In the movies, shapeshifters such as werewolves, witches, and demons show their true form when fatally wounded. This week Brexit, 33 months since conception and only a fortnight before its due date, showed what it has always truly been: politicians haranguing each other over esoteric laws, in the name of unbridgeable differences. The sheen of Parliament has fallen away. It is, to copy the front page of at least two major British newspapers this morning, a “meltdown.”
Prime Minister Theresa May has now returned from the continent twice, cap in hand, with a deal for exiting the European Union. Each time the proposal has been destroyed in Parliament. Tonight in London, May will open a third “meaningful vote” on Britain’s departing terms—a phrase which, even by British comedic standards, plumbs new levels of irony.
On Tuesday the chaos peaked after Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, a man whose private-school baritone bellows like the blunderbuss of a 19th century redcoat, announced the U.K. could not leave the EU without remaining committed to the so-called “backstop,” a protocol ensuring no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, should Britain crash out of the union without a deal. Cox’s ruling, couched in dense legalese, was itself a rebuke of the deal May brokered with Brussels that had boasted of legal “instruments,” reading a lot like last-minute flimflam. The verdict irked many members of Cox’s own Conservative Party, and for hours MPs from all parties confronted him, each frosty comment cloaked in the arcane language of Parliament, which included addressing Cox as “my honorable friend.” (Members of Parliament are not allowed to call each other by name.)
It was a volley of shit sandwiches, British-style. Most spoke only ostensibly to Cox, using him to dig their heels into respective trenches on either side of the Brexit debate.
Those repudiating Cox included members of the anti-EU European Research Group, chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg, a millionaire hedge-funder who once canvassed for votes with his nanny. The ERG, which wants Brexit at almost any cost, has opposed May’s arguably necessary deal-making concessions at every turn. When Brexit supposedly kicks in, on March 29, they figure, the country will have no deal, and thus “crash out” of the European Union, going from a massive customs union into relative isolation, with all the economic disruption that entails. The ERG, along with a surprisingly large number of other Brexiteers, now believe that’s worth the risk, in order to avoid leaving any loopholes through which undesirable goods, services, or people could pass from Europe to the U.K.
These hardliners’ intransigence may prove their undoing. On Wednesday, a motion to take a no-deal Brexit off the table passed narrowly. (This doesn’t change the fact that a no-deal Brexit is still, legally, the default if the U.K. cannot come up with a plan.) Today May opens a vote on whether to ask the EU’s permission to delay Britain’s withdrawal. Within a week, she will attempt a third time to get her deal through Parliament, with an ultimatum that, should it fail, the exit date may be extended, and Brexit could even be quashed altogether. This should get May’s third deal vote passed, though any deal must ultimately be negotiated by the EU’s remaining 27 member states, and a head-spinning number of possible outcomes remain.
Regular Brits, meanwhile, have almost disappeared from the Brexit conversation. From workers set to lose jobs, to those on the much-debated Irish border and hundreds of thousands of expats across continental Europe whose visa fates are uncertain, the lives of millions have been reduced to percentage points on GDP, cannon fodder in the illusory crusade for sovereignty.
Many of the politicians who claimed to speak for the “person on the Clapham omnibus,” a popular British phrase for an everyman, have long retreated from Brexit’s frontline. Nigel Farage, who triumphantly declared in 2016 that the referendum was Britain’s “Independence Day,” has scaled back his day-to-day political activities and now makes a killing on Fox News and other media channels. If the people ever had a voice, it, like Theresa May’s on Tuesday, has vanished to a barely audible croak.
Entire magazines, podcasts and TV shows exist to service Brexit’s Sisyphean bureaucracy. It sucks the air out of any other story. Last week the debate on a sharp rise in knife crime across the U.K., on the BBC’s flagship political show Question Time, lasted just a few minutes between slanging matches over Brexit. Rarely does any political platform last more than five minutes before somebody mentions the B-word. Britain, a nation of 66 million people, is paralyzed beneath a political impasse that is increasingly confined to Westminster. So much for a popular referendum.
In June 2016, when Britain birthed this monster, I appeared on a German television special that ran until almost 7am the next morning. Towards the end, our host asked the three Brits “What happens next?” Our instant reply: “No idea.” Minutes later we emerged into a sun-soaked Berlin morning, braindead as the clubbers who poured from the entrances of nearby techno dungeons. Nobody spoke. Our little island had chosen to raise its drawbridge to Europe, and all we could see was the moat.
That moat only seems to have grown wider since then. Right-wingers have rallied in hardline, suicidal fervor around a no-deal position, claiming it won’t be as bad as economists predict, while some “Remainers” still cling to the hope of a second “People’s Vote” to cancel Brexit, an equally catastrophic reversal that would drag Britons’ faith in democracy to dangerous new depths. Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left Labour has admirably attempted to defend Britain’s welfare state amidst this three-ring circus. But on Brexit the Labour party is, like the Tories, hopelessly paralyzed. The “customs union” Labour recently proposed, to give the U.K. a say in European economic affairs, would require the EU to break precedent on trade policy. And May will almost certainly not countenance it as an alternative to her own negotiations.
We still have almost no idea what will happen next. The country’s sense of political reality is rapidly fading, like the protagonists lost inside the psychedelic layer cake of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi blockbuster Inception. As one British political commentator yesterday said, we are no longer at the point where MPs are experts conferring information to the media. They are as clueless as everybody else.
It is often too easy to poke fun at British representative democracy—the pageantry, the yelling, the leather seats and ancient, wood-lined halls—but Brexit has truly shown that beneath the pomp, Parliament really is a bunch of mostly wealthy Britons shouting angrily into a void. This week’s pandemonium has revealed that many of them don’t even really know what they’re doing. If the future of the nation weren’t at stake, that could be quite the cockle-warming thought.
Cockle farming, incidentally, may be terminally affected by Brexit.