Friday, March 29 2019, is the day the United Kingdom was meant to be leaving the EU. But the withdrawal process initiated two years ago is stuck, and Brexit is temporarily postponed until at least April 12, possibly May 22, or perhaps even later: Having failed twice to get her withdrawal agreement through parliament, last week prime minister Theresa May received an extension from the EU.
With at least a couple of weeks of breathing space secured, two extraordinary political events took place this Wednesday. First, in an event without precedent, the House of Commons seized control of parliamentary procedure, normally the administration’s prerogative, and held a number of test votes, called “indicative votes” to find a consensus for some alternative way out of the current deadlock. Then, as Members of Parliament were debating, May, speaking to the group of Conservative MPs who back in December had staged an unsuccessful challenge to her leadership, announced that if they backed her and Parliament approved her deal, she would resign as leader of the party and prime minister. The fact that it is this second event, not the first—a historic Parliamentary intervention—that will likely determine what happens next reveals a deep truth about Brexit: It was always about the power dynamics within the Conservative Party.
If you started following British politics three years ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the public has always cared about one thing, and one thing only: the EU. And yet, just a year before the 2016 referendum, only six percent of voters mentioned the EU as the most important issue for them. Even though immigration—not unconnected to EU membership—was the third most important concern for voters in the 2015 election, Europe itself ranked seventh. So how did the country go from hardly thinking about the EU to holding a national referendum on whether to withdraw from the union?
Even though the U.K.’s EU membership was not on the minds of ordinary voters, it was all that some Conservative MPs thought about. When he became leader of the Conservative Party in 2006, David Cameron argued that one of the reasons the Conservatives kept losing elections was that they couldn’t stop “banging on about Europe” when no one but them seemed to care. A combination of factors, including the rise of UKIP, an explicitly euroskeptic party popular with Conservative voters, meant that the EU remained on the agenda, and in 2013, Cameron, by then prime minister, promised his MPs an in/out referendum. It was a way to keep the Conservative Party together, to forestall Conservative voters tempted by UKIP, and to quiet down the euroskeptic wing of the party by settling the issue once and for all.
History was not kind to Cameron. It turned out that “banging on about Europe” would become the nation’s most passionate political cause, and that far from calming the euroskeptic wing of the Conservatives, the referendum would inflame its members’ sense of purpose, granting them more influence over the party than ever before. Admittedly, pro-Brexit Conservatives weren’t always capable of capitalizing on that newfound political influence, falling over themselves in the leadership contest following Cameron’s resignation and thus ceding the party leadership to pro-Remain Theresa May. Despite that, May was acutely aware that she needed the support of her party’s Brexiters in her efforts to reach a withdrawal agreement, and proceeded to give them prominent positions in her government and in the negotiations with the EU.
Even after it became clear that May would need the support of Parliament, not just her own party, for any deal she struck with the EU, she proceeded to shape her negotiations with an eye to what Conservative Brexiters would find acceptable. The backfiring of that strategy is what brought us to the current moment: In trying to appease her own party’s hardliners, May alienated the rest of Parliament, who for the most part favor a much closer future relationship with the EU than the one outlined in the political declaration attached to the withdrawal agreement. At the same time, ultra-Brexit Conservatives (for example members of the European Research Group) emboldened by May’s deference to them, have been instrumental in blocking approval of her deal. They have instead been calling for a no-deal Brexit, a much more abrupt and disruptive end to the U.K.’s relationship with the EU.
May’s Wednesday announcement changed all that.
In the annals of Brexit posturing, few approach the comical exaggeration of Boris Johnson. He has said May’s deal would render the U.K. a “vassal state,” adding that anything other than a no-deal Brexit would constitute a national humiliation. He recently implored May to “channel Moses” and lead the U.K. in a Bible-style exodus, likening the EU to the Pharaoh. Yet on hearing of May’s intention to resign, on condition that Parliament would approve her deal, he reversed course immediately. Johnson and a number of other ERG hardliners have now announced they are backing May’s deal.
Brexit was never about the will of the people; it was about a group of politicians’ will to power. Cameron called the referendum with the aim of keeping the Conservative Party united and preventing voters from flocking over to UKIP. May, despite having elevated the delivery of Brexit to the pinnacle of democratic duty, pursued a negotiation strategy based not on what could command a parliamentary majority, but on what would keep her party in government and her as prime minister. Now it has also been confirmed that the hard Brexit stance of the likes of Johnson has been little more than a leadership tactic, abandoned once the opportunity to replace May presented itself.
The European Council has offered the country a Brexit extension until May 22 only if Parliament approves a withdrawal agreement by the end of this week. Accordingly, Parliament will vote on May’s agreement yet again on Friday, with the default alternative being to leave the EU on April 12 without a deal. The Conservative naysayers’ shift changes the dynamics, but does not necessarily give May a majority. Some ERG members are sticking to their guns, and the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Ireland party propping May’s minority government, has signalled it won’t be backing her. Parliament’s attempt to seize control on Wednesday, historic though it was, failed to deliver a workable consensus. Between Friday and Monday, when the second part of Parliament’s indicative voting will take place, many hope a parliamentary majority for some other way forward will emerge. But despite the slogans, Brexit was never about popular, or even parliamentary, sovereignty. It was born from an internal party power struggle. It will probably be concluded the same way.