Will May Survive Her Brexit Defeat?

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street, January 15, 2019. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)
After two years of political dysfunction, the British prime minister’s future is as unclear as her country’s.

The only meaningful unity that the United Kingdom has seen in the past two years has been opposition to the Brexit deal Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the European Union. That agreement, as predicted, suffered a crushing blow in the House of Commons today, voted down by a 432-to-202 margin in what was instantly the worst parliamentary defeat in history.

The defeat, as predicted, has prompted Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to propose a vote, expected to be held on Wednesday, of no confidence in the government. When future historians consider Brexit, they will surely marvel at May’s obstinate capacity for survival in the face of unending political humiliation. Though her authority is all but nil at this point, if she hangs on tomorrow, her leadership will be further cemented. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, though it still doesn’t bring me Brexit . . .

May’s final plea before the defeat was that “a vote against this deal is a vote for nothing more than uncertainty, division, and the very real risk of no deal,” or worse, “no Brexit at all.” Which is true. Labour is just as split as the Tories on the question of how to proceed. Corbyn now faces enormous pressure from his own back-benchers to back a second referendum, and has shown no sign at any point of having an alternative to May’s deal in mind.

That is because there were only ever two alternatives to May’s deal, as the EU saw it: no-deal Brexit (which they deem disastrous) or no Brexit at all (which they’d quite like). For the British people, the choice was simpler still — faith in Brexit or no faith in Brexit. Now it seems that Britain faces two distinct but inexorably linked crises: a crisis of government and a crisis of legitimacy. Should both crises collide, it is hard to imagine the havoc that would ensue.

Indeed, while it was one thing for Conservative MPs to vote against the prime minister in a Tory-party confidence vote (which May narrowly won), it would be quite another for Conservative MPs to vote with Corbyn in order to bring down a Tory government. Doing so, even as an attempt to prevent a no-deal Brexit, would be political suicide. Yet it is this desperation that Corbyn is banking on.

It appears that there is a majority in the Commons set on blocking a no-deal Brexit. That much became clear when the speaker of the House tabled an amendment last week that will force May to return to the Commons within three days of her defeat and present an alternative plan. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily translate into opposition to the government.

Meanwhile, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party, on whom the Conservative government relies for its majority, has already promised to back the government in tomorrow’s vote. The DUP would be content with no-deal Brexit, as it would mean the end of the proposed arrangement whereby the U.K. would remain in the European customs union indefinitely in order to prevent a hard border with Ireland.

Clearly the only way to stop a no-deal Brexit is to put something — or someone  else in its place. What or who might that be? Though the EU has said previously that it will not budge on the terms of the deal negotiated by May, its bluff is about to be called. No-deal Brexit is not in Europe’s interests, and so the EU may push for a softer Brexit by permitting the “extension” or revocation of Article 50, which currently mandates that Britain leave the EU on March 29.

At any rate, the question of who governs Britain does not resolve any of the uncertainty or division surrounding Brexit’s implementation. Britons voted to leave the European Union, but two years later none of their representatives in Parliament is any closer to knowing what that would look like. Corbyn argued today that May had reached “the end of the line” after two years of failure. Could this also be true of Brexit?

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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