The British body politic is convulsing as Theresa May steers through a rough patch. Monday’s deferment of the House of Commons vote on the Brexit withdrawal bill been generally lampooned as a colossal blunder. Well, might the Prime Minister imagine that she has staved off a crisis, but only for the moment.
It will be hard to dispute that she has conveyed the impression that the head of government is on the run and has distinctly accorded short shrift to, if not contempt towards, the legislature, faced as she is with the prospect of a humiliating defeat of the Executive, engineered in part by Tory hardliners. She has had to countenance a contretemp too many, and the latest has been the almost certain defeat of the bill in the Commons. She has postponed the parliamentary vote not the least because she knew she would lose.
There is little doubt that she has been let down by her own MPs. In the net, the spirited resident of 10 Downing Street has effected a retreat to the consternation of the country, and seldom has British constitutional history encountered so tumultuous a phase. She has opted to run rather than stand and fight for what she had agreed with European leaders.
It is early days to speculate on whether she has saved her leadership; suffice it to register that she has devalued her office almost to the point of ridicule. The referendum of June 2016 has been reduced to irrelevance, and perhaps the people can be called upon to spell out their thoughts yet again. The wafer-thin margin of the “Leave” vote was less than convincing. Yet the idea that another referendum would heal divisions may be pie in the sky; they could become deeper and still more irreconcilable.
The outlook for Brexit is as fogbound as the damp English winter. European Union leaders have let it be known that there can be “no further renegotiation of the terms of the United Kingdom’s departure”. Just as the differences within the Conservative camp lend no scope for “re-negotiation”. Mrs May’s problem is that it is impossible to reconcile the irreconcilable. Ergo, it is time for both “Leavers” and “Remainers” to get real. The political slugfest has overshadowed the core issue; an agreement has eluded the nitty-gritty.
The tragedy of the essay towards Brexit must be that in a little over two years, the discord has virtually immobilised the government. Britain is in crisis, of a kind that can only be resolved with a Commons majority.
The idea of Brexit is delusory, but with the potential to wreck the government. For now, Theresa May lives to fight another day and is currently testing the waters in Europe in an effort to salvage the deal. She is biding time, at any rate till 21 January.