What's worse is that they can't bail us out foreverby Jonathan Lis / March 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
On Thursday night in a Brussels conference chamber, something happened that was so breathtaking it will define the history of post-war Britain. It was such an indictment of the state of our nation that it almost literally cannot be believed. A group of foreign powers intervened to save the British people from their own prime minister.
The short story is this. Theresa May has for several months pursued a straightforward policy of blackmail with her Brexit plan: either MPs vote for her deal, which they have resolved by historic margins, twice, not to be in the national interest, or else they enable the historic devastation of no deal at all. The EU, which has been determined to help May despite all the patience and goodwill she has exhausted, played along and mirrored her framing. Any Article 50 extension would be conditional on MPs approving the deal, they said. Emmanuel Macron informed journalists on Thursday afternoon that Britain would be heading into no-deal “for sure” unless parliament finally submitted to its prime minister.
While Leavers celebrated, Remainers felt something approaching shellshock. Not only had the EU apparently let us down at the last moment, but no-deal suddenly seemed a terrifying reality. Many (myself included) hastily abandoned any hopes of a referendum, and began calling instead for a direct revocation of Article 50.
But then something extraordinary happened. The British prime minister addressed her fellow leaders in private, and all pretence finally melted away. It was no longer a game or bluff or negotiating tactic. For the first time they could see she was deadly serious. The leader of the United Kingdom—the person entrusted to keep us safe and build our prosperity—had not only resigned herself to a no-deal cliff-edge, but was now actively driving her country off it. And so the EU did the only thing it reasonably could, and wrested the wheel from her.
Instead of a conditional extension to 22nd May as per the original plan in Brussels, the EU added an unconditional extension to 12th April. They chose this latter date because it is the deadline for notifying our participation in May’s European elections. If MPs do not approve the deal, and do not wish to field candidates in those elections, then they defer the cliff-edge by two weeks and we finally plunge over it.
But this is not in fact the important part. The EU knows that Parliament will never approve a no-deal scenario, and it knows the embarrassment of European election participation will be preferable to economic carnage. The key is that they confiscated the power from Theresa May and handed it to British MPs.
Parliament will now have two weeks to decide what to do, and more specifically to tell May what to do. MPs now know that if they refuse to approve the deal, they will have other options. The European Council has all but guaranteed that it will grant MPs an extension long enough to negotiate a softer Brexit in the political declaration, or to hold a new election or referendum or both—and there is nothing May can do to prevent it.
May had to be stopped, and someone had to stop her. But how did it get to the point where it was a group of foreign leaders and not the elected representatives of the British people? Yes, Parliament has been craven. Yes, MPs have been offered ample opportunities to take back control for themselves—most recently in last week’s Benn amendment—and have chosen to discard them. But the real culpability has always been May’s.
The prime minister confirmed this week that there was no Plan B and never had been. But really this is just a fragment of her disgrace. Last week she whipped against her own motion and effectively voted for no-deal, despite all her government’s warnings about food and medicine shortages. On Wednesday afternoon she declared in Parliament that although MPs had effectively demanded a long extension, she would overrule them and only request a short one. Then on Wednesday evening, in her address to the nation, she assumed the mantle of a tinpot dictator who could only respond to parliamentary defeats by disregarding them. Worse, she exclusively blamed MPs for the crisis and appeared to claim that she alone was defending the national interest and she alone could determine what the British people wanted.
The truth, of course, was this: if May could not get what she wanted, she would drive her people to the cliff-edge whether or not they consented to it.
May’s parliamentary performance and televised address produced the most shameful constitutional moment in modern British history. May does not look or sound like a 20th-century tyrant but that does not mean she is not echoing one. This was old-fashioned despotism refashioned for a Home Counties drinks party. The EU rejected it this week, and Parliament will almost certainly do the same next week. May is now an authoritarian stripped of authority.
MPs have won some breathing space, but they will not have long to decide what to do with the power Brussels has returned to them. In the short term they will need to change our exit date in law and, if the government can get around the Speaker, vote again on May’s deal. But then the real drama of choosing an alternative will finally begin.
For now, we must simply take a moment to digest the enormity of what has taken place.
Last night was one of the darkest moments in modern British history. The visible icon of our humiliation was the gaggle of press tweeting snippets from the room in which our fate was being decided, while the prime minister waited to hear the extension date she would then have to announce to the country. It was Britain’s most important night in decades and Britain’s prime minister had no power over it whatsoever.
Underneath all that was Brexit’s unspeakable truth. Nobody took this power from us. We willingly surrendered it.
For years, Brexiters decried the supposed humiliation and impotence of our EU membership. Last night they finally engineered it. The reality was starker and more crushing than anything they once invented. This was the final destination of Brexit’s fantasy and the Brexiteers’ hubris. This was the final taking back of control.
But the end result of being at the EU’s mercy was that the EU was merciful. Brussels will not send us into the abyss even if Theresa May would. We must be grateful for the rest of our lives that, with the Brexit vote, we gave up our control not to our prime minister but to the leaders of the European Union.