Last week, over a million people tuned in to watch Brexit: The Uncivil War , a long-awaited television drama on the successful Leave campaign in Britain. In the film, Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Dominic Cummings, the controversial political strategist who masterminded the successful strategy, including the micro-targeted political advertising campaign that has come under scrutiny in recent months. The drama, which attempts to capture the perspectives of both sides, has still unsurprisingly divided public opinion, with many believing it presents too sympathetic a picture of the other. This reflects the highly charged nature of the debate. On the show, even Mr. Cummings, giving evidence to an inquiry, displays his frustration with where things are headed. “It’s gone crap,” he declares, launching a rambling attack on “flawed people” and the need for a system reboot, which has failed to happen. It’s unlikely that even the most ardent supporter of Brexit would disagree with that analysis — less than 80 days before Britain is due to leave the European Union, the future remains as uncertain as ever.
Two significant votes
On Tuesday, MPs are due to vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s controversial Brexit plan, and despite the decks being stacked clearly against her, Mr. May has plodded on, insisting her deal is the right one for Britain. The willingness of MPs from across the political spectrum to vote against her became abundantly clear over the past week, as they came together to defeat the government on two significant, if not game-changing, Brexit votes. First, MPs, including 20 from the Conservative Party, voted in favour of an amendment to the Finance Bill to limit the government’s ability to levy taxes if Britain were to crash out without a deal. Second, the (Conservative) Speaker of the House, John Bercow, controversially allowed MPs to pass an amendment that gives the government three days to come up with a Plan B in the event that Ms. May’s proposal is shot down on Tuesday. The amendment caused outrage among Brexiteers and the right-wing tabloids. The Prime Minister said she was “surprised” that Mr. Bercow allowed MPs to vote on the amendment and called on him to explain himself to Parliament. The anger over this highlights the extent to which British politics has descended to the farcical: the amendment merely requires the government to swiftly offer an alternative if, as expected, there is a negative vote on the withdrawal deal. This is what a sensible government would have done in any case in order to avoid a cliff edge.
What has become increasingly clear is that a cliff edge is precisely what the government is counting on to garner support for its deal. With little sign from Europe of any substantial change in the deal, Ms. May is resting her hopes on persuading MPs across the political spectrum to have a last-minute change of heart to avoid exiting without a deal, which, observers agree, would severely damage the economy and create short-term logistical chaos, including at Britain’s main ports and road networks. Labour has accused the government, which delayed the vote from December after it became clear that it was set to lose, of running down the clock in an attempt to force the vote through by focussing on wavering MPs, dissatisfied with the Prime Minister’s deal but more anxious of a no-deal exit. Other methods have been deployed to garner support too. BuzzFeed , the news website, reported that a government source warned that Conservative MPs who sided with Labour and opposition parties could have their whip withdrawn and be deselected as party candidates at the next election. The veteran Eurosceptic, John Redwood, received a knighthood in the New Year honours list, which led to suspicions that the honours route was being used by Ms. May to drum up support. There is now even talk that the Prime Minister has reached out with more workers’ and environmental protections to trade unions, traditionally supporters and allies of Labour, to test whether these concessions will encourage them — and Labour politicians — to back the deal. Still others within government circles have attempted to persuade their colleagues that not backing Ms. May’s deal would thwart Brexit entirely and, as one person warned, even trigger a surge in the far right.
Preparations for a no-deal exit
The government is also making preparations to face the worst. It is attempting to strike a balance between demonstrating its preparedness for a no-deal exit, while making clear the many grievous repercussions of such an exit. For instance, the Health Secretary made a throwaway remark about becoming the world’s biggest buyer of fridges as Britain stockpiles several weeks’ supply of crucial medicines. There was also a recent test run of a contingency traffic plan to avoid congestions at the port of Dover, which went off well enough for the government to claim success but involved few enough vehicles for the test to be dismissed by the Road Haulage Association. The Times reported that thousands of civil servants are being asked to abandon their day jobs this week and prepare for a no deal.
The government can count on one thing, however: for all its struggles to garner support, there is no other position that can claim outright certainty either. While it appears that most MPs agree that they don’t want to crash out without a deal, neither of the two leading political parties support the option of a second referendum. In a speech last week, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made it clear that his priority remains securing a fresh election, which, if his party won, would enable it to hold talks anew with Europe, in the hopes of a new deal. However, there is little hope of a new election (a two-thirds majority of Parliament would be required to hold an election before 2022 and neither the Conservatives nor their allies, the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, would vote to jeopardise their already vulnerable political position). This of course increases the risk of Britain crashing out, with nothing else agreed on. The ignominious process is a long way from the message of “taking back control’ that the real Mr. Cummings ingeniously, if deceptively, sold the country.