They call it the season finale of the UK: the denouement of many episodes of the psycho drama that is Brexit and the general unraveling of the British political class that comes with it. Since mid-November, when Prime Minister Theresa May emerged with an agreement that the European Union could endorse, there has finally been something concrete to talk about.
The trouble is that barely anyone supports it. People who campaigned for Brexit believe it is a betrayal, since it leaves too much power with the European Union even as the UK cedes any influence within it. Indeed, the minister in charge of negotiating Brexit thought it was so bad he resigned, claiming it would make more sense to remain than sign up to it. Tory hard-liners have submitted a vote of no confidence in May, but have not yet been able to muster enough MPs to force a recall election.
Leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party—an only recently demilitarized equivalent of the Tea Party that is propping up the Conservative government in Parliament—have branded it a betrayal, insisting that it undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. Donald Trump says the agreement could jeopardize any future UK-US trade deal. And the people who campaigned against Brexit think it is a betrayal because it is still a Brexit—and nothing good can come of it.
May says it’s the best deal she could get. She’s probably right, and that’s the problem. After months of demanding that the UK government get serious, the EU has agreed on a road map only to find that what is acceptable to them is not acceptable to most Britons.
On December 9 there will be a TV debate between May and Jeremy Corbyn—a rare event in British politics even during an election. Two days later there will be a vote in Parliament that is likely to be defeated. The Conservatives have no majority, relying on the DUP to form a government. Labour has vowed to reject it and is demanding a general election instead. Notwithstanding the unrelenting sniping about Corbyn’s leadership, this is one thing they pretty much all agree on.
For those who missed previous episodes, Britain voted in a referendum to do something—leave the European Union—but its politicians cannot agree on how to do it. If we had a constitution, that would amount to a constitutional crisis. Since we don’t, three scenarios have emerged.
First, and least likely, is that May somehow manages to persuade the country that all other alternatives are worse, and this message also gets through to politicians. With a starched upper lip and sergeant major’s fortitude, May insists it’s time to “get on with it.” With a compliant press acting as her echo and the public exhausted by the whole thing, there is definitely a constituency for this sentiment. The trouble is, few can agree what “it” is we should be getting on with. Polls show a significant plurality believe the deal does not respect the result of the referendum, and a similar proportion believe she is not the person who should be getting on with it anyhow.
The second is that we leave the EU without a deal, the unintended consequence of the nation’s inability to meet the challenge. Nobody knows what that would look like, because it’s never happened before. Medicine and food are being stockpiled. Some believe the scaremongering around a no-deal Brexit is an extension of Project Fear—the failed effort to terrify people in to voting against Brexit during the referendum—and that Britain can still prosper if it leaves in this way. Testing that theory could mean plunging the country into chaos, but we won’t know until it’s too late.
The last is that, in the absence of any political agreement, the question is put to the country again. The push for “a people’s vote” has gathered pace, particularly since the deal was announced earlier this month, and, if the government can’t decide, it may be the most popular way to go forward (a majority would prefer to have another referendum than leave without a deal). But there are a couple of serious problems with this. One is an issue of natural justice. We’ve arguably already had a people’s vote, and the people voted for Brexit. To simply do it again in the hope of another result would entrench, not dispel, the skepticism about political elites that got us here in the first place. The other is there is absolutely no guarantee that the vote will not be exactly the same—most polls show a slight remain majority that’s within the margin of error—in which case, then what?
The trouble with May’s deal is that it’s not really a deal at all. It merely sets out the parameters for what a future deal might look like. It’s effectively an agreement to kick the can down the road, with some clear and stern guidelines about which roads must be avoided. The most thorny issues, relating to Northern Ireland and trade, are intertwined, complex, and unresolved. British access to European markets will depend on the UK’s respecting EU standards on competition, taxes, the environment, and social and employment protections. Meanwhile, negotiators have to find a way for UK to leave the zero-tariff customs union and yet maintain Northern Ireland’s soft southern border, which is a central part of the Good Friday Agreement.
There are no good outcomes at this stage, though no deal is definitely the worst. The ultimate prize will go to whoever is able to look beyond the current mayhem and paint a broader vision of a more hopeful future, rather than a narrowly tailored litigation of a past mistake. This may be the season finale. But this show will run and run.