British prime minister Theresa May spent the past two months describing her Brexit plan as “the best” and “only possible deal” that the United Kingdom could secure from the European Union.
On Tuesday, the U.K. Parliament rejected that deal by 230 votes — the most lopsided defeat a sitting government has ever suffered in British history. Now, May is assuring her fellow Conservatives that there are, of course, other possible deals — while Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn pushes to topple her government, and global investors bet that Brexit will never happen. We are now only ten weeks away from the U.K. “crashing out” of the E.U. without an agreement.
Immediately after May’s defeat, Corbyn suggested that the historic vote had demonstrated “the sheer incompetence of this government,” and offered a motion of no confidence. If a majority of Parliament backs that motion Wednesday, May’s government will fall and a new general election could theoretically be called. But early chatter suggests Corbyn won’t have the votes. Thanks to a failed leadership challenge last month, the Conservatives cannot replace May as their leader until the end of the year. And the Tories’ coalition partner, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, told the BBC that it will support May on Wednesday.
But even if May does survive, the U.K. is sure to remain wracked by political instability. May’s recent rhetoric about her Brexit plan wasn’t pure hyperbole: The European Union’s official position is that it is done negotiating. And even if it weren’t, it’s unclear what (remotely plausible) concessions could move the parliamentary math in May’s favor.
May’s core problem is simple: There is no viable version of Brexit that will not leave Britain worse off than it is under the status quo — and thus, it is in virtually no one’s political interest to endorse any actually existing Brexit agreement. The Tories’ far-right Brexiteers would much rather deride any deal that doesn’t allow the U.K. to retain all the benefits of E.U. membership (and that fails to restore Britain’s dominion over the Suez Canal) as a betrayal of the one true Brexit — while Labour has no interest in simultaneously antagonizing its remain contingent, disappointing its pro-Brexit faction (by exposing it to the grim reality of its position), and strengthening Theresa May’s grip on power.
In more granular terms, the most intractable problem in negotiations between the U.K. and E.U. has been the status of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Free movement and trade between the two nations was a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, and thus, a pillar of peace in the region ever since. Thousands of people cross the border daily for work, and many companies have built business models and supply chains that depend on the maintenance of seamless commerce between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Thus, many in May’s party insist that any Brexit deal must keep that border open.
But Ireland is not leaving the E.U. And the E.U. is, among other things, a single market and a customs union. As a single market, E.U. members synchronize their consumer, labor (including immigration), and other commercial regulations; as a customs union, they apply synchronized tariffs on goods produced outside of the union. Thus, if Britain exits both the single market and customs union, then Ireland would be forced to impose tariffs on products produced in Northern Ireland and check them at the border for compliance with the E.U.’s regulations. The only way to avoid that outcome would be for Northern Ireland to remain beholden to E.U. rules. And so, under May’s deal, it does. The agreement frames this as a temporary expedient, until a more satisfying solution is found. But 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. Thus, hard-line Brexiteers insist on May prioritizing freedom from Brussels over peace in Ireland.
Meanwhile, other opponents of May’s deal want a new referendum on Brexit itself, or else a form of Brexit that keeps the entirety of the U.K. in the customs union and/or single market.
Ostensibly, fear of a “crash out” Brexit is May’s best (and only) hope of getting a deal through Parliament. As March 29 draws closer — and the specter of food shortages and trade chaos comes into clearer view — perhaps rebellious backbenchers will realize that a bad deal is better than no deal.