There’s Officially Nobody in Charge of Britain
The United Kingdom is facing a generational crisis and adults are nowhere to be found in Parliament.
Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain.
The pace is hot, and the points are near,
And sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear;
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Who is in charge of the clattering train?
As Europe’s engines of war grew louder and hotter, it was this section from Edwin Milliken’s 1890 poem “Death and His Brother Sleep” that Winston Churchill thought of reciting, asking who was steering or stopping Europe’s fateful course. Nearly a century later, as Britain barrels hopelessly toward an exit from the European Union without a deal—a scenario that has been linked to a simultaneous food crisis, financial crisis, and border crisis—one of his grandsons, the Remainer and Conservative Member of Parliament Nicholas Soames, is asking the same.
Tuesday’s vote made clear that nobody is at the lead of an increasingly rickety and rudderless Parliament. After nearly seven hours of debate, Theresa May, the MP for Maidenhead who still technically bears the title of prime minister, lost the greatest meaningful vote by the greatest margin since the advent of the modern party system. A remarkable 432 MPs lined up against the withdrawal agreement she had reached with the EU, tossing Brexit into ever greater uncertainty. And now, whether Britain has left itself with no deal, no Brexit, or no prime minister remains to be seen.
Who is in charge of the clattering train? Who is able to avert an obviously undesirable “no deal”? In Parliament—no one. Britain will continue on its collision course, because the votes to get off it do not exist. Neither in the fractured Tory Party, nor in the directionless Labour Party, nor in the intransigent Democratic Unionist Party, nor in the maneuvering Scottish National Party can a coalitional compromise emerge to take charge of Brexit and prevent its coming disaster. It is not that any one faction is gunning for a no-deal. Nor is the problem that a cross-party agreement to avert a no-deal is out of the question. Rather, barring a general election that would change the makeup of Parliament, a coalitional compromise cannot be achieved because of each party’s divergent ambitions and internal divisions.
The party that holds the greatest share of blame in refusing to take charge of the clattering train is the Tories. Having elected to throw Britain into its Brexit shambles under David Cameron and having failed to get it out under Theresa May, the Conservative Party has consistently helped to produce and failed to prevent a no-deal. Last night, that fact continued to be true as a stunning 118 Tories, over one third of the party, broke with their prime minister to cast her, them, and their country into chaos.
The central challenge in parliamentary politics today is the Europhilic-Euroskeptic chasm that exists within the Tory Party, a chasm that has left the nation’s governing party without the majority needed to govern. In order to pass any Brexit deal, the prime minister requires 320 votes in her favor, and on the face of it, her 316 Tory MPs should not make this task too difficult. But as the Europhiles pull her party toward a soft Brexit or a new People’s Vote and as the Euroskeptics pull her party toward a hard Brexit or a no-deal, the Tories have grown increasingly incapable of taking charge of the mess they created. Any internal compromise between the two camps or external compromise with Labour risks an irreparable implosion of the Tories’ delicate balance, a risk that nobody capable of earning the party’s leadership would countenance. The result is a cabinet divided against itself and against the rest of its MPs. Now the Tories lack even the ability to pass a no-confidence vote against a prime minister who resoundingly lacks their confidence.
Second and no less substantial is the Labour Party, which produced 248 votes against the prime minister’s deal. The problem with Labour is not only leader Jeremy Corbyn’s tacit goading of the leave campaign. Nor is it simply the raging opportunism to undermine Theresa May at all costs reflected in the quick call for tonight’s improbable no confidence vote. Nor is it the transparent mistruth that the party can offer an unspecified “jobs and living standards” Brexit that can succeed in both Parliament and in Brussels. Rather, it is Labour’s refusal to determine its position on the problem in the first place. At the Labour Party conference this past September, Corbyn declared his simultaneous support for an undefined good deal, his opposition to an undefined bad deal, his endorsement of a second referendum, and his intention for a general election.
