Confidence Game

AP Photo/Alastair Grant

British Prime Minister Theresa May walks past the EU flag at the conclusion of an EU summit in Brussels. 

As the dust settles on one of the House of Commons' un-finest hours, the future of Britain as a European power-player is as unclear as ever.

On Tuesday, the Commons voted to humiliate Prime Minister Theresa May. On Wednesday, the Commons voted to enshrine her prime minster for as long as choses to stay.

The UK Parliament came close to making itself a laughingstock as MPs pirouetted to both condemn and console the Prime Minister in the space of 24 hours. One can only feel sorry for the poor leaders of European nations as they try and decipher what on earth is the message British MPs are trying to send.

The problem is that Britain’s political class is locked in three separate contests.

The first one is between plebiscite and parliamentary democracy. For three centuries the way of governing Britain was by means of representative parliamentary democracy—decisions taken in the House of Commons by elected MPs.

Beginning in 1973, British leaders opted for referendums in some cases, culminating in the June 2016 plebiscite on EU membership. Just 37 percent of the total electorate voted to quit the European Union without ever defining what “Leave” would mean—a political exit? A full trade and economic exit? An exit from the right of Brits to live in Europe?

Since she became prime minister in July 2016 Theresa May has insisted that plebiscite democracy cannot be challenged. Parliamentary democracy must bow before the plebiscite.

The second contest is for the soul of the Conservative Party. Since the middle 1990s, the Conservative Party has been a battleground about Europe. For the pro-Reagan/Bush/Trump Tories, the main policy object has been to cut Britain out of Europe. The EU in their eyes is socially progressive, environmentally sensitive, obsessed with human rights and committed to a modified capitalism and globalization that seeks to control aspects of the market.

U.K. Conservatives who want to win elections and hold power know that ultra-free market, winner-takes-all, weak-to-the wall deregulated capitalism is not where the British want to be.  But the powerful hold of anti-Europeanism promoted by the Murdoch and other off-shore owned media has won over the Tory rank-and-file members who see Europe as an enemy to be vanquished.

The third contest is between the U.K. state apparatus and the European Union. Britain has never liked the deepening of the EU—dismissed with a curled lip as the “European Project”—and resisted all power-sharing measures.

This week saw all three contests out in the open fighting to the death. May insisted on the supremacy of the plebiscite over parliament. Parliament said No. But the Tory anti-Europeans were not ready to carry their fight to the point of destroying her as prime minister so she won that contest as she defeated Labour’s poorly timed and feebly executed vote of no confidence in her administration.

The European government heads and the bureaucracy in Brussels have won the post-referendum struggle with Britain by simply playing defense—refusing to make concessions that would be illegal under EU law.

So the Commons votes while making headlines do not settle any of these three struggles nor do they answer the question what happens now?

May is back in control. She opposes a new referendum—asking the people—which has the support of many opposition MPs but only ten Conservatives. or a new general election. For the first time since July 2016 she says she might talk to opposition MPs but not to party leaders. She remains Neville Chamberlain in her contempt for non-Tories, not Winston Churchill, a man who moved easily between parties and reached out to Labour in 1940 when the nation needed to come together.

May is divisive. She insists that she will not move on red lines she drew in 2016—notably the U.K. must leave the Customs Union and cannot accept freedom of movement.

The latter seems to remove the possibility of a Norway style relationship between the UK and the EU in the European Economic Area since such a compromise assumes freedom of movement.

Agreeing to staying in the Customs Union solves much of the Ireland border question. It is in line with Labour thinking, so might win support from Labour MPs but she insists the U.K. must start negotiating separate trade deals after March 29 so staying in the Customs Union is excluded.

In short, the headlines of parliamentary votes, defeats, and victories for May do not alter the fundamental problem. No solution has a majority, or a settled support from MPs, public opinion, the media, or economic actors for any solution.

The clock ticks down to March 29. Probably Brussels and London will cook up emergency arrangements to stop a full chaotic, crash out with 50 kilometer queues of just-in-time trucks waiting to pass customs at Calais or Dover.

But that is not guaranteed. The Brexit nightmare is not turning into a dream solution. The agony continues.

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