Jonathan Freedland: How did Brexit come to this
Theresa May’s catalogue of errors led Britian to this point. Now it faces paralysis and humiliation
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street for the Houses of Parliament to attend Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs) in London, Britain, 16 January 2019. Britain’s Prime Minister May is facing a confidence vote in parliament after she lost the The Meaningful Vote parliamentary vote on the EU withdrawal agreement on 15 January. EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA
This was a defeat on a scale without precedent in the era of universal suffrage, a rebuff more humiliating than any endured even by Ramsay MacDonald in 1924. Some 117 Conservatives voted against the signature policy of their own government, thereby triggering a motion of no confidence that, in any normal era, would see the government toppled within hours.
But such are these extraordinary times, that is not even the most significant story from Westminster tonight. What matters more than the fate of this government or this prime minister is the fate of the country and its decision to leave the European Union, which is now suspended in a state of limbo if not purgatory. The law says Britain will leave the European Union in 70-odd days. Yet it has rejected the only firm exit path that exists. It means that, unless something changes and MPs can reach an agreement with each other, Britain will crash out of the EU on March 29 without a deal – an outcome all but the most wild-eyed Brexiteers regard as an economic and social catastrophe for these islands.
So how did it come to this? What led Theresa May, parliament and the country to this moment?
The answer you give will depend on how far back you want to go. You could look to the snap election of 2017, when May threw away her majority, thereby leaving her at the mercy of a hung parliament, where Brexit lacked a majority just as surely as she did. As a simple matter of arithmetic, the defeat tonight was foretold on the night of 8 June 2017.
Or you might go back a few months earlier, to the triggering of article 50, which started the clock ticking on a negotiation for which May was palpably not ready. The cabinet was too split between leavers and remainers to know its own mind. Only in the last few months of the two-year period did the UK have anything like a position.
Or you might say the die was cast much earlier, soon after May became prime minister and painted herself into a corner with a series of bright red lines. Once she had committed to leave the single market, customs union and jurisdiction of the European court of justice, and once she accepted that there could be no hard border in Ireland, then she had all but written the withdrawal agreement that MPs rejected tonight. The EU laws of physics dictated that there could be almost no other outcome.
Of course, May’s drawing of those red lines was itself the fruit of another choice, a political decision that her best hope lay with placating the hardest Brexiteers in her party. She had seen how the Europhobic wing of British Conservatism had devoured so many of her predecessors, and concluded that her own safety required her to placate that faction. Only later did she learn what her predecessors could have told her: that the Europhobes’ demands can never be met because what they want – cake in both its having and eating modes – is impossible.
In this she was repeating an error made by Cameron in 2013, when he announced that there would be an in/out referendum before 2017. He, too, was seeking to placate the hard Brexiteers, seeking to blunt the appeal of Ukip. That was another fateful decision on the road to the vote tonight, one that failed to see that asking voters to approve the status quo in the post-crash era was asking to be punched hard in the face. Critical, too, was Cameron’s conduct of the referendum campaign, with its serial failures – its appeal to voters’ wallets rather than their hearts, its refusal to attack the Tory leaders of the leave campaign, its complacency.
But Cameron also deserves blame for the manner of his departure. Had he delayed his resignation, he could have been around to frame what the referendum result meant. He could have said, for example, that Britons had voted to leave the European Union but had not voted to leave either the single market or customs union, since neither were on the ballot paper. Britons clearly wanted out of the EU’s political institutions, he might have said, but they had not rejected membership of the common market. And so he could have advanced a Norway-style Brexit, one that would have minimised the harm. Instead he fled the scene of his own crime, leaving a vacuum into which rival definitions of Brexit could rush. Within weeks of his exit, Brexit was redefined in the hardest terms.
All these decisions by May and Cameron laid the path to the vote tonight. But, in truth, the path is much longer and older. For at least three decades, “Europe” served as the all-purpose bogeyman of British politics. Cheered on by a Europe-loathing press, itself fuelled by an endless flow of straight banana-type lies, many of them concocted by a Telegraph correspondent in Brussels by the name of Boris Johnson, politicians of all stripes found it convenient to blame Brussels for any and all ills.
How easy it was for British politicians to say they’d love to act on this or that issue, but their hands were tied by those villains in the EU. Every summit was a “showdown” pitting plucky Britain against the wicked continentals. Both of the main political parties played this game. Recall Gordon Brown’s reluctance to be photographed signing the Lisbon treaty. (In the end he signed the treaty in a small room, alone – an early metaphor for the Brexit to come.) Given how long, and how bitterly, the fight against Europe had been fought, what’s remarkable is not how few Britons voted remain in 2016 but how many.
Or you could go further back still. The Suez fiasco of 1956 was meant to have cured Britain of its imperial delusion, but what’s clear now is that many Britons never quite made that adjustment. Underpinning Brexit, with its belief that Britain should separate itself from its closest neighbours, is a refusal to accept that we are one part of an interdependent European economy. For the Brexiteers, Britain remains a global Gulliver tied down for too long by the Lilliputians of little Europe. It is a fundamental misreading of our place in the world.
Perhaps, though, the seeds of the vote tonight were planted in the rubble of Britain’s wartime experience. Never occupied, many Britons never understood the intense need for the European Union as continental Europeans feel it. In 1984, at a ceremony to honour the fallen of Verdun, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl held hands, in a powerful gesture of Franco-German reconciliation. According to her biographer, Margaret Thatcher was unmoved, instead mocking the sight of two grown men holding hands.
This has been Britain’s European story, repeatedly seeing what was a project of peace, designed to end centuries of bloodshed, as a scam designed to swindle the Brits of their money. You can go further back, to repeated wars against the French, the Spanish and the Germans. Or you can go further back still to the first Brexit nearly five centuries ago, when Henry VIII sought to take back control by breaking from Rome.
Wherever you choose the starting point, the end point is clear enough. It ends like this, in the sight of a parliament paralysed by indecision, still unable to embrace Europe – but just as unable to break away. And in the spectacle of an island lost and adrift.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian Columnist