May’s Crushing Loss Is Proof Brexit Has Failed
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “Defeat” is too small a word for the rebuke Britain’s Parliament handed Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday. Her Brexit deal, laboriously negotiated over many months, was voted down Tuesday by a massive 230 votes — a far bigger margin than expected, and the worst loss of any British government in modern times.
Yet if this brutal rejection has caused May to think again, she didn’t let on. She promised talks, meetings and yet more conferring with the European Union. It’s as though she thinks she can extract some ornamental changes to the bargain and get the House of Commons to come around to her way of thinking. In this, she is almost certainly wrong.
Parliament rejected the deal with good reason: Leaving on May’s terms would have made the country poorer for a generation. It would’ve inhibited its independence, clobbered its businesses, and battered its public finances, while solving no problems and settling no questions. No amount of semantic reshuffling can salvage it.
May’s next immediate challenge is to prevail in a confidence vote moved by the Labour opposition. The chances are she will — for now. The Tories who defected yesterday will probably prefer to retain her as leader and avoid a general election for the time being. But a reckoning is coming. With 72 days to go before Brexit, the country is stockpiling food and medicine. Businesses are facing escalating costs and worsening uncertainty. Immigrants are in limbo. Troops are on standby. On all sides, stasis prevails even as the sense of crisis intensifies.
There’s no longer any realistic hope of coming to an agreement that both Europe and the U.K. Parliament will accept, and of making plans to implement it, before the March 29 deadline. A chaotic Brexit is the default outcome. To avoid it, Britain must now withdraw its Article 50 notice to quit, or ask for an extension.
An extension would require the unanimous consent of the other European countries, which cannot be taken for granted. And unless the government has a realistic plan for using the extra time, this course would mean a few more months of yelling and uncertainty before the next cliff edge looms.
The better course would be to revoke Article 50 altogether, which the U.K. can do unilaterally. To be sure, this would be a grave step, and one that May has promised not to take — because it would in effect overturn the choice that British voters made in 2016. It would be a declaration that the Brexit project has failed — but, after this week’s vote, to admit this would simply be to recognize reality. Britain has been unable to design an exit and its government is paralyzed.
In either case, extension or revocation, a second referendum should follow. This one, unlike the first, would be conducted in the light of information about what Brexit actually entails. If voters again chose to quit, despite all they’ve learned since 2016, there’d be no more excuses.
In advance of Tuesday’s vote, May said: “The time has now come for all of us in this House to make a decision.” She was right, but she won’t follow her own instruction. The clock is running, and all May has to offer is more dithering. It can’t go on — and on March 29, one way or another, the indecision has to stop.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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