end got 200. But more than a third of her own MPs voted against her. She could only secure a majority by conceding that she would not be leading the party into the next election, which will take place in 2022 at the latest. May emerged victorious —just — and safe for another 12 months under her Tory party’s rules. She is, however, much weakened.
The leadership challenge came at the worst possible time, as the country is facing one of the biggest challenges in its history. The agenda demands focus and keeping the eye on the ball or Britain risks inadvertently sliding into a hard Brexit, with all its consequences for the economy and society.
UK politicians seem to forget that they are not the only ones in this equation. The EU Parliament and 27 EU member governments have to pass the two agreements, otherwise they cannot be ratified.
Under that scenario, supply chains risk becoming unglued and European markets would become hard to access for UK goods. The City of London would lose a lot of its pre-eminence in the financial markets. Big companies — banks, airlines, auto and defense manufacturers — would be hard hit. The NHS would face delays when importing medicines and, more importantly, would find it hard to hire nurses and doctors from abroad. The health service is already finding it difficult to attract badly needed staff from EU countries because of Brexit. The hospitality sector might also grind to a squeaking halt. Big companies do not like the uncertainty brought about by the Brexit chaos. It is, however, the SMEs who suffer the most. They do not have the wherewithal to hire the rafts of accountants, lawyers and other consultants needed to navigate through these uncertain times. They would be terribly exposed in the case of a hard Brexit.
Squabbling politicians on all sides put party and self before country. The Brexiteers find that May’s deal does not deliver the Brexit they had envisaged. Labour wants a general election in the hope that it might just win it. Liberal Democrats and other Remainers want another referendum. The DUP resents the Irish backstop, etc.
The truth is that this deal is probably as good as it gets. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier were quite unequivocal that they could give assurances, but not reopen the negotiations. May’s weakened position might conversely help her renegotiate some parts of the withdrawal agreement — but only on the margins.
In the meantime, we have not moved one iota. The prime minister still needs to get the Brexit bill though Parliament. Whichever way one does the numbers, she fails to get a majority at this point and it is doubtful that an amended agreement will do the trick. The government has committed to presenting the Brexit agreement by Jan. 21. That is very late indeed. There is simply no time for another merry-go-round by then.
UK politicians also seem to forget that they are not the only ones in this equation. The EU Parliament and 27 EU member governments have to pass the two agreements, otherwise they cannot be ratified. The EU has limited flexibility in granting an extension because the elections to the EU Parliament in May constitute a hard stop for the union, as Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl has pointed out. Her opinion matters, because Austria holds the presidency of the EU.
Into this political script Shakespeare could not have inserted more drama, Beckett more confusion nor Kafka more despair. Alas, this is not literature, it is real life. Things have got so bad that an observer who faced “the darkest hour” in 1940 said he had never seen anything this bad in British politics before. During the Second World War, the enemy was not within but sat in Berlin and Britain was able to face him with a united front.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources