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Enter Stumbling, Stage Right

When did British politics become such a farce?

Niklas Halle'n/Getty Images

Even by Brexit’s shambolic standard, this week has been a doozy. First, on Monday, a member of parliament incensed by the delayed Brexit vote seized the chamber’s seventeenth-century ceremonial mace, resulting in his ejection from the House of Commons. Then, Prime Minister Theresa May survived a mutiny of her own Conservative MPs, who concocted a plan for a no-confidence vote in wood-paneled quarters reportedly dubbed “The Kill Zone.” Thursday, like Rasputin walking away from repeated assassination attempts, May limped to Brussels to try to convince European Union leaders to compromise on a Brexit deal that is almost certain to fail a domestic vote next month. Their response was a resounding “no.”

May has herself at least partly to blame. As Rasputin sold quackery to the Romanovs, so Britain’s PM has peddled a fantasy, milquetoast Brexit that tries to reconcile the fringe “no-dealers” in her own party, for whom compromise with Brussels on issues like freedom of movement is treasonous, and with those who never wanted to leave in the first place, many of whom want a second referendum. May appeased almost nobody, the equivalent of asking a party of squabbling kids if they want ice cream or cake, then serving them sprouts. MPs must vote on the deal by January 21. Held today, the result of that vote would be withering.

Britain has a long and illustrious theatrical tradition. But its body politic largely avoids the technicolor bombast U.S. politics are known for. Last week plans for a Brexit television debate between Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were shelved—partly because arguments over the proposed rules and format swiftly sank negotiations, but also because of a general sense that the British public, deep in a state of bewildered ennui, would rather watch the reality show I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, in which Z-list stars perform humiliating stunts in the Australian jungle, like eating kangaroo anuses, than see May and Corbyn duke it out onstage.

This week, however, British politics has been veering ever closer to theatrics—just not of the stage-managed sort that their American brethren have made a specialty of, and which might actually have been useful earlier in the Brexit saga to energize young voters, most of whom prefer to remain in the EU. Lloyd Russel-Moyle, the Labour MP who protested Brexit chicanery by attempting to carry the hulking, gold-and-precious-stone rod representing the Queen’s ultimate dominion out of the hall, was foiled when John Bercow, the House’s berobed speaker, told him calmly to “put it back.”

Prime Minister’s Questions, the weekly parliamentary session during which MPs grill their leader for around 30 minutes, devolved into schoolyard rejoinders. May told Corbyn, seated opposite her, that “all he wants to do is create chaos in our economy, division in our society and damage to the economy,” to which Corbyn responded that all Brits see “is chaos at the heart of this government.”

Just hours later came the attempted coup from the prime minister’s fellow Conservatives, and May’s closed-doors concession that she will not contest the next planned general election, in 2022, which, according to one political commentator, brought tears to the room. Then the prime minister flew to Belgium, where exasperated EU leaders gestured toward a no-deal Brexit. “Our UK friends need to say what they want, rather than asking what we want,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced Thursday night, adding that the entire Brexit debate had become “nebulous and imprecise.”

This slapstick routine has proven remarkably unproductive both in parliament and public opinion. Net favorability ratings tracked by YouGov show the Conservative and Labour parties have both grown more unpopular over the course of 2018, as have Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, and Boris Johnson, the aspiring clown-in-chief.

The parade of politicians continually stepping on rakes might thrill broadcasters and broadsheet insiders. But it contrasts uncomfortably with the economic hardship Britons are expected to face if the country “crashes out” of the European Union with no deal at all. Swaths of Brits would now happily take any eventuality over Brexit’s continued domination of the news cycle: Nearly 60 percent of them think this is the best deal the EU is likely to offer. Even the Telegraph, a right-wing, pro-Brexit newspaper, ran a column by an editor Friday declaring that negotiations have become a “dismal, dishwatery soap opera.”

Whatever else may be said of Donald Trump’s histrionic rallies, or the oftentimes hateful campaigns that accompany the American election season, some political drama in the U.S. has clearly succeeded in connecting with voters on a visceral level. In Britain, however, events like those of this week have served largely to alienate, proceeding as if they are being played out on a distant stage. With each uncertain day that passes, May, Corbyn, and Co. look more and more out-of-touch, while the economy sinks and small businesses sweat on trade with their neighbors across the English Channel. Perhaps the simplest theory to explain the disconnect is that the drama, in this case, is not particularly well aligned with voters’ actual positions on the Brexit deal. Surveyed Brits thought May should remain in her position, contrary to the Conservatives’ plot. And presumably few, if given a multiple-choice on how best to protest the continued uncertainty, would have ticked the box marked “remove golden ceremonial mace.”

This ineffectiveness leaves millions vulnerable to the toxic charms of racist agitators like Tommy Robinson, now an advisor to the UK Independence Party that helped spark Brexit in the first place, and Nigel Farage, found most weeks on Fox’s most partisan talking head shows. These men spin easy narratives and are masters of scapegoating, luring more followers while Westminster drifts further and further away from everyday reality. This may be the real tragedy of the entire, turgid affair: that while the politicians of the Brexit pantomime fight to stab each other in the back, more Britons are pushed toward even less palatable characters.

This article has been corrected to reflect that, while the House of Commons Mace as a tradition dates back to at least the sixteenth century, the current mace is thought to have been made in the seventeenth century.