The best thing that could be said about the progress of talks in 2018 on the UK’s exist from the European Union was that they were interminable. A wasted year ended with the UK no clearer about its future relations with the EU but with the clock rapidly ticking down to the 29 March date when she will formally leave the bloc.
One thing that did become clear in 2018 was that having spent two years insisting that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, Prime Minister Theresa May did not, in fact, believe her own slogan.
In objective terms, the withdrawal agreement and accompanying ‘political declaration’ Mrs May brought back from Brussels in November is about as good as could have been expected considering that the UK government did not agree on its demands for post-Brexit relations until July, and even that came at the expense of the resignation of Foreign Secretary and Brexit campaign front-man Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis. The deal effectively keeps the UK in a single market for goods, with the promise, eventually, of an ambitious deal on trade and political co-operation. The Irish ‘backstop’ also avoids the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. It represents a compromise between Leave and Remain supporters. But since Brexit is essentially a culture war in which compromise is impossible, it has been roundly criticised by both sides.
The UK has been stuck in a state of political paralysis since Mrs May’s gamble of a snap election in May 2017, which she thought would give her a landslide, backfired spectacularly and cost her majority.
Despite being almost permanently beleaguered, Mrs May has plenty of old-fashioned British stubbornness. That has kept her going where others might have resigned. But what has saved her skin thus far is that while she doesn’t have the numbers to govern, her opponents, both within and without, do not have the numbers to oust her.
That was made clear in December after Mrs May decided to pull a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal when it became clear she would lose. At that point, Conservative rebels finally cobbled together the 48 MPs needed to call a leadership election, which in the absence of a credible alternative candidate from her party, May duly won. A cack-handed attempt by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to force a vote of no confidence just days later, which he also did not have the numbers to win, showed that incompetence is not exclusive to May’s government.
Without a parliamentary majority, May’s main tactic has been to play it long. MPs will finally vote on her withdrawal deal on 14 January. They will probably vote it down, although May hopes that the fear of a ‘no deal’ Brexit will persuade enough of her party’s rebels to back down. What happens then is the great imponderable; there are a set of equally unlikely alternatives on offer, one of which will end up happening.
Mrs May has continued to make entreaties to EU leaders over the Christmas break, and will continue to do so in the first two weeks of January. Her hope is that whatever warm words that can be brought back from Brussels will be enough for MPs to eventually back her deal before 29 March.
What seems more likely is that a majority of MPs will instead vote to rule out a ‘no deal’ scenario. That, however, would not have the force of law, and the idea of the legislature dictating terms to the executive could prompt a constitutional crisis.
Britons could end up being very busy at the polls in 2019. Campaigners for a second referendum have a spring in their step that did not exist one or two years ago. In the absence of the deadlock in government and parliament being broken, putting Brexit back to the people is a more viable proposition than a general election.
If the prospect of a second referendum is real enough to give Remainers hope, just as likely is a ‘no deal’ Brexit which neither the EU or the UK, are ready for, but which hard Brexiteers would be happy with. So, too, is May being forced to resign by her cabinet. Another option is to request an extension to Article 50. However, EU officials have indicated that extending Article 50 by a few months would be pointless unless the UK completely changes its negotiating demands.
The French conservative and counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre came up with the phrase ‘toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite’, a truism that has been adapted by generations of political pundits as ‘you get the politicians you deserve’. The UK is not alone in Europe in having to choose between politicians who are either bland, incompetent or irresponsible, and sometimes all three. But it is still tempting to ask what heinous acts Britons have done to deserve their current crop of leaders.
Historians will look back at this period of British history with open mouths and lacerating pens that a country known for its stability and pragmatism could get itself into such a mess of its own creation.