Sometimes the best move in time of crisis is to kick the can as far as possible down the road, and then just hope for the best.
That’s really where Britain is following Prime Minister Theresa May’s catastrophic failure to get her Brexit plan through Parliament. But it’s probably not where the prime minister is heading. The 432-202 shellacking in the House of Commons last week came after May delayed the vote for a nearly a month, playing for a miracle. Instead, she wasted a lot of precious time. It appears she is about to burn up more.
There are now little more than two months left before Britain crashes out of the European Union on March 29. It’s true that the imminent prospect of hanging can do a wonderful job of concentrating the mind, so it’s still possible that politicians will conjure up some magic. But don’t count on it. There is a compelling argument that this is less about the EU than it is about an existential crisis over what it means to be British, obscured by complex bureaucratic questions regarding trade, borders and immigration. The problem gets more daunting every day, and what we’ve seen so far from this bunch doesn’t inspire much confidence.
So the wisest course of action would be to seek more time. Even if you don’t know exactly where you’re going, you know where you (at least most of you) don’t want to end up: going off the cliff you’re racing toward right now. The idea of a delay appears to be gaining in Parliament, if not in May’s government. It would be the least painful compromise for the famously intransigent May to make at the moment. EU countries would have to agree, as well. While there is no guarantee, if Britain makes the case that a delay is more than just a bargaining tactic, chances are Europe will go along.
If Britain is to find its way through, May will have to budge on some of her “red lines.” That probably means accepting limits on Britain’s ability to set its own trade policy and restrict movement of people across its borders. She would need to stand up to the party’s hardline Brexit faction, risking a permanent split in the party. She would have to allow — or be forced to accept — members of Parliament from all parties openly negotiating compromises that could command a majority.
That doesn’t appear to be what May has in mind, however. Indications are that she will try to finesse disagreements among Conservatives and their allies in Northern Ireland to cobble together a majority for a modified version of her plan. That’s a big lift — 118 members of her own party voted against her plan. If she fails again, the alternatives are a hard exit, a much softer one that keeps the UK tied more tightly to Europe, or a second referendum, an idea that has been gaining some traction despite myriad practical problems.
New polling released over the weekend indicated just how conflicted the country remains about the question. Only 12 percent of those polled approved of May’s plan and 24 percent thought she did a good job negotiating it. Slightly more than a third would choose it if the alternative was remaining in the EU. But 40 percent think Britain should go ahead on the current timetable, even if that means leaving without a deal. That’s twice the percentage of those who think the government should seek a delay. And the poll indicates that voters are evenly split on the idea of a new referendum. There is one small bit of good news for May in the polls. Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has avoided taking a firm position and tried to use the Brexit mess to force new elections, gets even worse marks on Brexit than the prime minister.
The search for a way out now is in high gear. One group, including members of several parties, is pressing for a delay if Parliament can’t approve a plan by Feb. 26. Labor is demanding that May rule out a hard exit before it negotiates with her. A top Labor official says a delay now seems inevitable, and that a second referendum is more likely.
All of that led Liam Fox, May’s international trade secretary, on Sunday to accuse Parliament of trying to hijack the Brexit process from voters who opted to leave, and warning of a “political tsunami” if they succeeded.
More days of high drama are ahead. No one pretends to know how it will turn out. Winston Churchill is widely quoted as having once said of the United States that it could be counted on to do the right thing — after trying every other alternative. Perhaps the same is true of Britain.