For those on the other side of the pond, the debacle that is Brexit must feel rather like a distant joke, particularly the defeat this week of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan by not just Parliament, but a large number of her own party.
There may be many of a more nationalist or independent disposition outside the U.K., who have cheered on Britain’s original decision to leave the E.U.
And then there may be those who have supply chains embedded in the U.K. — or, indeed, in continental Europe — who worry about the disruption a “hard” exit from the E.U. would entail. (A hard Brexit is generally taken to mean an exit without a deal in place that safeguards the existing terms of trade between the U.K. and E.U.)
Readers will not be surprised to hear voters in the U.K. are similarly split.
Some want separation from the E.U. at any price — those are hard line “Brexiters,” many of whom come from more rural and northern parts of the country. A proportion of referendum voters were Remainers, who never wanted to leave the E.U. and willingly accepted both the financial cost and the imposition of European rules as an acceptable price for the economic and security benefits of being part of, if not a united Europe, at least an integrated single European market.
Ranged in between — and without a referendum, we will never know quite know how many this includes — are a variety of opinions from Leavers, who have since seen what leaving really means and changed their minds, to those who would be willing to try a partial separation of the sort May negotiated with Brussels (but has been soundly thrown out by Parliament this week).
The scale of the government’s defeat on her plan should not be understated.
In all, 202 MPs voted in favor of May’s deal and 432 against, the largest defeat of a government motion in the last century.
The previous biggest meaningful defeat of a prime minister was in 1924. Over a third of her own MPs voted against the deal. How, you may ask, did she let it get this far after over two years of negotiations and frequent predictions that the course of her agreed terms would be unacceptable?
That is a good question. She is by all accounts a stubborn individual and seems to believe her deal is the still the best on offer – on which she may well be right. Regardless, her deal proved acceptable to Parliament.
The main, but not only, sticking point is the so-called backstop agreement over Northern Ireland.
As we have written before, Northern Ireland and Eire (the Irish word for Ireland) enjoy an exceptionally close trading relationship, with over two-thirds of Eire’s export crossing the border with the north. If this were to suffer the imposition of border controls, it would be cataclysmic for Eire and serious for the Northern Irish economies.
To prevent this, the E.U. has insisted, and May agreed, to a backstop agreement that in the event that a technological fix to free movement of goods could not be found, the border would in effect be positioned down the Irish Sea and Northern Ireland would remain part of the E.U. customs union, while the rest of the U.K. left.
That was unacceptable to most MPs, who would not accept vague assurances that a solution would be found because they saw it as an attempt to keep the U.K., or part of the U.K., in the union indefinitely.
So, what comes next?
May’s Conservative party survived a Labour tabled vote of no confidence following the rejection of her Brexit plan, but no one is any clearer of the solution to such disparate views.
According to the Times the Prime Minster has appointed David Lidington with the job of leading cross-party Brexit talks to see if a consensus can be drawn from all parties as to a way forward.
Under the provisional plan, Lidington — along with Michael Gove, the environment secretary; Julian Smith, the chief whip; and Gavin Barwell, May’s chief of staff — will see what consensus may exist.
The prospects don’t look good.
It has to be said, bickering has already started as different parties seek to lay down “red lines.” One outcome is Britain will probably go to the E.U. and ask for an extension to the March 29 deadline — possibly up to three months — to allow time for talks to take place and a revised proposal put to Brussels.
Brussels, it must also be said, is not showing any interest in agreeing or even discussing an alternative deal. However, the door has been left open by several European leaders for the U.K. to just forget the whole thing and stay in the E.U. Many sections of parliament are against that, but it may yet appear as an option in a mooted second referendum.
As it stands, it is hard to see any clear way forward. As such, the most likely outcome remains Britain leaves without an agreement — the hard Brexit option — however opposed to that the House of Commons may be.
If they can’t agree on an alternative, that’s all that’s left.