The party’s leadership woes are clear: With 35 percent of Labour voters having elected to leave in 2016 and with about 70 percent of Labour voters wishing for a second referendum in 2019, the party and its leader lack a mandate on what to do and how to do it. Even though the left can very likely produce more votes for any measure than the right, under Corbyn Labour has become an opposition party whose only prerogative is to oppose. And even if May “reaches out across the House to build a political consensus” in the coming weeks, which her close ally Philip Hammond said she would do Tuesday night, none should expect the Labour party to reach back.
The third most powerful party in British politics is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the conservative Northern Irish party that holds a small share of Parliament and a large share of its problems. After May’s ill-advised snap election produced a hung Parliament in 2017, the DUP signed a “confidence and supply agreement” pledging to give the Tory Party enough votes to put together a coalition majority. As a result, this group of 10 MPs has figured increasingly prominently in parliamentary politics, as any move against the DUP could lead to the collapse of May’s government. Their intransigence on Brexit’s biggest challenge, the Irish border dispute, has made this hostage situation all the more difficult.
The unresolved border question, which was partially responsible for last night’s defeat, is twofold. On the one hand, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which put to rest centuries of fighting on the island, stipulates that no hard border can be erected between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. On the other, the DUP, being a unionist party, opposes any differential treatment or arrangement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This leaves an unavoidable and insurmountable obstacle to Britain’s exit from the EU: If the dividing line for the free movement of goods and people cannot be drawn between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, as a matter of the Good Friday Agreement, and if it cannot be drawn between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as a matter of DUP policy, where does it go? If you can answer that question—without proposing, as the prime minister has, an indeterminate “backstop to the backstop”—you might be able to resolve Brexit once and for all. If you cannot, you will have good company with the DUP.
The fourth most significant party in Parliament, the Scottish National Party (SNP), can hardly be blamed for the mess of Brexit. The party of some of the nation’s most adamant Remainers and Remoaners, the SNP has been unwavering on the topic, campaigning to stay in the EU in 2016 and campaigning for a second referendum to stay in the EU after 2016. But in recent months, the actual ambitions of the SNP have become more uncertain as Nicola Sturgeon has worked assiduously to put a Scottish independence vote back on the table. At each twist and turn of the Brexit saga, Sturgeon has repeated that Brexit has necessitated its secession from the United Kingdom and has laid the groundwork to launch a new independence vote, coming off the heels of a narrow loss in 2014.
The result is a clear message to the House of Commons that the SNP is willing neither to compromise nor to collaborate on any Brexit deal. The simple reality is that in gunning for a second referendum, whose odds are still long on British betting markets, and in refusing a soft Brexit, which could be achieved in the coming cross-party talks, the SNP is making a no-deal outcome 35 votes more likely. For some constituencies, like Labour’s, this would be a foolhardy gamble. But for a party whose electorate voted two-to-one to remain in the EU and whose nation increasingly favors independence, the SNP’s opportunism—its decision not to take charge of the train but to hop off it—is to be expected.
It is important to note that no one who is responsible for a no-deal currently was advocating it previously. Former Tory Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who just last week declared a no-deal to be what the people had voted for, could be heard not too long ago rejecting the possibility of such an outcome out of hand. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the far-right European Research Group who has insisted that a no-deal would be a trillion-pound boon to the British economy, had also campaigned vigorously for a Canada-style free trade deal. The DUP as well, which had many visions of what a Brexit deal would entail, will now not only topple the prime minister’s deal but also, possibly, her government. On the left, one can find a truculent Labour Party that has entertained more than one idea of “Lexit” but that has only one policy on Brexit: voting down Theresa May. And the SNP too, despite its commitment to avoiding a hard Brexit, has refused to make its 35 votes in Parliament available to do so.
Some still believe that the universal obviousness of a no-deal’s undesirability suggests that it will be avoided. But with a coalition Parliament whose factions and ambitions make the 320-vote threshold unimaginably high, Britain will remain on its collision course, and Churchill’s favorite poem about the failure of leadership and the abdication of responsibility will remain eerily resonant: “a hundred lips are babbling blithe, some seconds hence they in pain may writhe.”
Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London. Twitter: @StephenPaduano