Argument

Brexiteers Never Wanted Brexit to Begin With

History will show that the biggest obstacle to Brexit was its most fervent supporters. That’s no accident.

Jacob Rees-Mogg poses for a photograph in central London on Oct. 18, 2018. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)
Jacob Rees-Mogg poses for a photograph in central London on Oct. 18, 2018. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

After a tumultuous two and a half years, the great can-kicking of parliamentary politics was meant to come to an end Tuesday evening. After months of panic and delay, with little more than two weeks to go before Britain was set to leave the European Union, a withdrawal agreement with the approval of 27 EU nations was finally presented to the British Parliament. “Today is the day,” Prime Minister Theresa May reportedly told her cabinet. “Let’s get this done.”

But, of course, Brexit blundered on. The final tally was stark: 242 for, 391 against. Many rank-and-file Conservative members of Parliament joined their colleagues to the right and left—Labour, the Scottish National Party, the Independent Group, and the Liberal Democrats—in voting down the Brexit deal. Among them was the vast majority of the European Research Group (ERG), the large and powerful far-right Tory bloc. Parliament will now head to a series of votes, on Wednesday and Thursday, to stave off a no deal and delay Brexit and, possibly, open a Pandora’s box that may oust May, trigger a general election, and invite a second referendum. In a parliament where every meaningful vote seems to fail, this one—the dramatic reversal of the Brexiteers’ fortune—seems peculiarly likely to pass. More peculiarly still, it is an outcome that the fervent Brexit supporters of the ERG will have indirectly helped produce.

If it appears that the far-right has done everything it can to derail Brexit, that is because it is largely true. The fact that Brexiteers have chosen time and again to put Brexit in peril rather than put it into effect is one of the enduring curiosities of the Brexit saga. In the past two and a half years, they have been the culprits on countless occasions of rejecting Brexit proposals, delaying Brexit decisions, and emboldening calls for a second referendum. While their strong-arming has certainly changed the dynamics of British politics in their favor, making themselves appear to be the sole voice of the British public and making the ERG kingmakers in the Conservative Party, they have done conspicuously little to translate this authority into policy. As the MPs lined up to strike down the deal on Tuesday night, one disgruntled minister reportedly remarked: “It is almost as if they have a psychological aversion to actually getting what they have always wanted.”

On Wednesday, a crushing number of MPs will likely come out against leaving the EU without a deal. On the next day, it is likely that a smaller though still significant number will come out in support of an extension to Britain’s departure date, too. At present, it is unknown how long such an extension would last and whether it would allot enough time to avoid a similar no-deal showdown when it expires. Nor is it known whether Tory MPs will be able to apply enough pressure on the prime minister in the coming weeks and months to push her out of office before they can reattempt a no-confidence vote in December. Nor still is it known whether Parliament will jostle en masse and force a general election that could put the Labour Party into power and a second referendum in play. What is known, however, is that the Brexiteers have paved a very difficult path going forward for their party, their policies, and themselves.

Hollow though they may be, reasons do indeed exist for the Brexiteers to be committed to derailing Brexit. For one thing, there is the fact that sinking the prime minister’s deal will help sink the prime minister. With a large and growing field of potential successors, steps to remove her—by signaling as they did Tuesday that she has lost control of her party and Parliament—will certainly hasten the arrival of their moment of opportunity. Talk has now turned in political circles as to whether May will be out before May 28, a date that her allies see as the threshold for success, as it would mean that she served longer than the last Labour leader, Gordon Brown. With two months being a cause for celebration, the next few weeks will doubtless be fraught with trepidation. The prime mover on the far-right for a leadership challenge will be former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who made clear in his attack against the prime minister’s proposal on Tuesday—which doubled as a broadside against her government—that vying to replace her can be achieved by working to thwart her.

For others, there is also the principle of political purity. Where Brexit is a rather black-and-white issue, May has worked arduously to find the appropriate shade of gray. She has helped float self-destructive distinctions between a “hard Brexit” and a “soft Brexit,” and she has continuously thrown her weight behind the latter, against which her party’s hard-charging Brexiteers were destined to construct a foil. And in her insulated political style, going it alone in EU negotiations, isolating cabinet ministers, ignoring backbenchers, May failed to communicate how her withdrawal agreement would, beyond all doubt, remove the United Kingdom from the EU. As her approval rating slumped to less than 30 percent, her politics and policies have become more toxic, and support for her, no matter what she did or said, has become increasingly hazardous. Despite endorsing Brexit, and despite staking her ministry and her legacy on the successful execution of Brexit, May lost her legitimacy among supporters of Brexit. The charges against her, largely predicated on a woeful misunderstanding of the meaning of the Irish backstop and the mechanics of its enactment, grew so steep that a vote for her Brexit deal came to be seen in factions of her party as a vote against a true Brexit.

But the final and, likely, most salient reason for the Brexiteers’ curious crusade against Brexit must be chalked up to a simple error of judgment. In the past three years, British politics have been pushed and pulled by similarly cockeyed calculations. It was David Cameron’s self-assurance that Britain would vote to stay in the EU that led him to put a referendum on the table in 2016. In 2017, it was May’s bizarre determination that her party would beat Labour in a landslide that led her to force a snap election and, in the process, give Labour 30 more seats and surrender the Conservatives’ outright majority. In 2018 and 2019, it has grown increasingly clear that the Brexiteers believe their tactics of delaying and derailing to be keys to their future success. As Parliament now moves to extend the withdrawal agreement and as new ground opens up for a second referendum, they are likely to be proved equally wrong.

After news broke late Monday night of May’s last-minute agreement with the EU on a new legal instrument, a brief breath of optimism blew over Parliament. For once, it seemed that the ever-implacable Brexiteers would finally be placated. As Britain was going to bed, the Conservative MP Nick Boles tweeted to his far-right colleagues: “Do yourselves a favour. Take the win. Vote for the deal.” But as they have for the past two and a half years, the Brexiteers refused. Now, whether they will be able to do themselves any favors going forward, whether there will be any victories to be had, or whether there will be any deals to be passed is increasingly unlikely.

Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London, and an associate of the IDEAS Institute at the London School of Economics.

 Twitter: @StephenPaduano

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