You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How Brexit Became a Political Circus

It’s turned into a stage for grandstanding and unprincipled ambition.

Illustration by Stuart McReath

In early July, Theresa May summoned her cabinet to Chequers, the British prime minister’s country residence 40 miles from Downing Street, where Churchill used to escape from the Blitz to plan the war and watch the Marx Brothers. They were there to discuss the terms on which the United Kingdom would leave the European Union: complex and contentious matters that had divided the country, particularly May’s Conservatives, and not least her ministers. May wanted to end those squabbles, and in effect remind them of what Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s first prime minister in the 1830s, said to his own cabinet: “It is not much matter which we say, but mind we must all say the same.”

To stiffen their spirit, ministers arriving at Chequers found a pile of cards in the hall with the numbers of local taxi firms, a none too delicate reminder that if they chose to resign they would no longer have comfortable government limousines to take them home. The hint seemed to work. By Friday evening, a compromise that came to be known as “the Chequers plan”—broadly if optimistically proposing that the United Kingdom could remain in a free trade zone with the EU for manufactured and agricultural goods—had been agreed on, and Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, toasted the prime minister.

But May counted victory too soon. On Sunday, David Davis, the minister in charge of Brexit, resigned, saying that the Chequers plan was too favorable to Brussels. Then on Monday, Johnson announced his own resignation. No words of mine can improve on the expostulation that evening on television of Matthew Parris, London Times columnist and former Tory member of Parliament: “What a toad!”

So what was meant to smooth over differences within the party only highlighted them. May now faces the Conservative Party Conference in early October, which, if Chequers is any guide, promises to be a venomous affair. That conference is followed two weeks later by the EU summit in Brussels to agree on final terms, if there are any to be agreed on, for the United Kingdom’s formal departure from the European Union on March 29, Brexit Day.

There were many reasons why people in England had come to dislike “Europe,” from plain xenophobia to an honest critique of the EU as a corrupt cartel. Liberals too easily dismiss as bigots working-class people, who have understandable anxieties in an age of decaying industries and stagnant wages. But as the aftermath of the Chequers meeting showed, once again Brexit has also afforded an opportunity for political grandstanding, or naked ambition.

This question of “Europe” has riven Conservatives for many years, and not just them. As prime minister in 1975, Harold Wilson was plagued by rifts over Europe within his Labour party, and wished away the problem by holding a referendum—the first ever in the country—on continued membership. He won a crushing endorsement by 67 to 33 points. Thirty years later, Tony Blair struck a corrupt private deal with the Europhobic Rupert Murdoch, by suddenly, and to the horror of his closest supporters, promising a referendum on the new European Constitution. In return he was guaranteed the support of Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun at the general election coming the next spring of 2005. Having won the election, Blair then conveniently forgot about the referendum.

When David Cameron first became prime minister in 2010, he was faced with his own “Europe problem:” His Conservative MPs included a noisy minority passionately hostile to the European Union. For five years, he led a Tory government in coalition with the ardently Europhile Liberal Democrats, telling his right-wing critics to “stop banging on about Europe.” Then at the 2015 election he won an outright parliamentary majority, which paradoxically weakened his position: He could no longer use the “Lib Dems” to hold off his Brexiteers. He’d also given a hostage to fortune. As part of his attempt to “modernize” the party, Cameron introduced a same-sex marriage bill, to the deep resentment of many of his MPs, who are, after all, called Conservatives. Promising an EU referendum was the sop Cameron offered to placate his right-wing backbenchers, and to the extent that same-sex marriage led to Brexit, it’s a fine case of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Quite lacking the sinuous guile of Wilson or the shamelessness of Blair, Cameron hoped he wouldn’t be held to his referendum promise, or that, if he was, he would win a vote for Remain—a widely shared view, it must be said. On the day of the referendum, you could still bet on Leave at 7-1 odds with London bookmakers, and even Michael Gove, a prominent Tory who had come out for Leave, went to bed that night worried that Remain would win by 10 points, rather than the 52 to 48 for Leave he woke up to.

