By Harsh V. Pant
These are extraordinary times in British politics. In a matter of hours, the same Conservative Party MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who had rejected British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan came to her rescue and saved her government from falling in a no-confidence motion brought by the Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. May’s plan for an amicable divorce from the European Union (EU) was overwhelmingly rejected by the British Parliament, giving her government one of the worst defeats in British political history. This plan, which was aimed at bringing about an orderly departure from the EU on March 29, and setting up a 21-month transition period to negotiate a free trade deal was rejected by 432 to 202 votes. This was a plan which was almost two years in the making with May putting her career on the line. But it was clear that she failed in convincing Parliament that it was the best option for the nation.
But this time May got back her support base from the rebel Tories and the DUP, winning the vote by a margin of 19. May has responded by underscoring her commitment to “continue to work to deliver on the solemn promise to the people of this country to deliver on the result of the referendum and leave the European Union”.
But the road forward remains as complicated as ever for May and for Britain. After her victory in the no-confidence vote, May had called on MPs to “put self-interest aside” and “act in the national interest”, acknowledging that it “will not be an easy task”. Consensus certainly will not be easy to come by as the British polity remains at its most polarised today. May now has to present a new EU withdrawal plan to Parliament by January 21 ahead of a vote by MPs eight days later. And political confabulations have started in right earnest though without any real sense of direction.
Meanwhile, the rest of the EU is moving ahead with contingency planning. European Commission has underlined that it is “taking this very seriously now as the possibility of a no-deal Brexit is becoming more possible”. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has said a no-deal Brexit looks “less and less unlikely” while German Economy Minister Peter Altmeier has warned “everyone in Europe would lose” from the UK leaving without an agreement. Ireland, which has the closest links to the UK of all the EU States, is now solely focused on measures covering key sectors such as health, communications, education, finance, employment and justice.
And in a public letter, more than 170 leading business figures have called for Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn to back another referendum on withdrawal from the European Union “to stop us crashing out of the EU with no deal at all”.
The open political divide in the UK is causing a sense of bewilderment all around. On the one hand, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has refused to negotiate with May unless a no-deal Brexit is ruled out, on the other Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis has ruled out discussion on staying in a customs union. Even within May’s Cabinet, there are contending voices and May’s ability to shape a consensus is gravely in doubt. While the Conservatives showed unity over the confidence vote, with all 314 members backing the Prime Minister, the divisions within the party over the way forward with Brexit remain as strong as ever. May has given no indication so far that she will be willing to budge on her “red lines”, thereby ruling out Labour’s demand for a customs union with the EU as there is a fear that such a compromise would lead to further departures from the Cabinet.
May’s predecessor David Cameron thought that he could end this by winning a referendum on the EU. Instead, he lost and in the process pushed Britain into uncharted waters. For May, the tension between the Parliament as a whole and the Eurosceptics within her own party has been too much to enable her to navigate her way out of this crisis. There is a hardcore group within the Tories for whom a hard Brexit is more important than continuing in the government. And it is this group that will shape May’s future and in more ways than one, the future of Britain. An exercise which was supposed to be an absolute manifestation of a democratic mandate now has become hostage to a few Tory MPs who are hell bent on shaping the trajectory of British political relations with the rest of Europe.
Whatever the outcome of this process, the Britain which will emerge out of this political churn will be one quite distinct in its political complexion than the one we are used to.
This article originally appeared in DNA.