May’s Historic Defeat, and Swift Triumph

British Prime Minister Theresa May gestures during a no confidence debate after Parliament rejected her Brexit deal, in London, England, January 16, 2019. (Reuters TV/REUTERS)
Parliamentarians are risking No Deal or No Brexit.

Brexit has temporarily transformed the governing laws of parliamentarian democracy. Theresa May finally submitted her negotiated deal for withdrawal from the European Union to Parliament this week. This is the effort on which her entire premiership has been staked. It takes up nearly all the energy of her government. And Parliament delivered its verdict by voting it down 432 to 202. In other words, it told her: You have failed miserably at the one thing your government was supposed to do.

Historians are searching for some parallel example of the government’s business being so viciously rejected by Parliament. Losses by 60 votes or 90 votes have invariably caused prime ministers to resign, or triggered no-confidence votes that those PMs promptly lost. May’s loss also triggered a no-confidence vote. And even though the Parliament had utterly and viciously rejected her government’s main piece of legislation, the most important bill in decades, Theresa May won it easily.

So what in the world is going on in Westminster?

As I’ve outlined before, there are two crises at work. The first is a crisis of responsibility in Parliament. Theresa May’s deal may not be what hard Brexiteers wanted. But they have neither the votes nor the courage to oust May and expose their own Brexit to parliamentary and public criticism. And they certainly don’t have the votes in Parliament to pass their preferred terms. By shooting down a deal that has been negotiated with over two dozen other European heads of state, with the clock ticking down, their rejection of their party leader’s deal makes the possibility of crashing out of the EU without a deal at the end of March more likely, or it will provoke the rest of Parliament to delay or cancel Brexit altogether, possibly inflicting yet another national referendum on the issue.

The second crisis underlies the first. In the U.K. system, Parliament is supposed to be sovereign. But Brexit was won by national referendum, against the tide of media and parliamentary consensus. That result seemed to give the cause of Brexit a superior form of popular legitimacy. And yet many Tory and Labour MPs, despite running on election manifestos committing themselves to delivering Brexit, are against the project altogether. They hope to show that Brexit is harmful, or “impossible” in some way, thinking that the passage of time will increase an ascendant majority for Remain.

I happen to think rejecting May’s very imperfect deal at this late stage was too risky. A second referendum would be more divisive and politically destructive than the first, and would likely yield the same result: a narrow majority for Leave and a surly Parliament reluctant to carry that out in policy. And failing to deliver on Brexit at all could do irreparable harm to the Tory party and to the government’s democratic legitimacy.

But May, to her credit, is not fooling herself by thinking she can save this deal. She is essentially putting herself in Parliament’s hands and trying to discover what kind of deal can actually command a majority. The going assumption, fed by reports from Germany, is that a delay of Article 50’s ejection of the U.K. from the EU can be had.

But even after such a delay, Parliament may discover that it has no working political majority willing to stand behind any Brexit. Northern Irish ministers don’t want Northern Ireland to be treated differently and may be willing to tolerate the U.K. remaining in the customs union. English Brexiteers despair of being in a customs union if the U.K. loses its ability to shape the rules, thinking it vassalage. The Labour party is led by a not-so-secret Red Brexiteer, Jeremy Corbyn. The overwhelming political lagoon forces Labour to reject every May-negotiated Brexit as ruinous, trying to please their Remain and Leave constituencies at the same time.

An unprecedented opportunity to reshape the laws and regulations governing the U.K. economy is being squandered. Right now, a solution to these twin crises is not within sight. Parliament has voted for its confidence in May’s leadership and demonstrated that it has none. Pretend confidence. Pretend governance. But there is no way to keep pretending. The U.K. must Leave or Remain, and it is up to Parliament to decide when and how.

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