Britain has long prided itself on having strong and stable governments. But Brexit has fractured political parties, making it harder for embattled Prime Minister Theresa May to plot a course out of the Brexit maze or for European Union leaders to calculate what might happen.
“The House of Commons is divided not by parties, but by factions,” Britain’s longest-serving lawmaker and a former Conservative minister, Ken Clarke, said Monday.
He spoke after May announced she was postponing a House of Commons vote on her exit withdrawal deal, which took months of haggling with the EU to negotiate, throwing the Brexit process into further turmoil.
Both of Britain’s two storied main parties, the ruling Conservatives and Labor, are equally divided over whether to remain in the European Union, or, as importantly, how to exit. The smaller parties are more united, with the Scottish Nationalists and the Liberal Democrats wanting to remain in the bloc and the 10 lawmakers of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party wanting Britain out.
May runs a minority government. With the main parties splintered, the House of Commons is deadlocked, and there’s no majority for anything when it comes to Brexit, including crashing out without a deal, staying in, or holding a second referendum.
Even before May delayed the vote on an unpopular deal, no one in Downing Street, the country’s parliament, the press, or academia could predict how the Brexit process was going to end or when.
Now there’s even less certainty, more confusion and even more fear.
Currency traders are reacting to the political chaos by pushing the value of the pound to its lowest point against the dollar in 20 months. Their worry is Britain will exit the EU as scheduled on March 29 without any deal, which would likely push the country into a recession.
“It’s a mess. In a world of turmoil, Brexit has become a bit of comic relief; it’s like a British comedy,” Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy of AMP Capital Investors, told Bloomberg.
But for Britons whose livelihoods are tied to what happens, there’s little to laugh about.
“Small businesses are keen to prepare [for Brexit] but they still don’t know, some 15 or 16 weeks out, what it is they have been asked to prepare for,” said Colin Borland, a director at the Federation of Small Businesses.
The latest events at Westminster have just heaped greater uncertainty, making it impossible to make decisions, he added.
“Investment plans have been paused for two-and-a-half years. Unless a deal is agreed quickly, the country risks sliding toward a national crisis, warned Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry.
The national leaders of the 27 EU member states have closed the door on reopening negotiations.
May headed to Brussels Tuesday to seek changes and concessions in a frantic round of diplomacy. But Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, warned there’s “no room whatsoever” for renegotiating a Brexit deal that can’t secure a majority in the House of Commons.
Junker offered May only additional “clarifications and interpretations” of contentious parts of the 585-page agreement, mainly over the so-called “backstop solution,” which is designed to avoid customs checks on the border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland.
Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Juncker said he was "surprised" May is talking about changes "because we had reached an agreement."
Parliament has final say
In the end, the most important Brexit negotiations are to be in the British parliament and not between the British government and Brussels, say analysts.
But Britain’s House of Commons has seldom been so deadlocked.
“No division has been so central to Britain’s future since 1972, when the Commons passed by just eight votes the Bill taking us into Europe,” commentator Simon Heffer wrote in The Telegraph newspaper.
As May was in Brussels Tuesday, the talk in London was of another mutinous attempt to oust her as party leader and prime minister.
Steve Baker, one of her former Brexit ministers-turned-rebel, urged Conservative lawmakers to submit formal no-confidence letters in her leadership to trigger a confidence vote.
“What I would say to my colleagues is: you now face the certainty of failure with Theresa May. You must be brave and make the right decision to change prime minister, and change prime minister now,” he said on BBC radio.