With less than five weeks to go before the U.K. is scheduled to leave the European Union, deal or no deal, Prime Minister Theresa May is no closer to finalizing a divorce agreement than she was two months — or two years — ago. With the clock rapidly ticking down to a potentially disastrous crash-out scenario on March 29, the time has come for last-minute gambits. Both May and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn made decisions on Monday that took the country by surprise, stepping back from the maximalist positions they had maintained throughout the past two-plus years of Brexit drama.
First, Corbyn announced that his Labour Party would back a second referendum on Brexit if its alternative plan for a softer Brexit fails to pass the House of Commons this week (which is almost a certainty). Later in the day, Bloomberg reported that the prime minister may convene her Cabinet today to discuss the possibility of extending the Brexit deadline past March 29, mere hours after insisting that a deal was in reach and a delay would be pointless. In this case, if Parliament failed to pass a Brexit deal by March 12, she would let them hold a binding vote on whether to proceed with a no-deal Brexit or put off the deadline, perhaps by a significant amount of time.
These surprise U-turns reflect the desperation of a government that has to make a very big, very hard decision in a very short time. They also illustrate what an inescapable political mess Brexit has become for both of the U.K.’s leading parties.
Let’s start with Corbyn and Labour. While the party’s grassroots strongly support a second vote, its MPs are much more reluctant to do so. Labour MPs face a dilemma American Democrats will find strikingly familiar: To win elections outside the major cities where the bulk of their voters are concentrated, they need the support of blue-collar workers in Britain’s industrial heartland: the much-coveted white (or in this case, English) working class. Many of these swing voters are Leavers. For his part, Corbyn has insisted all along that he would respect the original vote and fight for a Brexit that preserved British workers’ rights, which may have helped win many of these swing voters back to Labour in the last general election.
Although the sincerity of his convictions in that regard have long been in doubt, as Cambridge professor David Runciman explained to The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, Corbyn and his inner circle now believe that leaving the E.U. will give a future Labour government a freer hand in enacting their socialist agenda. That, of course, makes Corbyn’s decision to humor his base and countenance a second referendum all the more odd.
The way he’s framing it is that Labour will do whatever it takes to prevent a “Tory Brexit” — encompassing both the no-deal nightmare and the wildly unpopular deal May agreed to with Brussels bureaucrats and has repeatedly failed to muscle through Parliament. The idea, it seems, is to give Labour MPs some wiggle room to say they backed a sensible Brexit deal or a second referendum, depending on what kind of constituency they’re facing, all the while underscoring that it was the Tories who got Britain into this mess, so if it all goes to hell, voters know whom to blame.
Of course, the vote Corbyn would really like is another general election: specifically, one that carries him into 10 Downing Street with a commanding majority in Parliament and a mandate to carry out his policy vision. To that end, he has been stumping for a “Norway–plus” version of Brexit that would keep the U.K. in the E.U. customs union and maintain the free movement of labor, essentially promising the public that Britain can leave the E.U. without making all the changes that would entail — an ironic counterpoint to the hard-Brexit crowd’s false promise that the country can make those changes without suffering any negative consequences. Runciman calls this a fantasy, adding that Corbyn’s parallel dream of a general election leading to a Labour rout is “about the least likely of all the scenarios we’ve got.”
The trouble is that Norway–plus can’t pass Parliament any more than May’s plan can. A second referendum is not very likely to pass, either, so the risk Corbyn runs is failing to prevent a “Tory Brexit” and getting nothing for his trouble except a fractured party. At least 25 Labour MPs would likely vote against a second referendum, perhaps twice as many. Precious few Conservatives back another vote.
Corbyn is already losing support within his own party, first from centrists who broke off to form the nascent Independent Group along with a few defecting Conservatives last week, and now perhaps from a social-democratic faction as well. In theory, Corbyn could cobble together a majority if he got the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland on board, while holding onto the bulk of Labour MPs and peeling off a few Tories, but it’s a long shot.
Finally, hanging over all of this is the sobering fact that a second referendum might not result in the cancellation of Brexit after all. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, praising Corbyn’s about-face, points out that polls and focus groups suggest it will: “Few switch sides, but the switchers all move towards remain. Those who didn’t vote but would do so next time break 3:1 for remain.” Yet as long as May (or some other Tory) holds onto the prime ministry, the government will campaign robustly for some version of Leave, as opposed to in 2016 when it campaigned ineffectually for Remain. The xenophobic nationalists who gave birth to Brexit in the first place would be up in arms — perhaps literally. A multiple-choice referendum (May’s deal, Norway–plus, no-deal, or no Brexit) might produce no clear winner, leading to more political chaos and social strife.
Shifting to an anti-Brexit posture might be the right call for Labour, but there’s no pretending a second referendum would simply reverse the first one and close the matter. As Toynbee herself acknowledged last month, the conflict over Brexit is bound to go on for years to come.
As for May, if she really is considering a delay in the Brexit deadline, this suggests that she is growing less confident in her ability to slide in under the wire with a deal before the end of March. Her party is split, too, between radical nationalists clamoring for Brexit, deal or no-deal; and conservative, pro-business types afraid of the economic chaos that would likely ensue from an unconscious uncoupling. Her attempts to scare her party into uniting around her plan have only encouraged the hardline Brexiteers to deceive the public into believing that a no-deal Brexit wouldn’t really be all that bad. For the prime minister, letting Parliament veto a crash-out and force a delay would effectively be admitting that she is no longer steering the ship, but that would be better than steering the ship directly into a minefield.
On Monday, European Council president Donald Tusk said it would be “a rational decision,” considering the alternative, but the E.U. also has reasons not to want a delay. European Parliament elections are coming up in May, and it’s not clear whether the U.K. should participate in those elections if the deadline is extended. Considering that this is the election in which the far-right hopes to take control of the E.U., the bloc has more important things to worry about than whether to hold seats for British MEPs who probably won’t end up taking them.
With time running out, May is finally having to face the reality that if her own party can’t even agree on what Brexit should look like, her chances of finding a deal that would survive a Tory rebellion, pass Parliament, and get the okay from Brussels are as slim as ever, and the impending threat of crashing out hasn’t influenced that calculus as much as she had hoped. Passing any kind of Brexit deal would require a cross-party majority, and no such majority appears to exist.
Whatever happens in the next few weeks, the prognosis for the U.K.’s political establishment is grim. Society is deeply divided, voters are down on both major parties, and both the government and the legislature are failing to lead in a crisis situation. Brexit hasn’t just fractured the Labour and the Conservative parties; it may have broken British politics entirely.