Brexit Britain sends out a ‘Mayday’

After the defeat of May’s deal, our only real option is to put the matter back to the British public with a referendum.

Anti-Brexit and pro-Brexit protesters argue outside the Houses of Parliament, before a vote on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal, in London, Britain, January 15, 2019 [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]
Anti-Brexit and pro-Brexit protesters argue outside the Houses of Parliament, before a vote on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal, in London, Britain, January 15, 2019 [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Never before has a British prime minister been defeated in parliament as heavily as Theresa May last night. By 230 votes, she lost the motion on her deal for exit from the EU, a deal which has been two years in the making. One hundred eighteen of her own MPs voted against her deal – that’s the vast majority of Conservative MPs who aren’t on the government’s payroll. 

In any normal time, such a defeat would lead to the immediate resignation of the prime minister and a general election. But with her Conservative Party utterly divided, and few of her colleagues willing or able to swap places with her, May carries on. 

May’s party is now bitterly divided. In fact, that division is how we got into this calamitous situation. For decades, a part of the British ruling class, represented by the Conservative Party, has been desperate to leave the EU, which they see, incredibly, as a left-wing conspiracy. They want to get back to the days when Britannia ruled the waves and could force “free” trade on any country we wanted to. 

With his usual arrogance, David Cameron thought he could easily beat this right-wing element of his own party. But after imposing five years of deep austerity, which started to undermine the social fabric of Britain, he fatally misjudged his own unpopularity. When those in northern industrial towns, who’ve been forgotten by British governments for decades, joined their votes with the usual anti-immigrant bigots, it was enough for Brexit to win, albeit narrowly.

Theresa May then came to power as the Brexiters’ champion. She has been utterly intransigent. She has failed to speak to the half of the county that voted “remain”. She has refused to talk to the opposition in order to come up with a solution that marginalises her own extremist backbench MPs. She has alienated most European leaders with her nationalistic language. Rather than building consensus, she tacked hard right, making a red line of her consistent desire to rid Britain of migrants. This strategy has disastrously backfired.

After two years of stubbornness and secrecy, she failed to win over those in her own party, increasingly powerful with the Tory grassroots, who will settle for nothing less than the hardest of Brexits, premised on the idea that only chaos in the country will give them the space to create the deregulated, free-market economy they dream of. In the words of a former minister, Brexit is about completing the Thatcher revolution.

It is to these people that government minister Geoffrey Cox turned in yesterday’s debate and asked: “What are you playing at? What are you doing? You are not children in the playground, you are legislators. We are playing with people’s lives.” 

But the rebels ignored him and voted down the deal. Those in parliament who support a hard Brexit (no deal at all with the EU) hope that this vote will lead to Britain crashing out of the EU altogether. Remainers, on the other hand, believe it makes the whole notion of Brexit impossible to achieve. It’s a high-stakes game, and they can’t both be right.

Today, May will face a no-confidence motion brought by leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn. But the Tories are desperate to avoid a general election and May’s right-wing allies from the north of Ireland, who prop her government up, won’t give up the power they have over this parliament. So, she will almost certainly be victorious.  

In office without power, ideas or strategies, May struggles on, with a very limited range of options. Parliament has demanded May return on Monday with a new plan – one that they will be able to amend. May seems to favour renegotiation, but that will only work if she is prepared to drop all her previous “red lines” and negotiate a very close relationship with Brussels – something more akin to a Norway relationship, which would significantly limit damage, but leave the UK with little power over the rules that govern us. She could potentially get through parliament with some Labour backbenchers, but it’s a long shot and surely not a long-term option for Britain. 

May could call an election, though would be in serious danger of losing it, and after her last disastrous electoral performance (where she lost her majority, following the referendum), that seems unlikely. She could prepare to crash out of the EU, though unlike some of her backbenchers, she seems to realise that such an outcome would unleash chaos. She could threaten to crash out, in the hope that MPs will change their minds and vote for her deal – though the scale of defeat makes that option look like too high a gamble.

Corbyn also needs to decide his next move. To date, he has tried to reframe the debate, away from Brexit, and towards traditional left-right divisions, to unite working-class voters behind a vision of radical change. In a sense, he wants to undermine the causes of Brexit. This is a laudable goal, and will be much needed in the years ahead, but at the moment it seems nearly impossible to achieve given where British politics currently are. It also causes disquiet among his party members who are solidly remain and get more so every day.

We are left with one other option – to put the matter back to the British public in a referendum. No doubt this carries risks. For one, assuming remain was on the ballot, it could lose again, practically forcing the country into a no-deal Brexit. Second, the racism whipped up by the first referendum could be dramatically increased. Very few people want to return to the climate of the last referendum. Corbyn particularly is nervous about losing potential leave voters in a future election, and is fed up that this issue has been used by the right-wing of his party to consistently undermine his leadership.

But there again, what choice is there? Neither May nor Corbyn can seriously renegotiate the deal without significantly moving the goalposts, and accepting a very soft Brexit. The EU has made that clear. No deal Brexit is beyond contemplation by any but the most extreme MPs. And the British public was lied to so thoroughly in the referendum, that no solution will meet the expectations of those who voted leave.

At least a people’s vote breaks the deadlock by going back to the people – if done with humility and honesty. But it would never be won for remain if it was rerun of the last referendum – that’s to say a complacent establishment trying to scare people. Britain is a deeply divided society, scarred by the lasting legacy of neoliberalism and austerity. We are not, and should not, go back to business as usual. No one wants to be lectured by Tony Blair or his henchmen. 

Only a referendum which also promises radical transformation of Britain – as well as the imploding EU – can capture the imagination and live up to people’s needs and aspirations. Corbyn is in a prime position to make sure a strategy work. But time is of the essence. Britain leaves the EU in 72 days.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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