Brexit Politics Goes From Bad to Worse
(Bloomberg View) -- Political dysfunction is unquestionably aggravating the U.K.'s Brexit nightmare. But the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May, as some in her own party are calling for, would only make matters worse.
The Tories will never agree about the European Union. What they need to do is get their divisions under some kind of control.
At the moment, the increasingly assertive anti-EU wing of the party is making the country ungovernable. When Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, said the U.K. needed trading arrangements with the EU as close as possible to today's -- a goal that should be uncontroversial -- the party's euro-skeptics reacted with fury. They also denounce the idea of a transitional deal that leaves most of Britain's obligations in place until a final agreement can be reached, claiming this would make Britain a "vassal state."
This is nonsense. It's true, of course, that a transitional deal that subjects the U.K. to EU rules while denying the country any say in what they are is a bad outcome -- but it's the temporary price to be paid for an orderly exit. More than anybody else, Brexit's most committed supporters should be happy to pay that price. Militating for a disorderly exit, which is what their current stance amounts to, risks further economic damage and undermines their cause.
Indeed, those who regret the Brexit decision might be tempted to cheer the most reckless euro-skeptics on. This faction might think, not unreasonably, that if the Tory rebels make it impossible for May to reach agreement with the EU, the whole Brexit project might collapse.
If only. Bringing order out of anarchy isn't so easy. The enormous further uncertainty of a leadership contest, perhaps a general election (leading to who knows what), and maybe even a second referendum (no more likely to establish consensus than the first) would only add to the crippling burden of uncertainty holding the U.K. economy back.
The sad truth is that a bitterly divided country, dealing with an increasingly exasperated EU, cannot make the problems it has created for itself go away by means of outright political breakdown.
May has failed to articulate and defend a vision of Britain's post-Brexit future. Her political position is weak, thanks partly to the self-inflicted blow of last year's botched general election. That said, any Tory leader would struggle with Brexit, with so much of the parliamentary Conservative party intent on failure.
Yes, May needs to get a grip -- but above all her party needs to start acting with some particle of intelligence and self-control. If that doesn't happen, Brexit and its collateral damage will be an even bigger disaster than its critics predict.
--Editors: Clive Crook, Michael Newman.
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