Just two weeks from the UK’s scheduled departure from the European Union, British MPs have once again failed to decide the way ahead, leaving a bewildered public guessing at when, how and even whether they will be ending their most important international relationship.
An embarrassingly rudderless week in Parliament has left almost all options on the table, with PM Theresa May planning to try again next week to get Parliament to accept the departure deal she has negotiated with the EU – a deal that MPs have already rejected twice.
Brooking no compromise and seeking no consensus solutions, Ms May is continuing to play “chicken” with MPs, threatening hardline Brexiters with the possibility of Brexit being cancelled and menacing other MPs with the danger of a calamitous “no deal” Brexit unless they back her preferred option.
Having publicly vowed more than 80 times that no matter what else happens, the UK will definitely leave the EU on March 29, Ms May on Thursday convinced Parliament to support her going cap in hand to EU leaders at the end of the following week to ask them to grant a delay to Brexit – something the EU may or may not accept.
Her offer to MPs is that if they back her deal early next week, she will seek just a short delay of three months to allow the necessary legislation to be passed.
But if MPs reject her deal she might beg the EU for a longer delay of a year or more, a prospect that she hopes will scare “hard” Brexiters into line for fear that the whole project could end up being derailed by a new referendum, general election or whatever else.
To win, she needs to convince 75 of the 391 MPs who voted against her deal last Tuesday to swap sides. Exactly 75 of those MPs are from her own Conservative Party and her only hope is to win over most of those rebels and Northern Ireland’s 10-member Democratic Unionist Party.
The truth is that more than at any time in living memory, Britain’s political system is simply not working.
David Cameron’s decision to introduce direct decision-making by referendum into the most divisive issue in the land with the 2016 Brexit referendum has ended up totally derailing the parliamentary system of representative democracy and rule by Cabinet and parties.
Brexit cut so deeply across party lines that both Conservative and Labour have been ruptured, but the Westminster culture of adversarial party politics has stopped MPs from reaching across party lines to build a coalition or compromise to find some solution.
The past chaotic week showed that the House of Commons and its centuries-old conventions were simply not up to the task.
There were four main options on the table: backing May’s deal with Brussels, leaving the EU with no deal, holding a second referendum, or allowing Parliament to take control of the process from the government and try to build a majority around some new way forward.
Remarkably, the House of Commons this week voted AGAINST all four of those options, but it was unable to muster a majority FOR any clear strategy, leaving Ms May to kick the can further down the road.
There has probably been majority support for some sort of soft Brexit that retained a customs union with the EU but that would have required building a cross-party consensus long ago, and Ms May was not prepared to risk the old parties being torn apart in that way.
Her resulting failure to get the two types of democracy – rule by referendum and representative democracy – to work together finally led this week to a breakdown of the UK party system. That system is built on a dictatorship of the majority rather than building consensus among parties, and it doesn’t work when the parties fracture.
So this week we saw extraordinary things like whips – the party’s disciplinarians –- in both major parties refusing to vote for things they had just told their own MPs to back.
On Wednesday, Cabinet Secretary Amber Rudd and a dozen other soft-Brexit ministers refused to go along with the whips’ orders to support a motion keeping a hard Brexit on the table, an act of defiance that would normally require their resignations.
The next day saw an even stranger spectacle when the Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay “commended to the House”, on behalf of the government, Ms May’s motion to delay Brexit. He then sat down for a few minutes before walking into the voting lobbies and voting against that motion, because he happens to be a hardline Brexiter who opposed it on principle.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose priority has always been to avoid blame for either helping or blocking Brexit, announced that he supported a new referendum just an hour after ordering his MPs not to back one during a House vote.
That is not the way the system is supposed to work.
The one group that has been united, consistent and straight-forward throughout this shemozzle is the EU, a point that May herself conceded to Parliament.
The more ideological Brexiters were always going to blame Brussels for the inevitable problems of their adventure but May admitted on Wednesday that European leaders had negotiated with such patience and good faith that nobody could blame them for the shambles that Brexit has become.