Keeping track of all the to and fro over the not-so-complex debates about the Irish backstop in Theresa May’s Brexit deal seems to have exhausted both the British press and the nation’s parliamentarians. Instead of sorting it out, they were given a reprieve on Wednesday when the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, was clearly seen to be mouthing the words “stupid woman” at Prime Minister Theresa May.
Maybe it doesn’t rate for Americans, who are used to “Lock her up!” chants, but this is a major breach of decorum. Finally! A simple story that divides Tories from Labourites in a clear and clean fashion. Everyone seems thrilled for the change of subject.
And it symbolizes the way Parliament is sleepwalking toward a no-deal Brexit, a crash out of the European Union that would see the United Kingdom wake up on March 30, 2019, having lost most of the nation’s normal trading relationships and reverting to the lowest-common-denominator regulations of the World Trade Organization. It would be a blunder for the European Union, a political crisis for the U.K., and a potential calamity for Ireland caught between them.
Even though hardly anyone in British public life prefers a crash out of the European Union, it is now becoming the most likely scenario, the result at which all the operating political imperatives, legal arrangements, and character flaws of Britain’s ruling class are converging. At the current moment, two factors are most decisive. The first is the inability or unwillingness of Tories who object to May’s negotiated Brexit deal to effect her ouster, negotiate a real alternative, and pass it through Parliament. The second is the desire of most elected Tories to make sure that Theresa May takes all the political blame for Brexit fallout and get none of the political credit for her deal.
Because there is not a current parliamentary majority in support of a no-deal Brexit, there is an unearned sense of security that a no-deal Brexit cannot happen. This is untrue. The no-deal Brexit is the default option that will be executed if Parliament does nothing, and the Tory party is too frozen in fear to do anything constructive.
Tory MPs are too risk-averse to oust May and try to negotiate another deal. Doing so would, at this stage, almost certainly require the withdrawal of the United Kingdom’s Article 50 notice, which officially began the exiting process, and further encourage those forces in British politics that seek to prevent Brexit altogether. It would threaten the British public with more months, possibly years, of Brexit talk, at a time when the public has had quite enough of it.
At the same time, there is a decreasing chance that Tories and members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party will come together to support May’s negotiated deal. May’s popularity rises when the rest of Parliament seems to be engaged in pointless grandstanding. And even though May has essentially promised to resign as prime minister before the next election, the passage of her deal amid all the sturm und drang will look like an amazing, improbable act of political will and survival, a political victory amid dire and difficult circumstances. In other words, it may remake her popularity. If May is to be well and truly finished off by the result of her negotiations, then Tories have to see that her deal is not passed. There has rarely been a crisis in the United Kingdom’s life that seemed more urgent to Tory parliamentarians than their own party’s internal drama. Brexit is proving no different.
A no-deal Brexit would be revelatory. Britain’s economy has some long-term problems, but keeping control of its own currency should allow it to maneuver through some amount of economic disruption. The European Union would have egg on its face. Populist challenge is spreading well into Western Europe at this point. Nothing about being in the EU will become more attractive. The tough stance of Europe will come back in dramatically reduced orders for German manufactures. Likely it could kick off an economic slowdown.
It would also be revelatory in Ireland. The governments in Dublin and London have promised that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, they will not erect a physical border across the island of Ireland to impose customs checks. This is a fantasy. Without customs checks, Continental European countries would have to begin treating goods from Ireland as having the same status as those from the United Kingdom. To retain the favor of Brussels that it has so assiduously cultivated, Ireland would have to begin constructing a customs border across the political border that itself has been a source of political instability since it was drawn in 1922 — a border that has always been somewhat permeable and fudged with schemes, such as the common travel arrangement and the unique way the United Kingdom treats Irish claims of residency within her borders.
Perhaps it can be avoided. Perhaps business interests, or the markets, will scare Parliament into passing May’s deal. But in an age of sloth and self-interest, it’s always wise to bet on default options, to bet against the emergence of risk-takers. The default is a no-deal crash-out. The fallout could include the installation of a government led by Jeremy Corbyn, unconstrained by EU rules. Clement Atlee smiles.