Former prime minister Theresa May endured repeated humiliations as Parliament rejected her Brexit deal with the EU. Boris Johnson has hardly fared better. Despite declaring he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than request another Brexit extension, last week Johnson, still very much alive, was forced to ask Brussels for precisely that. Johnson’s continued theatrics raise a deeper question. How did Brexit go so wrong? In short, Britain has experienced a catastrophic failure when it comes to its image.
What to do, do nothing
From the outset, Brexit was plagued by an utter lack of planning. Former PM David Cameron, who agreed to the referendum to please his anti-EU allies, never believed it could succeed. Indeed, Cameron even ordered the Foreign Office not to prepare a contingency in case that nation decided to leave the EU.
During the campaign, remarkably little attention was paid to the logistics of how Britain would decouple from Europe. Instead, “Leave” leaders made emotional appeals about immigrants and exaggerated claims about future health funding. Instead of preparing for hard policy decisions, these leaders clung to a nebulous and naïve vision of Brexit.
For all the talk of a “better deal” for Britain, leaders apparently forgot that Europe had every incentive to put the screws to the UK. Europe would also demand that Britain discharge its existing commitments to the EU. The rosy picture the Leave campaign painted contrasted sharply with the tough situation British negotiators experienced in Brussels. Not only did unrealistic expectations create a trust gap with the British public, but the lack of planning created political divisions that have weakened the British negotiating position. Instead of articulating a clear exit plan beforehand, the British government appears to be improvising its most important decisions.
Another year of negotiations
Negotiating a complex set of economic and legal arrangements between Britain and Europe can’t be easy. However, Britain’s leadership has made the process significantly more difficult. Much of the current gridlock originated with two disastrous decisions in 2017. The first of these was the decision to trigger Article 50 and begin the two-year countdown to leave the EU. When the Brexit deal proved more contentious than expected, Britain was forced to scramble to meet this self-imposed deadline. Then recognizing the impossibility of reaching a deal in time, Theresa May’s government had to go to Brussels twice to request an extension. Now Johnson has requested a third extension, further hurting the credibility of British leadership.
The second mistake of May’s government was calling a snap election in June 2017. Hoping to strengthen their hand, the ruling Conservatives expected to increase their parliamentary majority. Instead, the vote backfired on them, and they were forced into a coalition with the Northern Irish DUP to maintain power. Tied to their minority coalition partner, the Conservatives lost control of Brexit. Instead of being able to negotiate a “Conservative” Brexit deal, they needed a deal that pleased the DUP too. Aspects of a DUP-approved deal were opposed by some Conservatives, killing May’s efforts to deliver Brexit and exacerbating nasty divisions within the Conservative party.
There is no good solution
Britain’s leaders worsened an already challenging situation by losing the confidence of their people. Before the vote, the hyperbolic and sometimes downright violent rhetoric of campaigners increased national polarization. After the vote, the government’s disorganization and apparent unpreparedness to deliver Brexit further eroded the electorate’s trust. The ongoing spectacle of threats and ultimatums seems likely to alienate people further.
Instead of leading, leadership has resorted to political games. Particularly notable was Boris Johnson’s attempt to suspend Parliament for several weeks to limit their opportunity to review the latest Brexit deal. Not only did Johnson manage to spark outrage across the political spectrum, but he also was rebuked by Britain’s Supreme Court. Parliament responded with escalation, pushing a requirement that Britain could not leave the EU without a deal. Dysfunctional politics are hurting Britain’s institutions at home and its standing abroad.
Ultimately, leadership failures have reduced British politics to a farce and Brexit to a punchline.