British government: a tragicomic unravelling

With the Brexit cliff fast approaching, Theresa May’s cabinet is still negotiating – and fighting – with itself

 

The tragicomic scale of the disarray in the British government, which grows more dysfunctional with every week that Theresa May’s rudderless administration holds on to power, poses risks that go far beyond Britain’s shores. Five months after stumbling back to Downing Street following a disastrous election that left her in power but shorn of her authority, May’s cabinet is divided, paralysed by weakness and, having lost two of its most prominent members in two weeks, now literally falling apart.

Michael Fallon resigned as defence secretary following allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women. Priti Patel was forced out of her role as international development secretary over unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials. May’s de facto deputy, Damian Green, is under investigation following an allegation that he behaved inappropriately with a female journalist. Meanwhile, the staggeringly ineffective foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, remains in office only because May lacks the political strength to remove a leading Brexiteer. In a properly functioning government, Johnson would be gone. Instead he is emboldened: a leaked memo he co-wrote with Michael Gove, another Brexiteer, shows he feels sufficiently secure in his position to dictate the terms of a hard Brexit to the prime minister.

Worryingly for Ireland, the European Union and – above all – Britain itself, the clock is ticking towards British withdrawal from the EU in 2019, and London shows no sign of having reconciled itself with, let alone explained to its people, how painful a process it will be. The latest suggestion that a derailment of the Brexit talks over the Border would be Dublin’s fault is a laughable attempt to obscure the fact that London has yet to explain how it proposes to reconcile two contradictory positions: exit from the customs union and the maintenance of an invisible Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The first task of any negotiator is to settle on its own position. Unfortunately, with the Brexit cliff fast approaching, the British government is still negotiating – and fighting – with itself.

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