[UPDATE: May survived the no-confidence vote within her own party by a margin of 200-117. This is hardly a ringing show of support and was arrived at only after she reportedly promised that she would step aside before 2022, when the next general election is due.]
British prime minister Theresa May is facing a vote of no-confidence within her own party to be held later today, that was triggered by at least 48 members of her party calling for one. At this point, it may be well to recall the key figure that set in motion the current chaotic state of affairs and that is her predecessor as prime minister David Cameron who created a mess and walked away, leaving others to deal with it.
Cameron led his party to a surprising majority when he called an election back in May 2015, after having led the country as part of a coalition with the Liberal party from 2010. That was the high point in his career. One of his campaign promises had been to hold a referendum on continued UK membership in the EU that has now come to be known as Brexit. Losing that referendum (i.e., having Brexit pass) in June 2016 set in motion the sequence of events that led to the current predicament that May finds herself in.
Cameron is not a lawyer by training or he might have benefited from the advice given to lawyers that in arguing a case, it is advisable only to ask questions of a witness to which you already know the answer or for which you are prepared for any answer. In the case of the Brexit referendum, it seems clear that he was confident that the vote would be to remain. Why call for the vote at all? There had long been whining within the Conservative party by those who wanted to leave the EU and it may have seemed like a good idea to call for the referendum. Then when the country voted to remain, he could tell the whiners that the people had spoken and they should shut the hell up. He may have hoped to solve an internal party problem by getting the nation involved and it backfired badly when the country voted to leave.
Cameron then resigned the prime ministership (and his seat in parliament) and May succeeded him, inheriting the mess. But while she inherited a bad hand, she has undoubtedly managed to make things worse by her ineptness and by making promises that she could not keep. Not the least of her missteps was her ill-fated decision to call for a general election in June 2017 that resulted in her party losing its comfortable majority and being forced to depend upon a hardline Northern Ireland party for its survival. Today, she faces a reckoning. It is unlikely that she will not be able to get the 158 MPs to support her that she needs to defeat the motion. But if there is a large enough vote against her, she might find her position untenable and resign anyway.
So here we are. It is clear that the majority of the British parliament, and this includes the Labour Party, is not in favor of leaving the EU. The only way to avoid it is to call for a second referendum and hope the new vote is to remain. And yet, no one wants to be the one who first calls for this second referendum, rightly fearing being castigated as defying the will of the people.
So the UK remains mired in its Brexit quagmire. If May should resign, perhaps the way out of it is if the next person selected as party leader is someone who runs on the promise to call for a second referendum, wins the prime ministership, and then does so. This will unleash the fury of the people who want to leave the EU no matter what (and they are like the Trumpers in the US in their passion and single-mindedness) and that storm will have to be ridden out. What the new prime minister can say is that this detailed discussion of all the complications that leaving the EU would entail that has been playing out over the past year is one that should have been had before the first referendum was called, so that people would be aware of all the complications involving borders and tariffs before they voted. Hence this new referendum would be a much better gauge of people’s intentions than the earlier one that focused more on hot-button issues of nationalism and immigration, things that can tap into deep emotions and fears but do not come anywhere close to dealing with deep-rooted complexities. It is not unlike the US where Trump campaigned on the border wall and against immigrants and vaguely nationalistic sentiments.
Of course, if the second referendum results in yet another vote to leave, then we would be back to where we are now. But at least the country could be confident that they voted having a much deeper understanding of what they were voting on.
Thanks to reader Holms, here is comedian Jonathan Pie playing a journalist nicely summing up the current mess. (Language advisory)