The Maybot and the Marxist

A stubborn prime minister and an intransigent opposition leader have brought British politics to a standstill. Parliament is poised to seize control of the Brexit process, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a referendum rerun.

Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the media at No. 10 Downing St. after her government defeated a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons on Jan. 16. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the media at No. 10 Downing St. after her government defeated a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons on Jan. 16. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

LONDON—On Tuesday night, the bouncer outside the famous Red Lion pub in Westminster, so close to Parliament that a division bell to summon members to vote is rung inside, was firm. As though he were policing the stadium at a match between sworn rival teams, he insisted, “No flags inside.” The targets were two middle-aged ladies wearing berets sporting the 12 stars of the European Union flag, with identical blue-and-gold banners sticking out of their rucksacks.

Parliament Square had become a festival ground. Leave and Remain supporters mingled in reasonably good spirits. Two giant TV screens relayed a packed House of Commons chamber, where members of Parliament were taking part in a series of crucial votes on Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

May, who had fought and lost in the courts to prevent Parliament from having any say over her Brexit policy, awaited the verdict of the representatives of the people. That she would lose the vote was certain—the only question was by how much. Gossip in the corridors of Westminster suggested a margin of at least 80. Newspapers and commentators who had gone through MPs’ statements with a fine-toothed comb estimated May’s loss more in the range of 130 votes. A bit after 7:30 p.m., earlier than expected, the result was announced.

In favor of May’s deal: 202. Against: 432.

This was the biggest defeat ever suffered by a British government in the country’s modern history.

May had been crushed by a war on two fronts. Her deal was too Brexity for Remainers but insufficiently so for many of her backbenchers and especially for the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on which her minority government depends to win votes.

In reality, the defeat was even starker. Around 120 Conservative MPs are government ministers, who must resign if they vote against the government. That means only 80 of the votes backing May came from people who supported her deal on its merits.

In normal circumstances, a defeat so great on a matter of such importance would be considered a matter of confidence. A prime minister defeated so heavily would have no honorable option but to present her resignation to the queen.

These are not, however, ordinary circumstances. The alternative figure to whom the monarch would have to turn to form a new administration is no ordinary politician; he is a radical left-winger. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was a paid TV presenter on Iran’s Press TV satellite station, is sympathetic to Hezbollah and the Irish Republican Army, and thinks nothing of giving speeches to audiences waving hammer-and-sickle flags.

Not even the most disgruntled Tory would want to put him in power. Those who don’t consider him a threat to national security believe he poses a danger to the country’s economy at least as large as a hard Brexit. There is genuine fear in Conservative circles that he would emulate Hungary’s Viktor Orban and find ways of suppressing Tory-leaning think tanks and institutions.

And so, when Corbyn put a vote of no confidence to the House of Commons on Wednesday evening, every single Tory and Democratic Unionist MP backed the prime minister. Just 24 hours after losing the vote on the substance of the deal, by the largest margin of any government bill in Britain’s modern history, she won the vote of confidence on strict party lines, 325 to 306.

She now finds herself in a situation like a French president without a parliamentary majority in an uneasy period of cohabitation with a Parliament that opposes her on her central policy. Unlike in France, where such clashes are common, this isn’t a situation that Britain has had to deal with since Charles II’s confrontations with Parliament over securing the succession of his Catholic brother James II—in the 1670s.

How did this happen?

May made several errors. She entered into negotiations with a vastly stronger partner at the head of a weak and divided administration. She then gambled on winning an election she lost. The need to keep the DUP onside caused her to maintain four contradictory red lines: no freedom of movement (to placate anti-immigration voters); no hard border on the island of Ireland (to avoid the return of violence and to meet a central demand of the EU); no economic divergence between the island of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (demanded by the DUP); and, finally, an independent trade policy (insisted upon by Brexiteers in her own party).

All these criteria can’t be met simultaneously. Ending freedom of movement means leaving the single market, but avoiding a hard border means staying in parts of it. Avoiding economic divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. means adopting EU trade rules, but having an independent trade policy requires the freedom to reject such rules.

The withdrawal agreement she negotiated postpones but does not resolve the decision of which red lines to sacrifice. Instead it specifies the ways in which the U.K. would have to sacrifice each of them and the trade-offs involved. Most difficult for Britain to accept is the series of insurance measures to avoid the re-emergence of a hard border in Ireland known as a backstop.

The EU has made these measures a condition of any future relationship with the U.K., and they require an adjustment to Britain’s constitutional order that wouldn’t have been necessary had the U.K. stayed in.

This has been forced on the U.K. by means of the EU’s superior negotiation position, its greater economic power, and its possession of political structures that have enabled it to maintain a united position. Britain, by contrast, is divided in two, and May’s weakness is compounded by the cynicism of the opposition leader, Corbyn.

Corbyn leads a party that opposes Brexit but supports leaving the EU himself. The economic damage from Brexit would, he hopes, become source and justification for a radical socialist government. Since he can’t admit to heightening the contradictions in this openly Marxist manner, his tactic is to play for time and force May to do his dirty work for him.

He might just pull this off. After all, Labour supporters have become experts in cognitive dissonance, and “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit” T-shirts are a frequent presence at Labour rallies. If he can resist the internal party pressure to call for a second referendum until March 29, it will be too late to hold one.

Referendum advocates had hoped the failure of the no-confidence vote Wednesday would force him to call for another election, but so far it hasn’t. Ever the stubborn ideologue, Corbyn seems prepared to resist to the end.

Even if he gives into the pressure, the procedural obstacles to a new vote are much bigger and more numerous than referendum advocates care to admit. The government of the day would still need to seek an extension of the Article 50 negotiating period to actually hold a new vote, and if the government is unwilling, an act of Parliament will be needed to compel it to make the request. But passing such an act needs Parliament to take control of the legislative agenda.

There are rumors that former attorney general-turned-parliamentary guerrilla Dominic Grieve is about to propose one. If he succeeds, this would confirm a radical change in Britain’s constitution—taking power away from the executive and handing it back to the legislature.

In a final irony, Brexit could make the British Constitution more French.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.

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