If the British were to follow the German press, they’d find a suggestion in the tabloid Bild that the unofficial motto of British politics has become: “If it’s real then I don’t want to know.” But the hard-core Conservative Brexiteers who decided to try to overthrow Prime Minister Theresa May on the eve of a European Union summit, or the Labourites who revel in mocking her, most likely don’t read Bild or any other “Continental” newspapers.
In the rowdy badinage of Parliament, leaving the European Union often seems a purely domestic issue in which nostalgia for empire, political ambition and British pride largely exclude any thought of European Union interests or other realities. Rare is the politician who would suggest that modern Britain should welcome inclusion and a leadership role in a Europe with which it shares so much common history and values. Far more common are declarations along the lines of the song from the old Marx Brothers film “Horse Feathers”: “I don’t know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway / Whatever it is, I’m against it!”
In one of those traditions in which Britain abounds, a party challenge to Mrs. May had to be initiated by 48 letters from Conservative members of Parliament. Not surprisingly, most came from strong backers of leaving the European Union, who for reasons not entirely clear concluded that the prime minister’s failure to bring the withdrawal agreement she had negotiated with the bloc to a vote in Parliament earlier this week made this an opportune time to unseat her as party leader, and in that way, as prime minister. They failed, 200 to 117, but the bitter divisions in the Conservative Party left clear that any version of her agreement stood little chance of ever passing Parliament.
One of the more widely cited of the 48 letters was from Owen Paterson, a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland and an ardent Brexiteer. Part of it read: “It was a mistake to treat Brexit miserably as a problem to be solved rather than an exciting opportunity to be grasped. The U.K. is the world’s fifth largest economy. We are a key NATO member, a permanent U.N. Security Council member, a Commonwealth realm, a nuclear power. We are the source of the English language, the common law and occupy the ideal time zone for global trade. Yet from the outset we have approached these negotiations as a feeble and unworthy supplicant.”
The most flamboyant of the Brexiteers, Boris Johnson, sounded a similar theme in a typically cheeky article in the current Spectator, claiming he had heard that an unnamed cabinet minister decided to support Mrs. May’s European Union deal because otherwise there was a risk that the manufacturers of Mars Bars would lose access to two key ingredients. “What kind of a country is this? Are we going to abandon a thousand years of national self-rule, and adopt foreign laws — over which we have no control,” wrote Johnson, because they can’t be bothered “to make whatever preparations are necessary for the microscopic risk of us running out of Mars Bars?”
The funny Mr. Johnson had already contributed the term “cakeism” for the Brexit delusion when he declared, “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.” Cakeism is hardly restricted to hard-core Brexiteers. The Labour Party and much of the British public seem to share the illusion that there is a way to reap all the benefits of a single European market and customs union while rejecting freedom of movement and other European Union rules they don’t like.
The reality, as Bild would put it, is that the political spectacle in Westminster has not brought Britain any closer to any shared and reasoned notion of how to leave, or stay in, the European Union. Mrs. May has bought time, this week by putting off a vote on her deal and then surviving the Conservative challenge. Under the rules, her Tory foes can’t begin another rebellion for a year, and while they were keen to humiliate her, they are wary of bringing down the entire government for fear of a general election that would usher in the old-school leftist Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party. So the three fundamental options have not substantially changed: a negotiated deal, no deal, no Brexit. And for all of Britain’s grand history, Europe will not give it free cake or Mars Bars.
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