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A Brutal Month for Brexit

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the House of Commons in London, England, March 29, 2019. (Mark Duffy/UK Parliament/Handout via Reuters)
March has seen the unraveling of the Brexit process and the ruin of Theresa May.

When Harold Macmillan became Britain’s prime minister, or so the story goes, a young reporter asked what would decide his government’s course. Macmillan’s reply? “Events, dear boy, events!” But Theresa May’s government will not be remembered for decisive events. Rather it will be remembered for a series of failures that led to the most catastrophic non-event in recent British history — Brexit.

As you know, Britain was scheduled to leave the European Union on March 29. The country voted to leave in a 2016 referendum. March 29 was supposed to be a decisive, historic event. Ever since Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was triggered two years ago, the main political players all committed to it. And yet cometh the hour, cometh no Brexit. . . .

March 1: Theresa May’s former chief of staff told the BBC that the prime minister always saw Brexit as a “damage-limitation exercise.”

March 4: Theresa May was accused of “bribing MPs” in “a desperate measure to buy votes” in the form of a £1.6 billion fund for constituencies that voted Leave.

March 8: Theresa May warned that if her deal was rejected by Parliament for a second time, then “we may never leave at all.”

March 12: The blunt legal advice of Britain’s attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, advised members of Parliament that the legal risks of May’s deal, which was rejected by a historic margin in January, remained fundamentally the same. In other words, the deal on the table would keep the U.K. on the EU’s regulatory leash and would force Northern Ireland to heel.

On these and other grounds, on the same day, the House of Commons rejected May’s deal by 149 votes.

March 14: Members of Parliament voted 412 to 202 in favor of requesting a delay to Brexit until June.

Signifying their total lack of trust in their government, they then voted on an amendment that would have taken the control of the Brexit process away from the government and given it back to Parliament. This lost by a mere two votes. (In British politics, the executive and legislative branches are more closely intertwined, which is why it’s chaotic when the executive loses control.)

March 19: The speaker of the House of Commons cited precedent from 1604 and warned the government that it could not bring back the deal for a third vote unless substantial changes had been made.

March 20: Theresa May hinted that she would step down if Brexit has not been achieved by June.

March 22: Causing tension in her cabinet, May sought a short delay of Brexit at the request of Parliament, which the EU approved and penciled in as April 12.

March 27: May told Conservative MPs that she would resign if they voted for her deal.

March 29: MPs rejected Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement for a third time by a majority of 58. Theresa May hinted that a general election might be a way out of the deadlock, telling MPs that “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House.”

VIEW GALLERY: Brexit Demonstrations

So far, Parliament has not found a majority for an alternative to May’s deal. A cross-party group of MPs is now proposing legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit, which the default would technically be if no agreement is reached by April 12. The European Union will hold a council on April 10 to decide whether the U.K. should have a further extension.

The Brexit deadline is now April 12, but both Parliament and the EU seem to be angling for a longer extension. Though they might get this, there have only ever been three real options: May’s deal, no deal, or no Brexit.

Brexit may or may not be saved, but March 2019 will go down as a brutal month for Brexit and a ruinous one for Theresa May.

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