Has Brexit Broken British Politics?

The UK’s Departure from the EU Has Caused a Major Shock to the Political System
Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn (L) and Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (R) (Getty)

The British political system has never looked more broken. While the Iraq war, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2009 MP's expenses scandal were all major shocks to the system, the damage they did to undermine public trust in politicians pales in comparison to the damage currently unraveling as the UK spirals deeper and deeper into the Brexit crisis. The turmoil that has been engulfing the country over the last two and a half years as the government has scrambled to deliver on the results of the 2016 referendum has exposed cracks in the British model of democracy that has for generations prided itself in the stability it provides. Ever since the referendum put the UK on course to leave the EU, both Prime Minister Theresa May and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn have tried to manage the deep divides on Europe in their own parties over Brexit and it has become clear that neither party can offer comfortable homes for Brexit or Remain voters. It seems that the two-party system, which has for a couple of centuries ensured that party unity is retained and that governments can deliver their policies while operating with a unified message, is on the verge of collapse.

Theresa May’s 600 page Brexit deal which she negotiated with European Union over 18 months has been voted down three times by lawmakers, leaving her policy in ruins. Parliament rejected her plan the first time by 432  votes to 202, a historic margin of defeat for a Prime Minister’s bill. Meanwhile, Parliament took control of the process away from the government in order to hold a series of votes to find an alternative way forward. Two rounds of Parliament’s so-called indicative votes failed to find a Brexit option that is capable of commanding a majority, with none of the options even coming close to getting a majority of the whole house or a sizable chunk of the governing Conservatives.  As a result of these failures, May has been forced to postpone Brexit twice from the original date of 29 March. In her letter to President of the European Council Donald Turk requesting the EU gift the UK a second postponement of the Brexit deadline from April 12 to June 30, May said the impasse over her Brexit deal in the commons “cannot be allowed to continue”. With May unable to secure the backing from the commons, she reached out to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to shake the political deadlock and see if a consensus could be found on a way forward that would ensure the UK left the EU with an agreement. Conservative Eurosceptics have attacked May for her decision to seek Jeremy Corbyn’s help to get the Brexit deal through parliament and deliver Brexit, warning that her approach “threatens to damage the Conservatives for years”. They fear the outcome of the cross-party talks will be a soft Brexit or a second referendum. At this stage, even the most committed observer would struggle to predict a clear path through the current chaos towards a solution.

Meanwhile, the public is also in disarray. Brexiters cite the 17.4 million who voted to leave the EU, insisting that most of them want a hard Brexit and that the “will of the people” should be upheld no matter what. Remainers claim that public opinion is changing, pointing to a march for a “people’s vote” in London on March 23 that drew a purported 1 million people, and a petition to revoke Article 50 which has attracted over 6 million signatories.

The problems that have led to the current impasse run deep and can be traced back to 2013 when Prime Minister David Cameron, succumbing to pressure from within his own Conservative Party, promised the British people an in/out referendum on EU membership if he were to win the upcoming election. When the June 23 referendum was held, neither Cameron nor the government had a plan on what Brexit would look like. Usually, when referendums on big political decisions with far-reaching consequences are held, a turnout threshold or special majority requirement is decided, but Cameron legislated for a referendum without such safeguards. The result was 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of exit, while nearly 75 percent of today’s MPs voted remain. The referendum was the first time that Britain’s electorate had voted for an outcome with which its MPs disagreed. In the only other UK-wide plebiscites that have been held, one in 1975 on the membership of the EU, and the other in 2011 on changing the voting system for MPs, both MPs and voters agreed. This is only half the issue. The other is that most of the 25 percent of MPs who did vote leave disagreed with how the government led by a former Remainer would interpret and deliver on the vote. This demonstrated that parliamentary democracy and direct democracy had become incompatible. The division between parliament and the public developed into an impasse between parliament and the executive - illustrated by the worst defeat in the commons ever recorded over May’s Brexit deal. 

But it is not just that parliament, the government and the cabinet are divided on Europe, it is that the way the UK politics has traditionally been conducted – through adversarial debate, and the winner takes all – is not conducive with the give and take that the Prime Minister’s deal needs to pass.

The current status could have been avoided. A few days after the referendum, a group of defeated Labour MPs approached the then Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin with a proposal that said the government should form a cross-party group to agree on a Brexit deal, but the Europe-inspired idea was not welcomed by Theresa May. Under a cross-party approach, a middle ground could have been found within the competing mandates, particularly as at the time, May had command over her party before she lost her majority in the 2017 snap general election.

Instead, since Cameron’s gamble, Theresa May’s government approach to Brexit- from her premature decision to trigger article 50 to ignore the 48 percent that voted remain by refusing to hold cross-party talks to keep her pro-Brexit party members on her side – have resulted in a deepening of divisions.  Her decisions have sown the seeds of rebellion and suggest that she is more interested in keeping her party together over national interest.

Labour’s strategy has also been driven by party interest. Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic leading a mainly Remain-leaning party has kept an ambiguous position by sitting on the fence for as long as possible to avoid alienating any of his party or his voters. Corbyn has maintained that a Labour government could deliver a Brexit deal that provides all the benefits of EU membership but with none of the costs. The shadow cabinet is also split on the issue of a second referendum on any Brexit deal.

However the crisis ends, the verdict on parliament’s performance will be damaging. Death threats towards MPs have become the norm. After the MPs rejected May’s deal for a second time, the front page of the Daily Mail denounced “The House of Fools”. When asked if parliament is emerging from Brexit in good light, only 6 percent of people said yes. A new study by the respected Hansard Society found that an alarming 72 percent of people felt that the UK’s democratic system needed “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of improvement. Growing dissatisfaction with MPs is also leading people to entertain “radical solutions” which challenge the core tenets of democracy, the charity warned. Hansard Society director Dr. Ruth Fox said the anti-system sentiment, pessimism about the future and strong feeling the system favors the rich and powerful was creating a “potentially toxic recipe” for the future of British politics. Another recent study by the campaign group Hope Not Hate found that more than two-thirds of the British public feel they are not represented by the main political parties. The research found that disconnect had increased from 60 percent to 67 percent over the last six months as Theresa May negotiated her withdrawal agreement. 

For decades, people have spoken of the breakdown of the current political system, but Brexit may just do it. The extent of the institutional breakdown over the past two and a half years has elicited scenes in parliament without precedent. MPs from both parties have regularly crossed the floor and whips have been defied. On one crucial vote, several cabinet ministers abstained. The crisis has caused a blockage in British politics, and a deadlock within and between the two parties, while forcing both parties to maintain their squabbling political family units which contain within them people whose views diverge radically from each other. This experience could inspire the UK to take a new look at how it is governed and move towards a system where the executive, the political parties and parliament reflect this multifarious country better than they currently do.