On Wednesday, the United Kingdom managed to set what might be a global political first: The head of our country tried to resign — sort of, at least — and failed.
If that sounds like a confusing mess, it’s only one of around half a dozen nearly inexplicable things that happened this week in the U.K.’s fractious and broken political system, which is now seemingly irreparably broken by Brexit. Explaining the mess takes a little doing, but shows what a state of unprecedented political chaos has overwhelmed the country, starting and ending with how Prime Minister Theresa May ended up offering to resign, and somehow not doing so.
This Friday, March 29, was originally the much-publicized deadline for the first stage of the exit talks between the U.K. and the European Union, meaning that, under the laws governing the E.U., the U.K. had to either complete negotiations with the other member states on an exit agreement under Article 50 (the legal process for leaving the EU), or give up on one (a no-deal exit) and find itself suddenly cut off from many of its key trading partners with no notice.
Theresa May’s government managed to agree to a deal with the European Union in late 2018, which covers citizens’ rights, payments to leave the Union and a “backstop” position, allowing customs-free trade across the Irish border in the event that the U.K. and E.U. can’t agree to a permanent future relationship.
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May has however been unable to convince parliament to ratify it, and the E.U. has said that the exit deal cannot be renegotiated under any circumstances, and the U.K. will have to take it or leave it.
Some lawmakers oppose the deal because they don’t want to leave the E.U. at all. Some oppose it because they will only back a deal with a second public referendum on it. Some oppose it because the agreement to leave the Irish border open, in their view, compromises Northern Ireland’s position as part of the U.K. Some oppose it because they want to pin down certain future relationships with the E.U. that are to be part of the post-March negotiations — a “soft” or “hard” Brexit — even though that isn’t possible to legally guarantee under the deal.
If several of those reasons for disagreeing with May’s deal sound mutually contradictory, it’s because they are – which makes unifying a majority behind any one plan all the more difficult, especially when the E.U. won’t allow the current deal to be renegotiated.
Given that gridlock, with no obvious get-out in sight, the E.U. authorized an extension (to April 12) of the Article 50 process to try and find some last-minute way through the chaos, as well as an extra few weeks to implement the deal if parliament somehow actually passes it.
Leading up to Wednesday, then, May had one, presumably last, chance to get enough members to agree to the deal that she had negotiated. Given that she is an unpopular leader who has already announced she’ll leave before 2022, that doesn’t leave her much left to trade for votes.
And so it was that she tried an innovation on one of the oldest political tricks in the book. Instead of “back me or sack me” she offered her party the variant “back me then sack me,” offering to resign by summer if and only if her deal was approved.
For a few hours, it looked like it might work: A flurry of members of her party who had criticized the deal said they’d now support it — most prominently former London mayor and foreign minister Boris Johnson, who hopes to succeed May as leader.
But even bringing a few Tories back to the fold looks like it won’t be enough, as May’s political allies in Northern Ireland still don’t back her deal, and nor do 20 to 30 holdouts in her own party. And with her likely successor at leader to be a hardliner, winning support from left-leaning Labour party members disenchanted with their party’s position has only got harder.
Since May offered to resign only if her deal passed, that leaves her now weakened — yet again — but still in office, aided by party rules which make her impossible to challenge if she won’t voluntarily resign (at least until much later in the year).
The same day as the machinations over her tenure occurred — this was all still one day — parliament voted on eight alternatives to May’s deal, including abandoning Brexit, leaving without deal, putting conditions on Brexit and more. It then rejected all eight of them.
Welcome to the U.K., where we are 15 days away from a disastrous unplanned exit from the E.U. that members of parliament have, time and again, said they don’t want, but the alternatives to which they’ve consistently voted down. We have become the national form of the facepalm emoji.