How much further can Brexit Britain fall?
It is hard to find many Britons with a positive word to say about departing Prime Minister Theresa May. Yet her inability to please all sides was perhaps her strongest attribute. She voted for Remain during the 2016 referendum and then spent three years trying to plow a lonely course between the noisy and dogmatic hard Brexiteers and the half of the country that didn’t vote to abandon Europe. Her failure was arguably the result of conceding too much to the Brexiteer camp, including exiting the EU’s economic and legal structures, and her initial willingness to countenance a no-deal exit.
May broke records for the immensity of her losses in parliamentary votes. Again and again she tried ramming effectively the same rejected Brexit bill through Parliament. What finally broke May’s premiership was an attempt to win the Labour Party’s support by dangling the prospect of a second referendum in front of them; after which even her closest ministerial allies abandoned her.
Although several Conservative heavyweights (including Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt) have entered the contest, by far the most likely contender to be the next prime minister is Boris Johnson — Britain’s Donald Trump. Johnson is regarded by many MPs with disdain, disquiet or hilarity, yet the final decision will be made by a relatively small pool of nationwide Conservative Party members, many of whom view Johnson as something of a national savior-in-waiting.
The struggle to appeal to this fervently Euroskeptic grassroots will drag the leadership contest to the right. While other candidates may exercise caution in their promises, Johnson — who clearly believes his moment has arrived — is already basking in bombastic demagoguery. Like a psychotic bus driver revving the engine ahead of plunging his passengers over a cliff edge, Johnson has vowed to let Britain crash out of the EU in October if no deal is agreed. Not that there will be time to renegotiate a deal before the October deadline anyway.
Would high office force a modicum of responsibility upon Johnson? The burden of being foreign secretary never had this effect: He failed to properly read briefings; frequently made embarrassing errors in front of TV cameras; and caused bemusement with his eccentric manner on foreign trips. Prime Minister Johnson is not likely to suddenly mutate into a heavyweight politician.
I am continually shocked by austerity Britain’s chronic and intensifying social hardship. London is awash with people sleeping on the streets; an estimated 14 million people live in relative poverty; and the proportion of children living in poverty is predicted by the UN to leap to an astronomical 40 percent by 2021. Living standards have stagnated, while US and European economies are motoring ahead. Social policies have taken a back seat while politicians endlessly grandstand over Europe.
Under Brexit’s long shadow, a succession of major industries have fled abroad or collapsed: Car manufacturers, financial institutions and, most recently, British Steel. Even blinkered pro-Brexit MPs no longer claim that Trump (whose upcoming London visit will rub further salt into Britain’s political wounds) will offer Britain outstanding trade terms. So what will Britain’s future prosperity be based on once it has severed its connections with the world?
The struggle to appeal to this fervently Euroskeptic grassroots will drag the leadership contest to the right.
Regions like Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Greater London voted strongly in favor of staying in Europe but must face the consequences of the outcome. With Scottish MPs muttering about independence and ongoing confusion over Ireland’s border status, a hard Brexit could precipitate the UK’s disintegration.
Having failed to deliver a Brexit deal, Britain has been obligated to participate in the EU Parliament elections. With the two leading parties hemorrhaging support, the new Brexit Party is likely to be the single biggest beneficiary of public frustration. This entity is led by Nigel Farage, who helped trigger the current Brexit debacle via his previous UK Independence Party.
Europe’s far-right parties are salivating at the prospect of exploiting election wins to further subvert the EU’s agenda to their own ends. We are already witnessing the consequences of a legitimized and rejuvenated far-right in soaring levels of racist violence and social tensions. Johnson would be seen as an ideological stablemate, boosting the number of European states lost to right-wing populism.
Johnson and Farage lied to the nation that Brexit would be painless and easy, allowing Great Britain to blissfully set sail toward utopian isolation. All voices of caution were denounced as “Project Fear.” Britons have “had enough of experts,” insisted Conservative leadership candidate Michael Gove during the 2016 referendum campaign when evidence was cited that wasn’t to his liking.
Despite the fact that a no-deal exit would be economically ruinous, in regions where locals voted for Brexit in their droves a consensus is developing that crashing out represents the most honorable and clear-cut method of departure, having been fed a steady diet of anti-European hysteria by populist, right-wing tabloids.
May’s successor will almost certainly oppose attempts to force a second referendum, but this is arguably Britain’s best possible scenario. The 2016 vote only passed narrowly in a volatile political climate and, three years later, polls show increasing levels of support for Remain. Even among Brexit supporters, there are misgivings that the current trajectory isn’t what they signed up to. Despite populist tabloids denouncing as “traitors” and “enemies of the people” those who question the initial outcome, Britain should not fear resorting to democratic principles and holding a further vote. The losing party should also be bound by the result.
The sad truth is that, amidst all the inevitable political chaos of the coming months, it will be ordinary voters who are most vulnerable to an economic downturn or sharp rise in unemployment should the country’s political leaders choose to press the no-deal self-destruct button.
Standing on this precipice, Britain and the West have never been in greater need of enlightened, far-sighted leadership. But where are these cool-headed voices of wisdom when we need them most?
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state