As Britain hurtles closer to its self-imposed exile from Europe, Prime Minister Theresa May has narrowly evaded a series of Brexit-induced crises. Over the past two years, May has been struggling to unite warring factions of the Conservative Party and construct a Brexit framework that honors the 2016 referendum while nurturing the economy. The turbulence of the past week, however, has underscored how little progress has been made, and how paralyzed the British government remains as its leader staves off rebellions from so-called Remainiacs and Brexiteers (allied solely by their mutual disdain for her Brexit blueprint). Addressing lawmakers in the final session of Prime Minister’s Questions before the summer recess Wednesday, May dismissed mounting criticism of her handling of Brexit and the fraught spectacle of Donald Trump’s recent visit, insisting that while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “protests, I deliver.” In turn, Corbyn attacked the “dither and delay” in Brexit negotiations, arguing that the Conservative Party had “sunk into a mire of chaos and division.”
The root of the chaos, of course, is not May’s feckless leadership, but Brexit itself. When voters went to the polls, they were posed a simple yes-or-no question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” But instead of delineating the implications of both choices, the public was besieged by a public-relations campaign that presented a crude binary: on one side was the elite status quo; on the other, an undefined fantasy of sovereignty. Voters chose the fantasy. May, who took power from David Cameron 20 days after the referendum result, voted Remain but vowed to pursue a “hard” Brexit. For a time, she obscured the meaning of that promise with the puzzling slogan, “Brexit means Brexit.” But reality has caught up to May and to Britain. In the summer of 2017, she called a snap general election designed to strengthen the mandate for her leadership and its objectives. Instead, as the political divide deepened, May lost her majority—and her mandate.
Now, with the do-or-die Brexit date set for March 29, 2019, May is rapidly running out of time, but seems no closer to striking a functional deal that appeals to her party, Brussels, and the British public. Earlier this month, she attempted to rectify this, gathering her Cabinet at her countryside retreat, Chequers, and presenting a vision for a “soft” Brexit that proposed staying closely linked to the E.U. for trade and customs, and suggested that the U.K. should collect tariffs on goods headed towards the E.U. on behalf of the bloc. Brexit Secretary David Davis summarily resigned, and was swiftly followed by former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who gave a speech to Parliament on Wednesday urging May to shred her “miserable” plans for close relations with the E.U. and return to the “glorious vision” set out last year.
Meanwhile, the pressure on May continues to build. On Monday, in defiance of the Chequers agreement, a Euro-skeptic contingent in Parliament tabled four amendments to the government’s customs bill, forcing to entertain a more hardline stance. Initially, the government accepted only three amendments; the fourth, prohibiting the U.K. from collecting tariffs on behalf of the E.U., undermined the core premise of May’s customs proposal. Yet the government ultimately accepted the fourth amendment, too, creating the bizarre spectacle of the prime minister urging her party to support legislation that rendered her own Brexit policy unviable. The bill passed narrowly by 305 votes to 302, with 14 Conservatives rebelling against their government, and Junior Minister Guto Bebb resigning over the Brexiteers’ “wrecking amendments” designed to derail May’s plan. “There are some in the party who are more intent on the concept of ideological purity on a Brexit which most people didn’t vote for,” he said, echoing an impassioned pre-vote speech from Conservative Remainer Anna Soubry, who berated colleagues with a “gold-plated pension and inherited wealth” for backing an academic vision of Brexit at the expense of the ordinary people whose livelihoods would actually be impacted.
The following day, Remainers vowed to seek revenge on the Brexiteers. Conservative lawmakers Nicky Morgan and Stephen Hammond tabled an amendment to the trade bill that would “force Britain to join a customs union with the E.U. if no agreement is reached on frictionless trade” by mid-January 2019—two months before B-day. Ultimately, May’s government defeated the measure, 307 to 301, but the slender victory was reportedly scored via some militant arm-wringing, including the threat of another general election, which could leave the door of Downing Street ajar for Corbyn.
As the pendulum of power swings from the Brexiteers to the Remainers and back, May’s lack of overarching strategy means that each of her successes is painfully incremental. Returning from the summer recess to a bitterly shattered party, she will be six weeks closer to having to take her hobbling Chequers deal to the E.U., who might deem it unworkable. In the interim, a number of unpalatable alternatives are emerging from her paralysis. She could crash out of the E.U. with no deal; she could trigger a vote of no confidence in her leadership; she could call an election. Or, as Conservative M.P. Justine Greening recently suggested, she could call a second referendum. (Soubry was seconded by her associate, Nicholas Soames, who mulled the prospect of an all-party national administration.)
The prospect of a second referendum would be extreme if not for the historical proportions of the current crisis. The campaign promises surrounding Brexit have turned out to be empty. Leave.EU founder Arron Banks, one of the original Brexit Bad Boys, is under transatlantic investigation for his alleged shadowy ties to Russia. On Tuesday, amidst parliamentary infighting, the general chaos worsened when the Electoral Commission concluded that Brexit group Vote Leave broke electoral law.
Could Britain renounce Brexit? As lawmakers battle to define the terms of the U.K.’s self-abnegation, two years on from the Brexit referendum, their nebulous end goal remains tangled in half-truths, histrionics, and now the possibility of Russian meddling. Yet even if May were to step aside, there’s no guarantee Britain could back away from the brink. The next person to fill her shoes may very well feel bound by hubris to see the process through, dragging a once-commanding nation along behind it.