Amidst the chaos of Boris Johnson’s government, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that some of the reasons for the current crisis were caused by Theresa May’s handling of the negotiations.
For two years, the former Prime Minister restricted the ability of MPs to contribute to the Brexit plan and instead appeared determined to be the person who would eventually be able to take credit for leading Britain out of the EU.
Her stubbornness in refusing to compromise or listen to the view across the entire House of Commons resulted in a Withdrawal Agreement being repeatedly put before MPs even after it was clear that it didn’t command the level of support required to pass.
Even when resorting to a tactic of brinkmanship and using the threat of No Deal as a way to force Parliamentary colleagues to support the deal, May found that not enough MPs were willing to change their stance.
After the March 29 deadline was missed, there were half-hearted attempts at gaining cross-party support – to the fury of backbench Tory MPs, who continued to be frozen out of discussions but were now witnessing the Prime Minister inviting opposition leaders to provide input.
Yet the impasse remained, with accusations that Theresa May wasn’t genuinely willing to compromise on the red lines which she had set, and which had always led to a situation in which a deal would be impossible to agree.
The other issue, also caused by the Conservative party, was the infighting among various wings of the party, along with the fact that there was a lack of respect for Theresa May as leader.
This led to frequent arguments – particularly between those in the party who were working towards securing a deal, and the ERG, who were intent on fighting for a “hard Brexit” – and the very concept of party discipline went out of the window long before Theresa May stepped down.
Cabinet leaks became commonplace, as did the previously unthinkable act of Cabinet members voting against the government and still remaining in their jobs. The internal hostilities were always heading towards a point at which the party would appoint a new leader, and those angling for an opportunity to grab the top job were simply waiting for the right moment, which was always judged to be at the end of the two-year Article 50 deadline.
With May’s position becoming weaker and weaker, the ERG sensed a growing possibility of achieving a form of Brexit they longed for – one which involved simply cutting all ties with Europe and leaving the EU without any transitional agreement in place whatsoever.
Having tried to appease all sides of the Tory party, Theresa May found a significant number of Tory MPs turning on her, and rejecting the Withdrawal Agreement on each and every occasion it was voted on. Ironically, the failure of Britain leaving the EU in March was in a large part down to MPs who had campaigned to leave, but had voted against the implementation of a deal which would have allowed Britain to leave.
The argument put forward for voting in such a way was that the deal wasn’t considered to be a true form of Brexit – even though it clearly ensured that the United Kingdom would cease to become a European Union member state. The issue was that the relationship between Britain and Europe was closer in certain aspects than they wished for, and that it “wasn’t the Brexit that people voted for.”
The counter argument to this is that people didn’t vote on a specific deal, and merely stated a preference on whether to remain a member of the EU or not (an identical argument which has subsequently – and hypocritically – been made by the same people in response to attempts at preventing a “No deal Brexit”).
But these arguments only highlight not only the complexities in the matter, but also the nonsensically over-simplistic form in which the referendum was held in the first place.
As has been argued many times by people on each side of the Brexit divide, there were a variety of reasons behind votes being cast in favour of leaving, and on a topic which never featured too prominently on the majority of the nation’s political priority list, the decision on which way to vote would – for many people – have been based on the arguments made during the respective campaigns.
Among the pledges made by “leave” campaigners was the fact that Britain was so important to the EU that the country would basically be able to get whatever deal it wanted. The idea of remaining a member of the Single Market was also commonly expressed, with suggestions that Britain could negotiate access to important trade aspects, but be exempted from having to agree to freedom of movement.
The infamous bus slogan promising £350million a week for the NHS would also have been persuasive – especially to members of the public who might have been rather indifferent to the question of EU membership, as would the threat of Britain becoming a destination for mass immigration from Turkey, with claims made that Turkey was soon to become a member of the EU.
But whereas there are regular calls for politicians to respect the result of the referendum, there remains a total lack of responsibility by those leading the negotiations to honour the promises which were made during campaigning, and which undoubtedly helped to deliver a result for the UK to leave.
Instead, all the promises have been abandoned, with the default stance by the most ardent leave supporters being that which would see a “No Deal Brexit”.
And in fanning the flames of division, not just in Parliament but more across the country more generally, there have been frequent accusations that anyone opposing a plan to leave without a deal is, in fact, guilty of opposing Brexit altogether.
Guilty of acting against the Government.
Guilty of thwarting the democratic will of the people.
Guilty of destroying confidence in politics.
And as the government and its representatives and allies have expressed that view ever more strongly, sections of the public have responded in kind.
Many of the most vocal leave-supporters adopted the view that MPs not in favour of No Deal Brexit are traitors who deserve to lose their seat. And throughout the insults and vitriol, the fact which continues to be overlooked is that the blame for the UK still being part of the European Union rests far more with Boris Johnson and his friends than with the likes of Dominic Grieve and others who were pushing for a more orderly way to leave the EU.
Indeed it’s not the only irony to have been lost amidst the chaos, with the issue of Parliamentary sovereignty coming under the spotlight following the prorogation called by Boris Johnson in August.
The perceived lack of power by Parliament and the idea that the EU have ultimate control over British laws was among the more common reasons cited for people choosing to vote to leave.
They wanted power to rest entirely with politicians elected by the people of the UK. But when a shutdown of Parliament was ordered, purely to prevent debate on the subject of Brexit amidst growing suspicions that the Prime Minister was aiming for a No Deal outcome and wanted to prevent attempts to block it, there was support for his actions. And when the highest court in the land returned a unanimous judgment that Boris Johnson acted unlawfully, there was criticism of judges who have been accused by leave-voters of trying to stop Brexit.
It’s been a familiar accusation whenever there is any debate, even though the reasons for Brexit not yet being implemented are mostly down to it being more complex than it was made out to be, and of Britain not being able to deliver on the fantasies which were promised during the referendum, and of successive Prime Ministers limiting wider involvement by MPs across the Commons regarding the kind of deal which would gain enough support to be accepted into law.
It’s entirely understandable for the public to have frustrations, but the reasons why the UK is still in the EU six months after the original exit date are not simply due to the attempts by a so-called “Remainer Parliament” to stop it from taking place, and if politicians – particularly from the Government benches – were less-divisive in their language, there might actually be more appreciation given to this fact.
Where the country goes from here is anyone’s guess, but the direction in which it is being steered by a Prime Minister with a history of dishonesty and of fuelling division is already causing growing alarm, and the anger being felt across the country is only being intensified by his words and actions – during a time when the country’s leader should be seeking to calm tensions and do everything in his power to unite the nation.
What is for sure is that the next month is unlikely to see much of a change in tone by either side, and in a critical time for the country, it may be the case that even after Brexit has been resolved, it’s too late to bring about the scale of healing which the country needs.