Dead woman walking


UK Prime Minister Theresa May cuts a tragic figure. She inherited a Conservative majority from David Cameron when he resigned after Britain voted to leave the European Union. Promising voters that “Brexit means Brexit”, May called a snap election, to strengthen her hand in leave negotiations in Brussels. It was political folly of the first order. Her party lost its overall majority and could only stay in government with the support of ten truculent MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

EU negotiators were never going to make it easy for the UK to become the first member state to break away. They trashed May’s proposal that future trade relations should be discussed alongside the British departure deal. They forced her to accept a $47 billion exit bill. They made an issue of Northern Ireland, which has a land border with EU member Ireland, proposing special arrangements to keep the British province within the EU customs area. This was anathema to May’s fiercely nationalist DUP partners. The deal she finally cobbled together has been rejected three times by a deeply-divided parliament which had nevertheless voted immediately after the referendum to revoke Article 50 and quit the EU.

The incompetence of British negotiators has been matched by the ruthlessness of the EU officials sitting across the table. It does, however, seem clear that the majority of the UK bureaucrats involved was deeply depressed by the Brexit vote. Indeed, much of the British establishment that supported Remain was astonished, dismayed and embittered by the result. The divisions in British society are deeper than in living memory. Remainers have characterized the 17.4 million pro-Brexit voters as ignorant, uneducated racists. Some want a second referendum which they hope would reverse the 1.3 million majority for Leave.

Now May has announced a fourth parliamentary vote early next month on her deal. It is almost certain she will again lose, at which point she says the UK would have to quit the EU without a deal or reverse its decision to leave. Yet next week her Conservative and main opposition Labor parties are likely to suffer humiliating rejection by voters in the European parliamentary elections. Ahead in the polls is the new “Brexit” party of Nigel Farage. His now turned racist United Kingdom Independence Party topped the British poll in the 2014 EU parliamentary election, thanks to the Brussels’ rule on proportional representation rather than the UK’s traditional first-past-the-post system.

The Remain camp meanwhile is split between three different parties which have each committed to stay in the EU. On the first parliamentary vote for her EU exit deal Theresa May suffered the largest defeat of any sitting government and yet stayed in office. Politically she became a dead woman walking, who then promised to quit the moment a Brexit deal is done. She remains unchallenged because no one wants to take up the poisoned chalice from which EU unbending negotiators have forced her to drink.

If Brussels ever hoped that they could engineer a second referendum at which the British would vote to remain after all, they have miscalculated. Even many pro-Europeans share the anger of Brexit supporters at the humiliating mess into which the UK government has been driven. The May 23 vote could well be a day of wrath against the British political establishment.