The Irish Times view on the political turmoil in London: Lurching to a reckoning
British politics is in chaos, its cabinet is rudderless and its global credibility is slowly ebbing away
The Brexit referendum was a tragedy; its aftermath a farce. With the resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davis, Theresa May’s hapless administration lurches into yet another fratricidal fight with itself just as it appeared that May was beginning to assert her authority. A country that long prided itself on the stability of its politics, the strength of its governments and the strategic acuity of its diplomats is in disarray; its politics in chaos, its cabinet rudderless and its credibility in the world ebbing slowly away. In the short term, the latest defections will further stall the halting Brexit negotiations and could trigger a leadership challenge within the Conservative Party at the worst possible moment. In the long run, however, the events of the past 24 hours could be just what the UK needed. The reckoning that should have happened after the referendum two years ago, and again after the 2017 general election, is now under way.
Last Friday, the British cabinet finally reconciled itself with a fact that was plain to every reasonable observer from the day after the vote: the best way of protecting British interests, and the only way of resolving the challenge of the Border in Ireland, was a soft Brexit. The negotiating position agreed at Chequers was filled with ambiguities, but it marked an important step, opening a path to a Norway-style arrangement that would leave the UK at least partly in the single market.
That was an important political victory for May herself. She oversaw the policy shift in the knowledge that it could precipitate resignations and perhaps a challenge to her position, but she was also aware that she would most likely see off that challenge given the hard Brexiteers were in a minority in parliament. That logic still holds.
The British government should be a more serious, competent collective after Monday's resignations. Johnson was an exceptionally poor foreign minister who damaged Britain’s standing in the world. Worse than that, through his reckless and irresponsible stewardship of the Leave campaign, he did as much as anyone to hurt his own citizens’ interests and bring about the current turmoil. Also running away from the mess he helped to create is Davis, a semi-detached Brexit minister who seemed to struggle to master his brief and had long ago been sidelined.
A soft withdrawal – one that aligns the UK to the single market and customs union – is the only option a responsible government would pursue. If it had real courage, however, May’s government would strike a deal and then put it to the electorate. In 2016, the British people voted on an abstract question with virtually no knowlege of what it meant in practice. Soon its meaning will be clear. And it won’t look good. May’s Brexiteer critics accuse her of betrayal. But the real betrayal – of their colleagues, their fellow citizens and their country’s ideals – is all their own.