‘Groundhog Day,’ Brexit edition: Will Britain ever leave?

Karen Norris/Staff

Two British staffers and one confused American staffer talk Brexit in a group message – again.

Rebecca Asoulin (engagement editor, American): March 29 felt a bit like Y2K. We thought something catastrophic might happen. But nothing happened. Why didn’t the United Kingdom leave the European Union last week?

Simon Montlake (Brexit reporter, Brit): The easy answer is that the U.K. couldn’t agree on exit terms with the EU and had to go back and ask for more time, which was a big climbdown for Prime Minister Theresa May after two years of saying that March 29 was exit day. The delay means that the can has been kicked down the road, as Peter predicted last time, right?

Peter Ford (senior global correspondent, Brit): Well, I thought there wouldn’t be a solution, but I did not appreciate the full extent of the mess the U.K. would be in now.

Rebecca: What do you mean by that? How is it a bigger mess now?

Peter: The British government is no further forward than it was the last time we had this conversation, but now there are only 10 days till the new deadline, April 12. And the choices are the same as ever: (1) Ms. May’s deal, (2) a second referendum on Brexit, (3) a national election, or (4) a no-deal Brexit. It’s the same mess with less time to sort it out.

Jacob Turcotte and Rebecca Asoulin/Staff, Photos by AP

Simon: On the plus side, we have eliminated some unicorns.

Rebecca: Which ones?

Simon: If you remember the drama over Ireland and the dreaded backstop, there was a unicorn lurking in the wings. Conservative pro-Brexit Members of Parliament demanded that Ms. May go back to the EU and find “alternative arrangements” to keep the border open after Britain leaves. Turns out that there are no magical alternatives. So we slayed that particular unicorn. Unfortunately the same pro-Brexit MPs are gunning for a no-deal exit and might feel that time is on their side. What do you think, Peter?

Peter: Those who want a hard Brexit with no deal are rubbing their hands with glee each time the clock strikes midnight. Another day closer to the exit, another day with no agreement on a practical alternative.

Rebecca: But the majority of MPs want to leave in an orderly fashion, right? I mean they’re British!

Simon: Yes. Parliament has voted emphatically against a chaotic exit. But what Parliament can’t agree on is what kind of exit it wants, so the legal default (a no-deal Brexit) is arguably the least popular option. Perplexing, isn’t it?

It’s as if a military strategist dreamed up a new version of game theory and wanted to see how it would work in an actual democracy.

Peter: But MPs and the government are playing games with the country’s future and it is not funny anymore.

Simon: European leaders aren’t laughing. They might be weeping with frustration.

Peter: They are indeed. The head of the European Commission called David Cameron, the former prime minister who started the whole thing by calling the Brexit referendum, “one of the great destroyers of modern times” yesterday evening.

Simon: A side note – I was at a discussion at Harvard yesterday where a speaker mistakenly referred to James Cameron. James Cameron was the director of the film “Titanic.” Which seems terribly apposite at the moment. Are MPs in Parliament rearranging the deck chairs and willing the iceberg to move?

Peter: Seems to me they are just pretending the iceberg isn’t there. The public have been fed up with government handling of Brexit for some time. Now they are getting increasingly fed up with Parliament and its inability to agree on anything.

Parliamentarians have proved very bad at politics. None of them are showing any readiness to compromise on their maximalist positions. We are getting dangerously close to a situation where a lot of voters are going to be in a “what’s the point of politicians?” mood, and that will give demagogues a field day.

Simon: Do we need to talk about the extraordinary takeover of Parliament by its members?

Peter: Briefly ...

Simon: In a parliamentary system, the government controls the business of the legislature. What bills are discussed, motions tabled, etc. 

Last week there was a cross-party takeover of this process. And that’s how we ended up with the last two days of voting on alternatives to Ms. May’s Brexit deal.

Imagine if junior representatives from both parties in Congress had seized the gavel from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and said, “OK, let’s pass some major legislation.”

It was a remarkable twist in the story, and frankly a necessary effort to force change on Ms. May’s government. Since she has no Plan B.

Peter: Except that they have signally failed to pass major legislation. Still no majority in favor of anything.

Rebecca: So what happens next? Britain seems to be getting lost deeper in the weeds as it tries to untangle itself. Is the future more uncertain now than when we talked before? (How is that possible!)

Peter: Crystal ball time, Simon....

Simon: My crystal ball is cloudy. The lights went out!

Peter: The future is no more uncertain, but that is becoming increasingly urgent. Urgent uncertainty. Does that get us anywhere?

Simon: Let’s remember that Ms. May still thinks she can get her deal approved by Parliament. 

Rebecca: (But it’s failed three times!)

Simon: It’s hard to see how Ms. May succeeds. She already played her trump card by offering to step down as leader if the deal passes. And that still didn’t get her a majority.

Can she really get a majority after three failures? Hard to imagine. Even if she did there are many legislative steps to go, and a shaky coalition is easily undone. So the EU might conclude that she’s simply unable to deliver Brexit in its current form. 

Peter: One reason Brexit is so hard to agree on is that the country and its political class are divided so equally and so ambiguously: 52-48 to leave at the referendum, and now 53-47 to remain, according to polls. 

Rebecca: So you two think Ms. May’s deal as it is won’t pass. What does that leave?

Simon: I expect the U.K. will ask for another extension next week at an emergency EU summit.

The question is, what will U.K. say is the reason for the extension? To hold an election to break the deadlock? Or a referendum on whether to Brexit or not?

It’s not enough to say, “Well, we still can’t make up our minds. Sorry.” That won’t cut it. 

Peter: I’ll stick my head out. I think there will be an election, which will be fought almost entirely on the Brexit issue, (so it will in effect be a referendum). 

The whole system of government is in danger of seizing up, unable to reach a decision on the most important question before it in more than 50 years. The government might simply collapse.

Rebecca: I started this conversation thinking something catastrophic had been avoided on March 29. But has it just been delayed unless the British Parliament can correct course? Do you two have any final thoughts?

Peter: My thought is that I am looking forward to the day when I do not have to think any longer about Brexit. But to be frank, I am not certain when that day will dawn.

Simon: I expect to be back in the U.K. covering an election sooner than expected. 

My big surprise when I was reporting in London last time is that while there is animosity toward the EU for striking a hard bargain, the biggest blame seems to be directed at British politicians on the other side of the negotiations. So perhaps some introspection will serve to lighten the difficult path ahead!

Rebecca: This potential election seems to me almost like the last Boston Marathon – the weather was so terrible that the winners were completely unexpected.

Peter: My kind of marathon....

Rebecca: Perhaps there are some obscure MPs and parties who will end up taking power.

Thank you both for taking time again to talk!

Peter: I’ve enjoyed it. And I am confident that another occasion to ruminate on Brexit will soon present itself. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Editor’s note: After this conversation was held, Ms. May said the U.K. would seek to extend the deadline for leaving the EU from April 12 to May 22. She announced cross-party talks to find a compromise to break the deadlock.

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