Benched by Brexit, Britain seems unable to think of much else — and the political brawl is far from over

After Theresa May's Brexit deal suffered a decisive defeat in Parliament, the prime minister faces a critical non-confidence vote. But no matter the outcome for her, the country is still wracked by division with no clear path out of an intractable political mess.

'Time is almost up,' EU commissioner warns after May's deal demolished

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May faces a vote of non-confidence Wednesday after her Brexit deal went down in a spectacular defeat. She looks likely to survive, but how the country will move forward is far from clear. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

Yes, Theresa May's Brexit defeat in Parliament was historic. Epic. It was worthy of labels like #brexitshambles and the Daily Telegraph's take, which called the 430 to 202 loss "a complete humiliation."

But defeat usually implies there was a victor.

So chalk one up for the disruptors who started all this. The restive Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers. Nigel Farage's UKIP. The near 17.5 million voters who lost faith in their globalist leaders and wanted a Britain of a different kind.

For them, May's loss was a battle won.

But the real historic part of Tuesday's "crushing" defeat? One of the world's oldest parliamentary democracies, a founding member of NATO, of the Security Council, of the G7 — a cornerstone nation of the liberal world order — starts a third year in a state of political paralysis, a state of fundamental uncertainty and turmoil.

Benched by Brexit, Britain now is unable to think of much else.

And over two and a half years after it made the historic decision to leave the EU, it still cannot envision a reasonable way out of an intractable, messy impasse.

The spectacle, wrote Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, is "of a country lost and adrift."

Expect that to continue, because no matter what happens over the next several pivotal days Brexit won't be settled.

"We stand here as confused and as uncertain about the future as we were a week ago, as we were a month ago, and really as we were when the result came in," Joe Twyman of the polling firm Deltapoll told CBC News.

Another day, another vote 

First, the House of Commons must decide May's future.

It's true that with promises of support from even her fiercest Conservative Party critics and the DUP propping up her government, she's likely to survive Wednesday's non-confidence motion.

But no matter the outcome for May, it doesn't change this: unprecedented division, and process, will drag out the Brexit brawl.

May's deal angered both those who want to stay in the EU and many Brexit supporters, including this one, who demonstrated outside Parliament ahead of Tuesday's vote. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

For starters, given where things stand, it is increasingly unlikely that Britain will meet that official March 29 deadline to leave the EU unless it's willing to live with a no-deal Brexit. All indications are — Tory Brexiteer Boris Johnson notwithstanding — that virtually no one favours that outcome.

It follows then that no matter who is in charge, the exit date will likely have to be pushed back to allow Parliament the time to consider all the legislation necessary to make Brexit happen.

Otherwise, London's Mayor Sadiq Khan, a member of the Labour Party, told the BBC, "we're going to panic into making decisions we may regret in the future."

The hunt for a 'Plan B'

Then, after Tuesday's historic defeat, there are the mechanics of actually nailing that elusive alternative deal.

If May survives the non-confidence vote, she must return to Parliament with a Plan B by Monday. She promised to do so after consulting with other parties in the House.

It's a tall order.

Whatever she comes back with can really only be a promise, likely requiring yet more talks with the EU. Because having spent months negotiating a deal that covers everything from borders to trade to how much it will cost Britain to leave, it's unlikely the EU will bend to the U.K.'s whims over a mere weekend.

"Time is almost up," warned European Commission leader Jean-Claude Juncker. "I urge the United Kingdom to clarify its intentions as soon as possible."

The problem is, there is no unified intention. And so even if the EU is suddenly amenable to quickly changing the existing deal, it's unlikely to come up with anything that would suddenly build consensus in a deeply fractured House.

In the course of a political crisis of this scale, anything is possible. It could happen. But right now there are too many factions: some want a whole new deal, or a drastically amended deal. Others want an election. Others yet want a second vote.

Watch: Brexit is in shambles — so what comes next?

An uncertain future for Britain as Brexit deadline fast approaches

4 years ago
Duration 2:35
Emotions are running high across the U.K. following a historic vote in Parliament to reject Theresa May's proposed Brexit deal. But with or without a plan, Brexit is still on track to commence on March 29. So the question that comes to mind, what now?

"We find ourselves in a situation where there is no obvious way forward," said Twyman.

"There is nothing that gets majority support with the public, there's nothing that gets majority support in Parliament, and what that means is the clock is ticking."

Bigger battles ahead

And if May doesn't survive the non-confidence vote, she, or someone else (like Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who introduced the motion) has 14 days to win the confidence of the House. Otherwise, it's on to a general election.

And there again, the breathtaking division and process will guarantee many more weeks of Brexit debate yet to come, before we ever see another thick stack of papers to politely guide Britain out of the EU.

Many who want to stay in the EU have called for another referendum. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Now, back to the disruptors.

They won Tuesday's battle by defeating a plan that fell short of their call for fundamental change in Britain's relationship with mainland Europe.

But with #brexitshambles the win or loss is bigger than just that one battle. The bigger picture suggests a loss for all involved. A single issue has managed to bitterly divide and preoccupy a country. It brought down one prime minister, and it's likely to bring down another, eventually.

It has torn two establishment political parties apart, the Tories and Labour. It's could even destroy one or both of them, maybe create a whole new party. It's claimed cabinet ministers, parliamentary decorum, consensus of any kind.

It's even made it hard for an MP to do an interview out in the open without being heckled.

Meantime, a citizenry with many other pressing worries wonders when its politicians will snap back to the present: to the economy, to poverty, to the ailing health system or climate change.

Katie Perrior, a former adviser to May, told BBC many are growing tired of the never-ending battle.

"I think parliamentarians tonight possibly have forgotten that the people at home are watching and thinking, 'What fresh hell is this?'"

The EU — and the world — meanwhile, watch in bewilderment: Britain is out of play and will continue to be. And that indeed is historic.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?