You may not remember, but approximately 3,453 years ago (i.e. the summer of 2016) the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union.
Since then, as the rest of the world happily trots on to deal with a resurgent far-right, the U.K. has been stuck in the mud, endlessly debating what sort of Brexit it wants, how it should get it and why “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
This week brought with it a fresh new wave of drama, including a new exit plan, an unfortunate parliamentary roast, and a spate of high-profile exits. To make sense of it all, let’s break it down one mind-numbing aspect at a time.
What’s in the new deal?
The British government this week finally published a full draft Brexit deal, nailing down the particulars of how the U.K. will exit the EU in time for the deadline on 29 March 2019. The deal effectively keeps the U.K. within the EU’s customs union for the time being and adds that the U.K.’s status as a “non-voting member of the EU in transition can be extended to… 31 December 20XX”. It also says that the U.K. remains obliged to pay a $50 billion “divorce settlement” to the EU to cover its outstanding fees.
This draft avoids the worst-case scenario of a “no-deal,” where the rights of EU citizens in the U.K. (and vice-versa) would disappear overnight, trading tariffs would suddenly appear, and regulations — for instance on aviation and the pharmaceutical industry — would suddenly cease to apply. However when Prime Minister Theresa May presented the plan to her cabinet on Wednesday there was near-immediate chaos.
Brexit secretary Dominic Raab and work and pensions secretary Esther McVey both resigned on Thursday, saying they were unhappy with the deal. Two other junior ministers also resigned and 23 Conservative Members of Parliament have submitted letters of no confidence in Theresa May, calling for her resignation. That in it of itself is a problem, even more so when you consider that she still has to submit her Brexit plans to Parliament in order to get them approved.
To make things worse, as May stood before the House of Commons Thursday to discuss the plan, saying any exit should be done in a “smooth and orderly” fashion, members laughed.
“They laughed uproariously, and for long enough that she had to pause, eyes flickering over her papers, and wait for them to stop, so she could continue,” The New York Times reported.
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) November 12, 2018
This isn’t the first time the British government has collapsed or teetered on the brink of collapse because of Brexit. In the wake of the referendum back in 2016, then-Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to resign, since he had campaigned for the U.K. to stay in the EU. In the 2017 general election, May’s Conservative Party fell short of a majority, and eventually had to do a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland (more on them later) to stay in power.
Why is everyone so angry?
… Because the deal, which is by nature a compromise, gives every hardliner something to hate. Brexiteers hate it because it extends the transition period in which the U.K. is still part of the EU’s single market, thereby making it difficult for the U.K. to strike on its own and make its own “amazing” trade deals.
“Hopefully we’ll get rid not just of the weakest Prime Minister I’ve ever seen but the most duplicitous,” arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage said. “This deal is so bad it’s basically not even worth leaving for this deal.”
Conservative MP and Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, who wrote one of the no-confidence letters to May, said that “the negotiations have given away on all the key points.”
"Coup is the wrong word… what has been achieved today is not Brexit" – Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has submitted letter of no-confidence in Theresa May over draft #Brexit deal https://t.co/ncEsM9o6Jm pic.twitter.com/rKeo4yBVtG
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) November 15, 2018
Rees-Mogg, for the uninitiated, is famous for campaigning in one general election with his nanny (who drove around with him in his mother’s Mercedes) and once called state school students “potted plants.” He also thinks that women shouldn’t be “allowed” abortions. Basically imagine if a Freedom Caucus Congressman spoke Latin and had a stupidly posh accent and you start to get a picture of him.
Anti-Brexiteers hate the deal because it is a deal and doesn’t get them any closer to their mythical “second referendum,” which they hope will reverse the last two-and-a-half years of negotiations.
The ardently anti-EU DUP, meanwhile, hate the deal because it will keep Northern Ireland in the EU single market — meaning the region will have to follow more EU regulations than the rest of the U.K. The alternative here is the return of the “hard border” in Northern Ireland, which could in turn usher in a resurgence of paramilitary activity which the U.K. and Ireland put to bed (mostly) with the Good Friday Agreement.
What happens next?
Haven’t a clue really.
No, seriously, no one does. There is a possibility that May will suffer a vote of no confidence, which could lead to a massive shake-up in the British government and/or another general election, however as Sky News pointed out, the lack of an immediate, obvious challenger could stiffen May’s resolve. There’s also the distinct possibility that the Brexit plan doesn’t pass through Parliament, which would leave the U.K. empty handed as we edge closer to the March 2019 deadline.
But all this political drama shines the spotlight away from the real suffering the U.K. is currently experiencing at multiple levels of society. British police, for instance, are worried that a messy Brexit deal will leave them with no clue how to combat transnational crime and terrorism, as well as lessen there already severely-depleted budgets. Councils, responsible for basic local services, have barely any money after years of austerity policies — which the U.N. poverty envoy described has having inflicted “great misery” on the British people. The U.K. economy is also forecast to have the slowest growth rate in the EU in 2019.
It’s easy to watch Britain’s Brexit ordeal as a political soap-opera. But the reality is that two-plus years of endless negotiations have distracted away political attention for the very real and pressing problems facing the people of the U.K.