The UK must look very weird to the outside world at the moment.
Don’t worry though: Brexit, and its resulting political mayhem, has left much of the UK’s population just as confused.
This week, it looked as though Prime Minister Theresa May’s hard-won yet widely-loathed Brexit deal with the European Union would finally have its moment in the spotlight, as lawmakers were set to vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Then, after a weekend of speculation, she delayed the vote.
48 hours later, she faces a confidence vote in her leadership. The result of this vote – win or lose – could fundamentally alter the Brexit timetable and change the entire complexion of UK politics.
One of the most common questions that European politicos are asked by people with better things to do is “what will actually happen with Brexit?” For the last couple of years, it’s been possible to conjure up half answers that sound a bit clever and move on. But the awful truth, even this late in the game, is that no one knows – even the people in charge.
This partly stems from the current reality of British politics. No one, it seems, has a workable plan that can be credibly presented as something that might, you know, feasibly happen.
May and her inner circle have failed to convince the UK’s Parliament that her deal really is the best – and only – thing on the table.
As a result, the Prime Minister pulled the so-called meaningful vote on her Brexit deal, presumably for fear of a heavy defeat and the chain of events that could follow.
Should she survive the confidence vote, May will then head back to Brussels in the hope that she get secure sufficient assurances on her deal and sway MPs to vote for it.
Never let it be said that the Prime Minister is not an optimist…
One of the many problems she faces is that even her own Conservative Party hates the deal, in large part because of something called the Irish border backstop.
The border between the Republic of Ireland (an EU member state) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK) has been the thorniest issue of the whole Brexit process. For historical reasons, both negotiating teams have from day one said that avoiding a hard border was an absolute priority.
Unfortunately, for boring reasons to do with trade and customs, that is likely impossible unless Northern Ireland is in some kind of Customs Union with the EU, which means the whole UK if you don’t want to break up the Union.
Conservatives loathe this, as they have long hailed the ability to independently trade with countries around the world as the prize for Brexit (see why that is a fantasy here).
Then there’s the opposition Labour Party and its fudgy Brexit policy. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn seemed to as good as admit on Monday that he accepted the negotiations were closed and that the EU would not budge on the border. He also implied that May should stand aside and allow a leader (presumably one J. Corbyn) capable of negotiating a better deal to take over. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the problem here.
Labour’s other problem is that it is almost as divided as the Conservative Party on Brexit – especially on the matter of a second referendum, or the People’s Vote, as it’s known. Corbyn and his top team seem reluctant to endorse this outright. They certainly don’t want to be seen as supporting any efforts to prevent Brexit – something many in Westminster believe to be the ultimate intention of the People’s Vote.
The People’s Vote is backed by people across the political spectrum. And its supporters have extra pep in their step after the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK could hypothetically revoke Article 50, should it want to and with a mountain of caveats.
But with only 15 weeks to go until Brexit, it’s not exactly clear how such a vote could even be carried out, which of the two main parties would back what side, how it would be funded, what the question would be, how many answers there would be and what government would legislate for it.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the EU has said repeatedly that negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement are not going to be reopened; it is likely not possible to have a second referendum before Brexit Day (ergo, the UK would very much not unilaterally have to ask the EU to extend Article 50); there is no guarantee that the Norway option is something the EU even wants (why would it want the second largest EEA economy unbeholden to EU law?); and, whisper it, but both frontbenches support Brexit and would likely have to were there a second referendum.
So how’s that for clarity? For some unknown reason, politicians of all factions and levels of seniority have had their ill-considered whims indulged for over two years now. Rather than be forcibly whipped in line and made to confront reality, the UK’s all-consuming political vacuum has created a safe space for a sort of fantasy land.
Meanwhile, with only 15 weeks to go until Brexit day, the world still has no clarity on what’s about to become of its fifth largest economy.
It might be funny if it wasn’t so terrifying.
This article has been updated to correct the number of weeks until Brexit.