What just happened with Brexit, you ask? Oh, you know, the usual. The warring, dysfunctional, zombie Conservative government’s Brexit deal was defeated in Parliament by 149 votes—and nobody was surprised. That’s after an earlier, virtually identical Brexit deal was defeated by a historic 230 votes in January—and after the prime minister said she’d get a better deal from the European Union, but kept delaying the vote on it because she couldn’t actually get a better deal.
Then yesterday, Parliament voted to take off the table the option of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal. They did so after Conservatives spent the day telling everyone that “no deal” was very bad (it would involve food and medical shortages, grounded planes, gridlocked roads), only to then oppose their own motion to reject “no deal,” only to then be thrown into turmoil when ministers went against that decision—by either voting to reject “no deal” or abstaining.
Still with me? Good. Because at this point, with Prime Minister Theresa May too weak to even discipline her own rebelling ministers, the EU chimed in to tell the UK that voting to take “no deal” off the table was all well and good, but actually there are only two ways to leave the EU: with a deal or without one—and clearly, the UK still doesn’t have one. The response from EU officials was pure exasperation, essentially communicating to the UK that it was now beyond help (remember, Britain was supposed to be leaving the EU on March 29).
There’s more. The next day, Parliament voted to delay Brexit by at least three months, or maybe longer—who really knows? Over half of Tory MPs voted against this delay, yet another sign, if one were needed, of the utterly divided chaos that is calling itself the government. As Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said: “This evening the Brexit secretary voted against his government’s own motion on Brexit, which earlier in the day he had defended in the House of Commons. That’s the equivalent of the chancellor voting against his own budget. This is a government that has completely lost control.” Not that the Labour Party is a vision of unity, either. In a separate vote on whether to have a second referendum on Brexit, Labour MPs were supposed to abstain, but 24 voted for it, and 17 against.
There is no obvious or straightforward way to explain why Britain has chosen this precise moment in history to absolutely lose the plot. Brexit was a promise to deliver all sorts of undeliverable things; it won 52 percent of the vote for a variety of reasons, among them: a hostility to immigration, a desire to give the remote and neglectful ruling class a good kicking, the pursuit of something defined as “sovereignty” (as though EU membership had ever taken that away), and a nostalgia for the days when Britain ruled the waves.
Some factors are becoming increasingly and painfully clear. One is that the government’s needless and ravaging austerity cuts, including cuts to welfare, swung the vote to leave the EU. Another is that the British public has now softened its stance on immigration—hostility to which was one of the main issues fueling Brexit. Of those who have turned more positive on the issue, around half say this is down to an increased awareness of the contribution migrants make to the UK—arguments that were barely aired by politicians and media alike in the years preceding Brexit.
So now we’re here with a government permanently on the verge of collapse over a 2016 referendum decision that can’t be achieved and has instead induced a political breakdown. The National Health Service is in crisis, social care is ailing, homelessness and food-banks use is rising, schools are falling apart and forced to close early for lack of funding, 20 percent of the population struggles in poverty, while the economy is flatlining, wages are stagnating, and nothing can be done because Brexit is holding politics hostage to its unmeetable demands.
So what happens now? Theresa May is expected to bring yet another vote on her bad and hopelessly unpopular Brexit bill, of course. Her assumption is that the hard-core Leave element of her own party will finally accept it—since the alternative of exiting with no deal has been eliminated and the only other option is not leaving at all.
The Labour opposition, meanwhile, wants a cross-party consensus on a softer, less damaging Brexit, with a closer relationship to the EU—something like the deal that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn put forward last month, and which the EU’s Brexit negotiator received with interest. But there is mounting despair from the Corbyn-supporting grassroots, who view this as deviation from an agreement at the Labour conference last year to back a second referendum once other options, such as triggering a general election, had been deemed impossible. Insisting that there are still options left to be exhausted, at this stage, seems to be stretching the spirit of that conference consensus. (The Labour leadership points out that a second referendum vote would not currently get enough numbers in Parliament, not least because a chunk of Labour MPs oppose it.)
Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence that Labour would significantly harm its own electoral prospects if it backs any form of Brexit. And the left leader’s socialist allies across Europe have urged him to push for a people’s vote. Brexit, they point out, is a right-wing project designed to “place even more power in the hands of right-wing elites.” Maybe it is also a right-wing project to keep the UK trapped in its irreconcilable paradoxes, chained to its unattainable delusion—forever.