Britain’s political system is at the breaking point

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks ahead of a vote on Brexit in Parliament in London, Britain, March 13, 2019 [Reuters TV]
British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks ahead of a vote on Brexit in Parliament in London, Britain, March 13, 2019 [Reuters TV]

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…

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