Britain’s political system is at the breaking point

As the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, called MPs to “Order! Order!” before the result of yesterday’s vote on Theresa May‘s Brexit Deal was announced, one could be forgiven for thinking it was just an ordinary day in the British parliament. The MPs were acting traditionally rowdy as they grouped onto the long green benches lined up opposite each other, the Conservatives to one side and Labour to the other. The tension in the air felt superficial, a consequence of Britain’s time-honoured game of political theatrics, as it has often been for decades. 

Yet, there was nothing ordinary about what followed next.

Once again, MPs had voted down the Brexit withdrawal agreement. This time by 391 votes in favour to 241 against – a defeat by 149 votes. This was a slight improvement on Theresa May’s effort to secure support for her exit plans in January, where the defeat was by a record 230 votes. However, yesterday’s result was still extraordinary – the fourth largest margin in modern parliamentary history. For anything comparable, you have to go back to the 1920s.

So how did Theresa May, and Britain, end up in this mess?

It all started back in 2013, when May’s predecessor David Cameron promised an in-or-out of the EU referendum were he to win the upcoming general election. There was no pressing demand to hold such a vote from the wider British population, only an obsession about the EU within Cameron’s own Conservative Party. When Cameron unexpectedly won the 2015 election and had to organise the referendum, neither he nor the government had a plan as to how to actually do Brexit, nor any clear idea what the role of direct democracy should be within the British system. The June 23, 2016, referendum had no turnout threshold or special majority requirement as is normal for referendums on such important matters elsewhere in the world. The result was 52 percent to 48 percent in favour of exit, on a turnout of 72 percent.

This lack of vision and preparation, which were evident long before the vote, have dogged May’s government ever since, and culminated in her monumental parliamentary defeats.

Moreover, in the years since Cameron’s ill-fated referendum, May’s government made some moves that made an already hopeless situation worse: Rather than reaching out to the 48 percent that voted against exit, May systematically ignored their concerns. When pro-Leave campaigns were shown by the Electoral Commission to have broken campaign finance rules, May’s government once again ignored the problem. When the unimplementable promises made by the Leave campaigners before the referendum turned to dust, May’s government still persevered in trying to make Brexit happen. When seeking to solve the Northern Ireland border issue, May listened to the Democratic Unionist Party rather than seek a solution acceptable to all. 

While all these moves appear counterproductive – and even illogical – on the surface, one can make sense of it all by looking into the internal dynamics of Britain’s political parties. 

Three-quarters of the members of the Conservative Party voted for Brexit in the referendum and these members choose local candidates to run for the House of Commons in each constituency. Pragmatic Conservatives hence face a dilemma – seek to solve the Brexit conundrum for the benefit of the country, but annoy their party base by doing so and then possibly be deselected? Or respect the members’ views, and take Britain towards a hard Brexit? 

On the benches opposite May, the Tories see one of the weakest oppositions in British political history. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is motivated more by the task of keeping his party together, and appealing to the young and predominantly urban Labour members who elected him, than he is to actually get on and oppose May’s Brexit. While an overwhelming majority of Labour supporters want the UK to remain in the EU, the Labour Party still appears to be committed to seeing Britain’s departure through.

Both parties are riven by splits on EU issues – 75 Conservatives refused to back May in yesterday’s vote, with the majority of those opponents favouring a “no-deal” Brexit instead. On the Labour side, about half of the MPs do not back Corbyn’s Brexit line and want the UK to hold a second referendum and stay in the EU. Meanwhile, three Conservative and eight Labour MPs have recently left their respective parties to form The Independent Group, a proto-party in the House of Commons, to try to force the idea of a second referendum onto the agenda. 

When in the past the House of Commons was primarily divided along left-right lines, where the major issues of the day were economic or financial, the traditional two-party system in the UK did a reasonable job reflecting voters’ preferences. Today – thanks to the referendum and the polarisation it caused – that system no longer works, and the Commons finds itself in a state of paralysis as a result. 

Throughout all of this, May and Corbyn, both of them steeped in party politics – they have each spent more than 40 years in their respective parties, refuse to seriously seek solutions collaboratively. May cannot bring herself to work with Corbyn for whom she has contempt, while Corbyn would rather see a Tory Brexit fail – and a consequent Labour election victory – than be collaborative now.

So, the House of Commons cannot move forward. It is locked, paralysed, becalmed. But lacking a solution, in the next fortnight the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal, with major economic and political consequences.

Yesterday the Brexit Deal on the table was roundly rejected. This evening a No Deal Brexit will likewise be turned down by MPs. So far May and her Conservatives have steadfastly refused a General Election or a so-called “People’s Vote” – a second referendum – as ways out of the UK’s current predicament.

Which brings us to the only thing the House of Commons might actually be for – to request more time for negotiations from the EU. Parliamentarians will vote about that on Thursday, and will probably request a couple more months from the EU.

While that idea might appeal to enough MPs, the EU side is not keen. What, the EU will rightly ask, can the UK accomplish in a couple of months that it has been incapable of sorting out in two and a half years since the referendum? And with European Elections scheduled for 23-26 May, no one is keen for the UK to have to elect Members of the European Parliament. 

However Brexit works out in the end, the deep problems and divisions in British politics cannot simply be erased. The roots of Britain’s political dysfunction go so deep, the problems are so profound, the population so divided as a result of Brexit, that the UK needs a period of deep and profound political reflection. But first, the short term crisis of the next fortnight needs to be overcome.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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