Opinion: A Monty Python madhouse in Westminster

In the eleventh hour, British PM Theresa May recoiled to delay a decision on her Brexit deal. The move may save her government for the time being but makes a hard Brexit is more likely, writes Barbara Wesel.
Barbara Wesel
Barbara Wesel

Westminster could have been the setting of a comedy farce on Monday, with British Prime Minister Theresa May chasing loyal minister Michael Gove through TV studios in the morning to seek assurance that the vote on the Brexit deal would take place as planned.

At noon, a Downing Street spokeswoman confirmed the announcement.

Half an hour later May pulled the ripcord and postponed the vote, which likely would have been a catastrophic defeat for the prime minister. Now, she'll probably be sending her deputies on their Christmas break with the Brexit contract in hand as reading material. Happy holidays!

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May hopes EU ready for renegotiation

Simply buying time

It looks as if May wants to use all the time she possibly can to pass this draft deal. She wants to leave Parliament to stew in the hope that over Christmas punch and turkey roast, the fear of a hard Brexit will intensify and resistance to her deal will weaken.

During the Brexit negotiations, May has hesitated, wavered and postponed decisions as long as possible; she has become a repeat offender. In Brussels, talks were unable to progress because London was mainly negotiating with itself. All this has amounted to further harm at the expense of the British people.

In Brussels, lawmakers are simply shaking their heads at the absurd theater in London. May has now lost whatever shreds of credibility she had left. One might be reminded of a Monty Python sketch — but at least there, the madness had a method. Again on Monday, May reiterated that the draft deal represented the best Brexit offer ever, though hardly anyone lapped up the tired optimism of her promises.

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Barbara Wesel is based in DW's Brussels bureau

Hope dies last

The prime minister's gamble, however, could backfire. She is returning to Brussels this week to again demand that the so-called Irish backstop against a hard border on the island be removed from the deal. She will be lucky, however, if she doesn't get the 585-page divorce contract thrown in her face.

After the summit in Brussels she must once again crawl back to London, tail between her legs, and admit defeat, having tried everything to meet the Brexiteers' demands. But will that be enough to overcome the resistance within the Tories and factions of the opposition? It's more likely that the hostility against her will only increase.

After the vote was postponed, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called May's move "political cowardice." The prime minister may have temporarily secured her office and claim to power, but her fate is nevertheless sealed.

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Brexit renegotiation: No thanks, Mrs. May

Maintaining power at the expense of the nation

May's decision to back down has wasted the precious time needed to make the final decisions on Brexit, or to revise the deal — because the most straightforward solution to the political impasse would be a second referendum.

The prime minister is thus playing into the hands of the fanatics in her party, who are now waffling about a hard Brexit under the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), including emergency legislation with the EU.

After all, trucks are somehow supposed to keep rolling into Dover. The whole affair is an unfeasible fantasy with devastating economic consequences that are easy to foresee.

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May has placed party politics and her retention of power above the common good of her country. Politics always has to do with strategy — doing the right thing at the right moment. May's performance is merely an act of political surrender to stop her head from rolling, a spectacle certainly to be watched with horror and revulsion.


June 2016: 'The will of the British people'

After a shrill referendum campaign, nearly 52 percent of British voters opted to leave the EU on June 24. Polls had shown a close race before the vote with a slight lead for those favoring remaining in the EU. Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had campaigned for Britain to stay, acknowledged the 'will of the British people' and resigned the following morning.


July 2016: 'Brexit means Brexit'

Former Home Secretary Theresa May replaced David Cameron as prime minister on July 11 and promised the country that "Brexit means Brexit." May had quietly supported the remain campaign before the referendum. She did not initially say when her government would trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty to start the two-year talks leading to Britain's formal exit.


March 2017: 'We already miss you'

May eventually signed a diplomatic letter over six months later on March 29, 2017 to trigger Article 50. Hours later, Britain's ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, handed the note to European Council President Donald Tusk. Britain's exit was officially set for March 29, 2019. Tusk ended his brief statement on the decision with: "We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye."


June 2017: And they're off!

British Brexit Secretary David Davis and the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, kicked off talks in Brussels on June 19. The first round ended with Britain reluctantly agreeing to follow the EU's timeline for the rest of the negotiations. The timeline split talks into two phases. The first settles the terms of Britain's exit and the second the terms of the EU-UK relationship post-Brexit.


July-October 2017: Money, rights, and Ireland

The second round of talks in mid-July began with an unflattering photo of a seemingly unprepared British team. It and subsequent rounds ended with little progress on three phase one issues: How much Britain still needed to pay into the EU budget after it leaves, the post-Brexit rights of EU and British citizens, and whether Britain could keep an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.


November 2017: May pays out?

Progress appeared to have been made after round six in early November with Britain reportedly agreeing to pay up to £50 billion (€57 billion/$68 billion) for the "divorce bill." May had earlier said she was only willing to pay €20 billion, while the EU had calculated some €60 billion euros. Reports of Britain's concession sparked outrage among pro-Brexit politicians and media outlets.


December 2017: Go-ahead for phase two

Leaders of the remaining 27 EU members formally agreed that "sufficient progress" had been made to move on to phase 2 issues: the post-Brexit transition period and the future UK-EU trading relationship. While May expressed her delight at the decision, European Council President Tusk ominously warned that the second stage of talks would be "dramatically difficult."


July 2018: Boris and David resign

British ministers appeared to back a Brexit plan at May's Chequers residence on July 6. The proposal would have kept Britain in a "combined customs territory" with the EU and signed up to a "common rulebook" on all goods. That went too far for British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary Davis. They resigned a few days later. May replaced them with Jeremy Hunt and Dominic Raab.


September 2018: No cherries for Britain

The Chequers proposal did not go down well either with EU leaders, who told her at a summit in Salzburg in late September that it was unacceptable. EU Council President Tusk trolled May on Instagram, where he captioned a picture of himself and May looking at cakes with the line: "A piece of cake perhaps? Sorry, no cherries." The gag echoed previous EU accusations of British cherry-picking.


November 2018: Breakthrough in Brussels

EU leaders endorsed a 585-page draft divorce deal and political declaration on post-Brexit ties in late November. The draft was widely condemned by pro- and anti-Brexit lawmakers in the British Parliament only weeks earlier. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab resigned along with several other ministers, and dozens of Conservative Party members tried to trigger a no-confidence vote in May.


December 2018: May survives rebellion

In the face of unrelenting opposition, May postponed a parliamentary vote on the deal on December 10. The next day, she met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to seek reassurances that would, she hoped, be enough to convince skeptical lawmakers to back the deal. But while she was away, hard-line Conservative lawmakers triggered a no-confidence vote. May won the vote a day later.


January 2019: Agreement voted down

UK parliament 432 to 202 against May's Brexit deal in a parliamentary vote on January 16. In response to the result, European Council President Donald Tusk suggested the only solution was for the UK to stay in the EU. Meanwhile, Britain's Labour Party called for a vote of no confidence in May, her second leadership challenge in as many months.