Brexit Is Falling Apart — Slowly

Decisions in Europe and the U.K. make their separation less likely.

Demonstrators for and against Brexit protest opposite the Houses of Parliament in London on December 5, 2018.  (BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators for and against Brexit protest opposite the Houses of Parliament in London on December 5, 2018. (BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Could this week mark the moment when Britain turned against Brexit? Two developments in a day of high parliamentary drama seemed to mark a sea change in the political landscape as the U.K.’s Parliament embarked on five days of debate over the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

First came the news that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is likely to rule that Britain may unilaterally suspend the exit process from the EU without consulting other members—or the ECJ itself. That undermines Prime Minister Theresa May’s argument that members of Parliament face a choice between the deal she had negotiated with Brussels or an economically disastrous no-deal exit. Soon, lawmakers will probably have a third option: to push back the March 29 deadline for Britain’s departure to allow time for more talks, or a second referendum.

Later on Tuesday Parliament backed a motion put forth by anti-Brexit member of Parliament Dominic Grieve that effectively gives lawmakers control of the endgame of the Brexit process. If, as seems highly probable, May fails to achieve a majority for her exit deal due to opposition from both hardcore Brexit purists and advocates of remaining in the EU, Parliament will have the final word on what happens next. That effectively puts the disaster scenario of Britain crashing out of Europe in March with no deal off the table.

Both developments were greeted with joy by Brexit’s opponents. “Brexit: The Beginning of the End,” opined the left-leaning newspaper The Guardian in an editorial. “We now have a road map out of the Brexit shambles,” Alyn Smith, a member of the European Parliament from the Scottish Nationalist Party, told reporters Tuesday. “A bright light has switched on above an exit sign.”

The exit sign may be illuminated, but Britain’s political class is not yet stampeding for the door. At the end of the first day of parliamentary debate only one thing was clear—traditional party loyalty has been melted away by the blowtorch issue of Brexit. Significant numbers of usually loyal Conservative MPs deserted May to vote against the government no fewer than three times. The first two defeats came when lawmakers declared the government in “contempt of Parliament”—a legal concept similar to contempt of court—after Attorney General Geoffrey Fox refused to disclose the full legal advice that May had received over the implications of her exit deal. The third defeat was when lawmakers voted 321 votes to 299 to insist that Parliament, not the government, must have the final say on Brexit.

With rebellions of this scale happening with unprecedented frequency, the chances of May cobbling together enough votes to get her deal through next Tuesday are looking increasingly remote. Over 100 members of her own party, by some estimates, have registered their opposition. Both passionate Brexiteers like former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and staunch supporters of “remain” such as his brother, former Transport Minister Jo Johnson, have vowed to vote down May’s deal for the same reason—it places Britain in the position of accepting all the EU’s legislation as the price of continuing access to its tariff-free single market, but without any say in shaping that legislation in the future. And continued membership of the EU’s Customs Union will also prevent the U.K. from striking independent trade deals with the rest of the world.

“There are arguments for remaining in the EU and arguments for leaving. But there is no case whatever for giving up the benefits of remaining without obtaining the benefits of leaving,” former Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King wrote in Bloomberg on Tuesday. “It simply beggars belief that a government could be hell-bent on a deal that … [gives] the EU both the right to impose laws on the U.K. indefinitely and a veto on ending this state of fiefdom. … That is the worst of all worlds.”

Even more dangerously for the government, Conservative parliamentarians seem to be losing their fear of defying their own party. “I have never seen such a mood of rebellion in the House [of Commons],” said one three-term Conservative MP who is considering voting against May’s Brexit deal next week. “I wouldn’t call any of [the government’s] defeats today exactly seismic. But I get the feeling that the government whips are starting to brick it [become extremely nervous]. They’ve been counting on party loyalty to somehow get everyone behind May’s deal. But members are getting into the habit of ignoring the whips. … That gets contagious.”

Certainly the news that Britain will probably be able to suspend Brexit marks a major tipping point in the debate. On Tuesday the European Court of Justice’s advocate general, Campos Sánchez-Bordona, formally submitted a legal opinion that any EU member state had the right to unilaterally suspend Article 50—the clause in the European Constitution that covers exiting the EU. The ECJ, meeting in emergency session in Luxembourg, customarily upholds the opinions of its advocate general and is due to rule before Christmas. Confirmation that Parliament has the option of delaying the whole process will mean that “the terms of the Brexit debate have fundamentally shifted,” according to anti-Brexit Labour MP Chris Bryant. Or, as one senior government adviser not authorized to speak on the record quipped, “kicking the can down the road? How could any British politician resist?”

Procrastination may have its attractions as a political tactic—but Parliament nonetheless faces some hard choices if it rejects May’s deal next week. Momentum behind holding a second referendum on Brexit—described by its advocates as the People’s Vote movement—has grown since 700,000 demonstrators marched on Parliament last month to support it. May has, so far, rejected all calls for a second plebiscite as an attempt to “overturn the will of the British people.” And the opposition Labour Party has so far refused to officially back a People’s Vote, insisting that its first preference was a new general election. But if Labour’s attempt to unseat the government in a no-confidence motion fails, the party’s second in command John McDonnell said last week that Labour backing for a People’s Vote would become “inevitable.”

But even the second referendum option is fraught with controversy. Polls show that the outcome depends strongly on how the question is framed. On a straight “leave” or “remain” question, “remain” wins. But with a three-way referendum between Theresa May’s deal, “remain” and “no deal,” it’s May’s deal that wins, according to Deltapoll. That’s why the right-leaning magazine The Spectator, with its unrivaled sources inside the Conservative Party, has begun to suggest that a People’s Vote could be May’s least bad option. “If the Commons won’t back her deal, then maybe the country will,” political editor James Forsyth wrote last week. “A growing number of full-bore Brexiteers are optimistic that they could win a referendum.”

Other parliamentarians harbor hopes that with more time a new, better deal might be negotiated with Brussels. Indeed, many of the high priests of the 2016 Brexit campaign have always opposed May’s triggering of Article 50 before an exit deal had been brokered—comparing it to “putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger,” in the memorable words of “leave” campaign director Dominic Cummings. Such hard-line Brexiteers would back suspending the process in order to continue haggling—despite the insistence of European Council President Donald Tusk that the current offer is “the best possible, in fact the only possible one.” If this deal is rejected in the House of Commons, Tusk said in October, the only options would be “no deal or no Brexit at all.”

One thing is certain: The coming weeks will see a roiling political crisis in British politics unseen in decades. And if, as now seems likely, the Brexit process will spill over either into a postponement of Article 50 or a second referendum, that crisis will continue for months as Britain struggles to either overturn or to implement its fateful 2016 decision to leave the EU.


Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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