“There is nothing unusual in the fact that a backward country produces powerful works,” Georg Lukács wrote in an essay on Dostoevsky. By that standard, the cultural work happening quietly in offices and studios throughout Great Britain right now will be of incalculable quality, volume, and worth. Politically, the United Kingdom is waist deep in a swamp of its own creation.
Prime Minister Theresa May has tried to force down her withdrawal agreement from the European Union like stomach medicine, and it has been received by members of parliament from across the political spectrum like a cup of warm vomit. Upon failing once, May attempted to use the looming threat of the UK leaving the EU without a deal — and having to crash out, reverting to World Trade Organization rules instead — to convince the house to back the second, identical, deal. This sequel — call it, “2 Vote 2 Meaningful” — was also voted down by MPs, who are able to read and not scared of May’s weak threats. The government lost by 149 votes.
May would have continued pushing the same vote through repeatedly until a spanner jammed the cogs of the machine. But the UK’s unwritten constitution stipulates that the government cannot reissue the same piece of legislation unchanged. Several MPs approached the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, to complain that May had abused this rule; Bercow thus decided that May must change the motion if she wanted a third vote.
In an attempt to move the Brexit process forward, May decided to try to split the vote into two parts — her withdrawal agreement and the non-binding political declaration that accompanies it — hoping if MPs backed one but not the other, the EU would at least give her credit for making progress. The vote for the withdrawal element of the deal was 286 for and 344 against.
So where are we now? The political landscape changes drastically every day. The mood within Number 10 is one of both exhaustion and utter terror: when asked on Newsnight what was going on at the top of the Conservative Party, a cabinet minister replied, “Fuck knows. I’m past caring. It’s like the living dead in here.“
The public, journalists, and MPs will recognize the feeling, mired in endless discussion of Brexit and seemingly no action. Earlier in the week, May told the MPs baying for her blood that she would resign once her deal had passed. This was designed to be reassuring and to encourage more people to back her, but instead it raised the prospect that she could be prime minister forever with her deal endlessly rejected. The UK has had its fair share of reprehensible prime ministers, but never one so inept they lacked enough support to resign. May has truly pulled off an incredible feat.
The withdrawal agreement alone was rejected. May will now bring the second part of the deal for a vote and get defeated again. May must surely now accept her deal has failed, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the House of Commons chamber immediately after the vote. The Scottish National Party followed by saying she must surely accept the need for a general election. May has managed to lock herself into Number 10 with an ill-fated promise.
What can happen now? Moving to a general election forces the Conservatives to fight with May still their leader — a situation none of them, doubtless even May, want under any circumstances. Europe may grant a further extension of the Article 50 deadline before April 12, but the EU has stated that it will only be granted if there is a plan and a process underpinning that extension plea. Simply rerunning the same vote forever won’t wash: May would have to promise a general election, with a Tory leadership contest beforehand; a new deal being thrashed out; a referendum on May’s deal, in which the public could accept or reject the proposal; or a referendum on whether or not to leave the EU at all, which could go either way.
The Conservatives have not looked so weak in a lifetime — even John Major’s government prior to Tony Blair’s 1997 election landslide. All political energy is focused on Brexit, rather than even a nod at social and domestic policy, and the Tories cannot get anything through parliament — they are in total gridlock, the party eating itself from within.
Entering a general election with May as leader would be even more disastrous than her decision to call the 2017 general election. But the only likely leadership candidates will be those absolutely eaten alive with lust for power, and power for power’s sake; no one with long-term, calculating ambition would consider taking the helm — the chalice is not so much poisoned as comprised entirely of nuclear waste.
Whoever takes over will have to desperately hold a warring party together long enough to get to polling day. The circumstances, and the Tories’ absolute terror of a Corbyn victory, mean a general election will be the very last decision they make, but one still they have no option but to choose.
May can attempt a second negotiation for a different withdrawal agreement, but given the fact that MPs and parties have wildly different views and there are multiple questions of regional and party loyalties to consider, she is unlikely to reach a consensus. The one majority view shared in parliament is that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union. Most MPs voted “remain” on the ballot, and few have shifted their view.
A referendum on either accepting a withdrawal agreement or rejecting the deal and staying is the most likely possible option, but a second referendum is a fainter option. Any vote would be hugely disruptive, worsening the intense warring between sides, and further misrepresenting UK voters’ views on Europe as a dichotomy rather than a diverse spectrum. In the years since the first referendum, the Leave/Remain split has been transposed into a set of shared personal identities; these, in turn, have become damaging caricatures that only worsen the siege mentality.
A lot remains up in the air around those three options. The coming days will move swiftly with many surprise political interjections and upsets, as May is forced to clarify what moves the government will make, but most crucially, when she will resign and a timetable for the election of a new leader.
The only certainty is this: that in the eyes of the UK public, whatever happens, everyone loses.