The United Kingdom faces many genuine challenges. Its economy is exceptionally unequal, while its wage growth is the weakest of any G20 nation. It’s nigh-impossible to find affordable housing in London, and nearly as hard to find a well-paying job anywhere else. Its public services are underfunded, its deindustrialized regions in despair.
And yet, instead trying to solve these problems, far-right Tories decided in 2016 to engineer an utterly pointless crisis that would make their country’s troubles even worse (if only by consuming energy and attention that could have been spent on more productive purposes).
Now, Theresa May’s government faces many genuine challenges. After months of negotiation, it has put together a Brexit plan that the City of London and the European Union can both live with — but that Parliament still can’t. After delaying a vote on her deal, May has mere weeks to cobble together a majority from loyal Tories and Labour defectors before Britain crashes out of the E.U. — or else, the Conservatives will face the grim choice of either reneging on Brexit, or presiding over food shortages.
But instead of helping May confront these problems, far-right Tories are trying to engineer an utterly pointless crisis (within an utterly pointless crisis) that will make their party’s troubles even worse (if only by consuming energy and attention that could have been spent on more productive purposes).
Specifically, hard-line Brexiteers led by MP Jacob Rees-Mogg have successfully forced a vote of no confidence on May’s leadership. If the prime minister fails to win the votes of 158 Conservative MPs later today, the party will hold a new leadership election in which May could not run. That election process could take up to six weeks — during which time, it will virtually impossible to make meaningful progress on a Brexit agreement (which, as already mentioned, the E.U. is adamantly opposed to renegotiating).
To be fair to the hardliners, their dissatisfaction with May’s deal is understandable. In their view, Brexit means freeing Britain from the E.U.’s regulatory authority, and empowering the U.K. to pursue bilateral trade agreements with nations the world over. And May’s draft agreement would not achieve Brexit in that sense: In order to preserve an open border between Northern Ireland (a member of the United Kingdom) and Ireland (a member of the E.U.) — the foundation of the Good Friday Agreement and thus, peace in that region — May’s deal would “temporarily” keep the entire U.K. in the E.U.’s customs union. Which is to say: In order to prevent people and goods from having to go through customs when crossing from Ireland into Northern Ireland, the U.K. will continue to be subject to many E.U. trading rules and regulations (only now, they will have less voice in shaping them). This arrangement would also bar Britain from cutting its own, independent trade deals.
May insists that this a mere temporary “backstop,” until a more satisfying solution to the Irish border problem can be found. But the deal does not put an expiration date on said backstop. And it’s unclear how the U.K.’s simultaneous demands for an open border with Ireland — and total sovereignty over its trade and regulatory policies — could ever be reconciled.
So, the hard-line Brexiteers have reason to be unhappy. But they have none for thinking that the problems inherent to their (stupid) signature idea can be resolved, if only they put one of their own in power.
May drove home this point in remarks Wednesday.
“A leadership election would not change the fundamentals of the negotiation or the Parliamentary arithmetic,” May said in a statement. “Weeks spent tearing ourselves apart will only create more division just as we should be standing together to serve our country. None of that would be in the national interest.”
For the moment, it looks like a majority of Conservative MPs agree. According to the BBC, 158 Tory MPs are on the record in support of May’s leadership — exactly the number of votes she needs to stay prime minister — while just 33 Tory MPs are officially opposed. That said, the vote will be conducted in a secret ballot, so it’s conceivable that some of May’s public supporters are bluffing.
If May is defeated, the victory could prove pyrrhic for her Conservative critics. While some far-right Tories are comfortable with a no-deal Brexit, a large majority of Parliament is not. Without May’s deal as an option, a second referendum — or a Norway-style agreement, in which Britain would secure better economic terms in exchange for continuing to accept the free movement of people between the U.K. and E.U. — may suddenly become viable.
Regardless, the current Conservative-led government appears to be secure for the moment. While many in Labour are eager to force a vote of no-confidence on the entire ruling coalition — thereby forcing a general election — the party believes such a vote would fail badly, if taken today.