It’s still hard to predict the eventual outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum. For now, however, Brexit has morphed into May-exit (Prime Minister Theresa May resigned last Friday). The resignation shows the strength of an agile political system.
The Brexit crisis is the result of a lack of leadership at the executive level. Sounds familiar? However, how the British system quashed the quagmire would not look familiar in today’s America, whose political system seems like a listless ship in choppy waters.
The Brexit imbroglio started when May’s predecessor, David Cameron, bungled the referendum. He campaigned for a no-to-Brexit vote but did not robustly explain the consequences of Brexit to the people, while the pro-Brexit campaigners indulged in lying and fearmongering. Sound familiar?
It was only after the referendum that the people realized what they had done. Cameron, to his credit, resigned within hours of the results emerging, upholding the traditional practice in the wake of a defeat on a major initiative.
May proved to be more inept on the subject than her predecessor. She was an anti-Brexit member of Cameron’s cabinet. But as prime minister, she danced to the tune of Brexit hardliners. She became oblivious to the fact that any Brexit deal she would reach with the European Union would need ratification by the Parliament that did not just consist of the hardliners.
But that was not the end of it. May became so enamored with the idea of a hard Brexit that she called a general election, three years earlier than its due date in 2020. She probably thought that her post-referendum ideological transformation would yield a much bigger majority than she had inherited from Cameron. She either ignored or did not see the emerging national feeling of buyer’s remorse over Brexit. What a terrible lack of leadership!
The results of the 2017 election she called could have even been forecast by a novice. The size of her majority shrank, forcing her to search for a coalition partner. She found it in the Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Ireland-centric party. It supports a soft Brexit. A hard Brexit would have closed the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Considering the strong sociocultural ties between the two sides, the DUP could not have supported a hard Brexit.
So May landed in a political landmine. She had to try to lead a hard Brexit when she, not long ago, was anti-Brexit. She was in a coalition with those who wanted a soft Brexit. She tried to appease the hardliners, while aspiring for ratification from the majority in the House of Commons. Consequently, she could no more than repeatedly trying to convince the Parliament of approving her exit deals.
After her three unsuccessful attempts to woo the Parliament, May was clamoring for a fourth try when even her caucus withdrew confidence in her leadership – an act that is the parliamentary system’s equivalent of impeachment in the presidential system. So she had to resign from the job she had desperately wanted to keep and use as an entrance into the annals of history.
She could possibly have kept her job for a long time and made history, had she been sensitive to the shifting sands of the public opinion, tapped the voters’ remorse and held a second referendum that could have provided the people an opportunity to resolve their remorse.
As The Economist, in its typical pun-laced style, implied, the end of May would lead to June (the future). Her would-be successor’s job is cut out. He/she must extricate Britain from this political logjam by giving the public an opportunity to fix its Brexit error. Repeatedly running to the Parliament with an appeal to ratify an exit deal that many may not want will compound the logjam, not resolve it.
As I was typing this piece on Sunday, the results of the elections to the Brussels-based European Parliament came in. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party did well, but pro-EU Liberal Democratic Party was right behind it. May’s Conservative Party and the opposition Labor Party took a drubbing.
Brexit hardliners will immediately interpret this as a renewal by the British people of the referendum results. But there is much more to what meets the eyes. Farage has repeatedly failed to win a seat at the Westminster. So his hardline policies don’t really appeal to the British people. Perhaps, some voters were angry at May for her lack of leadership and at Labor for its inability to do more than just opposing May. Probably, some of these disgruntled voters voted for the LDP and the others for Farage’s party.
Moreover, the claim by European populists and nationalists that they are against the EU when they continue to seek its cushy elected offices is hypocritical and farcical.
May’s successor should not fall into the trap that she fell in. Misunderstanding or misinterpreting the mandate the electorate gives politicians is a sign of their weakness, not strength. The strong and efficient British political system will not give May’s successor unlimited time to rise to the occasion, and it must not.