As for Boris Johnson, he notoriously prepared two newspaper columns, one for Remain and one for Leave, before deciding which better suited his ambitions. He’s written a book of sorts about Winston Churchill, and his conduct over the referendum reminded me of something Lord Knollys, private secretary to King Edward VII, said in 1909. Whatever Churchill’s most recent motive, “Of course it cannot be from conviction or principle. The very idea of his having either is enough to make anyone laugh.”

Those words were apt. Johnson isn’t a xenophobe or nativist—he likes to remind us of his own exotic background, a bit Turkish, a bit Jewish, “a one-man melting pot”—but he’s an unprincipled opportunist, and his conduct over the referendum was blatantly cynical, or frivolous. But then so was the conduct of other Brexiteers. “It is crucial to the ‘leave’ cause that it resist the temptation to set out a plan,” Charles Moore wrote in The Spectator two months before the referendum. He was echoed by other Leavers. Asked later why their campaign had failed to address any of the possible difficulties of departing the EU—tariffs, customs arrangements at the Channel crossing, the Irish border—the Tory MP Steve Baker said, “In the course of a campaign people must select the arguments that they think will win.” To put it another way, the Leavers said as little as possible about what they would do if they won the referendum because they didn’t expect to win and had absolutely no idea what to do if they did.

Over and again, the Brexiteers insisted that the EU and its member states were bound to give the British everything they asked for, since those states have favorable trade balances with Great Britain they wouldn’t want to risk. But this claim coming whence it did was really comical: The Brexiteers are on the right, and yet they were espousing what was once called “vulgar-Marxism,” the trite and reductive—and wholly false—belief that people are driven primarily by material economic motives.

Despite the deluded or dishonest claims of the Brexiteers that England held all the cards, it was always obvious that it’s the EU, in the formidable shape of Michel Barnier, its chief negotiator, that has the aces. The EU’s member states don’t have to give the British preferable trade terms or rights of residence for British citizens. Why would they? Whatever the economics, European leaders have very good political reasons for wanting a nasty divorce that makes Brexit painful for England, as a dreadful warning to their own Europhobic parties—Alternative for Germany and the French National Front (lately and quaintly rebranded as the National Rally)—about the consequences of rocking the European boat.

Now we see the cocky confidence of the Brexiteers fading. The egregious Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory MP and rich financier, is a fanatically committed Leaver, who has orchestrated a letter from more than 60 Tory MPs to party members telling them to “Chuck Chequers.” Meantime, he says breezily that the benefits of Brexit may not become apparent for 50 years, while Somerset Capital Management, the hedge fund that made him rich, even if he no longer runs it day to day, has made its own eloquent statement by moving part of its operation offshore to Dublin, where it can continue to enjoy the benefits of the EU’s single market.

All this makes one feel almost sorry for Theresa May. Even if she’s still prime minister by Brexit Day, it’s unlikely that she will be for much longer. She is now, as the phrase goes, in office but not in power, drained of authority and respect from her own ministers and MPs—and most of the electorate. If she hangs on, it will be because the Tories are chary of a bruising leadership contest. But then if Europe does ruin May, she won’t be its first victim. The Europe question drove Margaret Thatcher slightly mad, and then led to her downfall, brutally defenestrated by her MPs in 1990.

No one, May least of all, knows what Brexit will bring: a new golden age of prosperity, or British industry grinding to a halt as a 20-mile line of trucks stands outside Calais. Already, the Chequers plan is falling apart. “We have gone into battle with the white flag fluttering over our leading tank,” Johnson wrote of the plan in early September, and a consensus has now formed that parliament would be unlikely to pass it anyway. If no one gave serious thought to the future before the referendum, we now find that leaving the EU is rather like leaping from a high window, not sure whether what lies beneath is a soft bed of feathers or jagged rocks. Quite soon we may learn the reality of Hard Brexit the hard way.