The U.K. is the world’s sixth biggest economy, hosts the world’s largest financial center and is home to around one in every hundred people on Earth. And yet, as far as anyone can see — from the top of government, to commentators, to anyone in the street — the country appears to be in nothing less than absolute political gridlock, which isn't good news for our economy, the world's finances or (at a minimum) all of those people.
Looking across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom, the current political mess generated by its decision to leave the European Union (also known as Brexit) might seem incomprehensible. But, I promise, the chaos gets no easier to understand the nearer you get to it.
Trying to get any politician or commentator to explain the mess without quickly descending into a flurry of unpublishable words is all but impossible, but here is the best effort to explain the most chaotic week in U.K. politics in some time — and it’s only Tuesday.
Tuesday was supposed to mark the day that U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May presented her hard-negotiated Brexit deal to parliament, which consisted of a 585-page legally-binding deal between our country and the European Union, covering the terms of the U.K. leaving the bloc, as well as a 26-page political declaration to set out the rough terms of its future relationship.
The problem was that May did not have nearly enough votes to get the deal through. Not only did every opposition party pledge to vote against it, but the Northern Irish DUP party — on whose cooperation May relies to remain in office — also offered to vote against it.
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To make things worse for her, around 100 of the members of Parliament from her own party — around one in three — also pledged to vote the deal down. May was on track for one of the heaviest government defeats in the history of parliament.
Nevertheless, she persisted... until she didn’t. Even as May sent out her cabinet ministers and official spokesman to tell the world that the vote on the deal was still on, she was phoning E.U. leaders to tell them it wasn’t. Then, 20 minutes after confirming to the media the vote was on, she confirmed to her ministers it wasn’t.
This is where things really start getting messy: Parliament was understandable furious to suddenly hear that the vote was being withdrawn three days into a five-day debate — and after 164 MPs had already spoken on the issue.
John Bercow, the speaker of the Commons, told the PM retracting the vote was “deeply discourteous” (in the rarefied language of the U.K. parliament, this is a killing insult) and said that May should hold a vote on whether or not to hold a vote.
But then he had to admit he didn’t have the power to force her to do that. Understandably, given that she’d lose that vote too, she did not hold such a vote.
At this point, Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle decided to make proceedings even more ridiculous by seizing the ceremonial mace from the floor of the chamber (a move he later defended in the pages of The Guardian, where he admitted, "I am aware that for the vast majority of people a gangly man in moleskin trousers holding a 5-foot golden rod might look a bit odd.") This mace is the symbol of royal authority invested in our democracy, and needs to be in its spot to allow both the Commons (the U.K. version of the House) and Lords (our Senate) to be in session.
Again, this is happening in the world’s sixth biggest economy. (I’m not even sure who I’m trying to remind of that any more: Readers or the members of Parliament.)
After aimlessly waving the mace around for a few seconds, Russell-Moyle handed it back to representatives of the Parliament. As punishment, he was banned from the Chamber for the rest of the day — except that, at May's request, all the business for the rest of the day had just been cancelled, so Russell-Moyle was essentially punished by being let off work five minutes early.
The mess will only get worse: Theresa May is going back to Europe to try to get concessions on the deal to which both she and they already agreed, which the E.U. has already said is impossible. The Labour Party — the leading opposition party is facing calls to offer a motion of no confidence against May's government, but is trying not to because it knows it will lose any such vote.
The current government of the U.K. is too weak to govern and, at the moment, also too strong to unseat. Nobody can come up with the numbers to vote through any alternative to May’s plan. That plan itself has no hope of ever passing through Parliament. And unless someone finds a way out, the U.K. will leave the EU by default — with no contingencies in place — in less than four months.
Welcome to the U.K.’s fractal farce: The closer you get, the messier it looks. It’s chaos all the way down.