The overwrought Brexit process has finally unravelled, or at least, unravelled more. It’s hard to tell in the midst of endless bluster on all sides, from every political party in the British Parliament, but Tuesday’s vote suggested that Prime Minister May’s plan for a qualified departure pending future negotiations with the European Union has definitively failed, in spite of the threat of an impending no-deal departure.
The defeat of the plan itself was no surprise, although some forecasted a last minute shift from lawmakers nervous to enter what May herself dubbed to be “uncharted territory” (forcing such a shift was probably May’s intention in delaying the vote from its original scheduled date in mid-December to mid-January instead). The size of the defeat, however, was monumental. The plan was opposed by the majority of every party including May’s own Conservatives: 432 to 202 votes, the biggest defeat for a government-sponsored bill in the history of the centuries-old institution of Parliament. What will happen next, as May rightly acknowledged would be the case following the plan’s failure, is impossible to know.
On Wednesday, however, the prime minister’s opponents made their own failed attempt to change the balance of power in an effort to move forward on the issue, which has publicly stalled for months ever since May returned from Brussels with the almost universally condemned plan. The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, called submitted a no-confidence motion in the prime minister, and brought a vote on her leadership to the floor. Had she lost, the country would have been thrust into snap elections in just the next few weeks, on the eve of its scheduled departure from the EU in March.
“I think we’ve got a chance you know, because there was 118 Tories who voted against Theresa May last night,” said Labor Party Chairman Ian Lavery on the morning of the no-confidence vote, in an interview with CNBC, predicting that many who had rebelled against May’s Brexit plan would turn on her leadership as well. “It is volatile. People are unhappy with the deal, so we think it is the optimum opportunity to put forward a vote of no confidence and call for a General Election.”
May survived the vote on Wednesday, however, by a narrow margin of 325 to 306. Enough members of her Conservative Party and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which together form the majority bloc in Parliament, united to back her leadership, despite their deeply-fractured response to her Brexit plan.
“The House has put its confidence in this government,” she said after the vote. “I stand ready to work with any member of this House to deliver Brexit and ensure that this House retains the confidence of the British people.”
That confidence, however, appears to have been shaken long ago, as for months now the British public has been faced with a Conservative government that clearly cannot push through its own proposed bill, and yet insists on the finality of the first referendum — in which the public narrowly voted to leave the European Union — and the impossibility of a return to the question.
“The reason is very simple: we gave people the choice in a referendum as to whether to leave the European Union or not, and they gave us a very clear message,” May said in an interview in December. “They wanted us to leave the European Union.”
And yet, because of the complete stalemate in the government over a deal that was, as EU negotiators continue to insist, final, it appears to be just as possible that the government will call a second referendum as it is that they will allow Britain to exit the EU without a plan for departure. In that event, an admittedly worst-case scenario for even the most hardline Brexiteers, immediate economic turmoil is relatively certain. Despite the increasing possibility of such an unmediated exit (which becomes more urgent with every passing day), none of May’s Brexiteer opponents have managed to offer a different solution that satisfies the prerequisite recognized across the board for maintaining a soft border with easy travel and trade restrictions between Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, an EU member state.
In the wake of Tuesday’s vote on the plan, the Irish government reiterated its determined stance on the issue. “We can’t shift on the issue of there being no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland,” said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. “That is the outcome that we need. We have said it from day one that Brexit cannot result in a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. We have made that commitment to the people of Ireland, north and south.” The Irish leader went on to say that his government “profoundly regrets” the failure of May’s Brexit deal, which was begrudgingly supported by representatives from all EU members states just a few months earlier in Brussels.
The DUP, allies of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland, has offered a less clear stance on the issue, arguing that a Brexit deal could theoretically preserve Northern Ireland’s departure from the EU and status in the UK single market while at the same time avoiding a hard border with its neighbor to the south. Were that possible to achieve through cheer regulatory deftness, however, it would certainly have been in Prime Minister May’s interests to have done so in the original deal. Even more telling of the DUP’s incapacity to deal with the problem is its failure, despite such repeated suggestions, to offer a Plan B with an outline of what such regulation would look like.
That seemingly impossible problem has led to a handful of left-field miracle solutions, most notable of which is former director of the World Customs Organization Lars Karlsson’s proposal for a hi-tech “smart border” between the two countries. Such a solution, he says, would require a hodgepodge of license plate recognition technology, required smartphone apps, ePassport systems, and GPS tracking devices, among other means of tracking and surveillance, in order to establish an “invisible border” that strikes a balance between security and laissez faire border control. “I’ve taken the stand of confining myself to the practical side and the technical side of [Brexit], of what happens if a border appears,” said Karlsson. He went on to say that the problem at the heart of the dispute over May’s Brexit plan was “not a political issue; it’s a technical issue.”
Were the solution merely a matter of technicalities, however, it seems unlikely that May’s team of negotiators (along with those from the EU) would have failed so utterly to produce anything of substance covering on the Irish border problem in their now-rejected plan for departure, which ran to more than 500 pages but offered little more than a promise to return to the subject.
For now, at least, the gridlock in Westminster will continue, although last week’s back-to-back failed votes will certainly heighten tensions for members of Parliament to mold new alliances and, hopefully, prevent the country from running blindly off the edge of a cliff.