If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the other members of the government should be confined to a psychiatric hospital. Having narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday, in which a loss would almost certainly have led to a general election, May and her colleagues are now looking to resurrect her Brexit plan, or a slightly refined version of it, which was subjected to an overwhelming defeat in the Commons on Tuesday evening.
With just ten weeks until March 29th, when Britain is supposed to leave the European Union, May is hoping that the prospect of the country crashing out without any withdrawal agreement—an outcome that could cause shortages of essential medicines and industrial parts, as well as bedlam at the Channel ports—will persuade a majority of parliamentarians to back her plan as the least bad option available. Of course, this is precisely the same logic that the Prime Minister was relying on when she delayed a vote on the Brexit plan until Monday, after the New Year, and she ended up suffering what was widely described as the biggest loss ever inflicted on a sitting British Prime Minister. But, after what she has been through in the past couple of years, May can perhaps be forgiven for getting a little addled. The entire country is a little addled. More than a little.
In making the closing argument for the motion of no confidence during Wednesday’s debate, Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, was careful to acknowledge the efforts that May had already made to solve the political equivalent of Goldbach’s conjecture. “I think the country recognizes that effort,” Watson told the packed chamber. “In fact, the country feels genuinely sorry for the Prime Minister. I feel sorry for the Prime Minister. But she cannot confuse pity for political legitimacy, sympathy for sustainable support.” May’s strategy had failed utterly, Watson said, and “the cruellest truth of all is that she doesn’t possess the necessary political skills, empathy, ability, and most crucially the policy, to lead this country any longer.” The question facing the House, Watson said, was whether it is “worth giving this failed Prime Minister another chance to go back pleading to Brussels, another opportunity to humiliate the United Kingdom, another chance to waste a few weeks. The answer must be a resounding no.”
Making the closing argument for the government, Michael Gove, the minister for the environment, sought to divert attention from the humiliating setback that May had suffered, and the fact that more than a hundred Conservative M.P.s had rejected her plan. He turned his invective to Watson’s boss, Jeremy Corbyn, the leftist leader of the Labour Party, whom the Tories still view as their trump card. After noting that Watson hadn’t mentioned Corbyn during his speech, Gove, who is known at Westminster as a clever and slippery fellow, gleefully caricatured many of the Labour leader’s positions, claiming that Corbyn rejects Britain’s role in NATO and wants to get rid of the country’s nuclear deterrent. (A longtime antiwar activist, Corbyn has held these positions in the past, but official Labour policy, which Corbyn now supports, rejects them.) “No way can this country ever allow that man to be our Prime Minister,” Gove said, to loud cheers from the Conservative benches.
Since ten M.P.s from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which holds the balance of power in a narrowly divided Commons, had agreed to support the government, Gove knew that he and the Conservative government were on safe ground. But although the subsequent vote—of three hundred and twenty-five votes to three hundred and six—assured May’s survival, it merely confirmed the Brexit stalemate. A bit later in the evening, the Prime Minister emerged from 10 Downing Street to say that she had invited M.P.s from all parties to meet with her in an effort to find a way forward. Corbyn quickly rejected the offer, saying that the Labour Party wouldn’t join the talks unless May explicitly ruled out a no-deal Brexit—an option favored by some right-wing Conservative M.P.s.
So the show goes on, a very dark comedy. The hardline Conservative Brexiteers, led by the faux aristocrat Jacob Rees-Mogg, are encouraged because they have defeated May’s plan, and they know the default position is that Britain will crash out on March 29th.
Like a First World War general, May is soldiering ahead. Corbyn, relieved for now of the alarming prospect of having to step into May’s shoes, still says that he wants to honor the result of the referendum—in which many working-class, Labour-supporting areas voted Leave—but also to negotiate a better exit deal. (How he’d manage this, he hasn’t said.) But many Labour Party members—a large majority of them, according to recent polls—want to stay in the E.U., and seventy-one Labour M.P.s have now expressed support for the People’s Vote campaign, which is advocating a second referendum. In the coming days, Corbyn will face strong pressure to clarify his position and commit to another referendum.
How and when will it all end? On Thursday, the government announced that Parliament would debate and vote on May’s “Plan B” on Tuesday, January 29th. M.P.s who spoke with the Prime Minister said that she still thinks she can tweak her deal and win, but few people outside of Downing Street believe it. The E.U. has ruled out making any more significant concessions. Both major parties are horribly split. And when the pollsters present the British public with the three options on offer—a no-deal Brexit, a Brexit on May’sterms, or a decision to Remain—there is no clear majority for any of them.
“I cannot recall Britain falling so low,” Philip Stephens, a veteran political commentator for the Financial Times, wrote in Thursday’s paper. “The Suez debacle in 1956? As supplicant at the door of the IMF 20 years later? These were moments of national shame. They were moments also that passed. The impact of Brexit has been cumulative. Each chapter in the story heaps on more humiliation. However it ends, the damage will not be quickly undone.”
And who, ultimately, is to blame? Before the vote on Wednesday, a BBC News crew approached David Cameron, the former Conservative Prime Minister who decided to hold the 2016 Brexit referendum, near his home in West London. He said that he didn’t regret that decision, even though the result went against his wishes. (He was a Remainer.) Then he set off on his morning jog.
A previous version of this post misstated the day that the vote on Theresa May’s Brexit plan took place.