It’s been more than three years that the Brexit drama is being enacted in Britain—dividing the country, its political parties and the parliament. Since joining the EU in 1973, the controversy over whether the EU membership is bringing prosperity to Britain has never ceased in its political circles. Let us see how the ongoing Brexit drama has unfolded, through five acts.
In January 2013, pro-Europe Prime Minister David Cameron said he favoured a referendum on UK’s EU membership. By October 2015, some leading politicians and business leaders formed the “Vote Leave, Take Control” campaign, which included both Conservative and Labour MPs. Boris Johnson, at that time mayor of London, along with Nigel Farage of UK Independence Party (UKIP), spearheaded the campaign to leave the EU. The UKIP at that time became popular in Britain for its anti-Europe stand.
With a general election scheduled for May 2015, the “Vote Leave” campaign got momentum. Nigel Farage denounced the membership of EU as people were taking home less money than they supposedly did ten years ago. He came up with figures that Britain could save 10 billion pounds a year on EU fees. He decried the spread of Islam in Britain and castigated the EU immigration laws which he said were changing British society and hurting the economy. Nigel Farage’s iconic slogan was, “We want our country back.”
Boris Johnson also created lots of controversy with his comments. His comment on EU was most disparaging when he said the EU’s attempt to recreate the golden age of the Roman Empire by different methods has failed—as Napoleon and Hitler had failed. An uninformed Johnson also said the UK sent 350 million pounds to the EU every week, which was totally misleading.
Conservative leader David Cameron won a 12-seat majority at the May 2015 general election. Ed Miliband resigned as Labour Party leader. Cameron was under no pressure to push for the referendum on UK’s EU membership. Yet he went ahead with the referendum on June 23, 2016. What was odd about it is that Cameron, after calling for a referendum, started talking about the advantages of EU membership and actually called on people to vote for staying with the EU. Critics say that Cameron went for the referendum to keep his leadership in the party. The Tories at that time were under threat from the UKIP, which was becoming increasingly popular.
The in/out referendum result came with a slim majority of 51.9 percent voting to leave the EU and 48.1 percent voting to remain. A dejected Cameron quit as prime minister on July 13, 2016, paving the way for Theresa May to lead the Conservatives and become prime minster. By then, the word “Brexit” was added to English lexicon.
It fell upon Theresa May to draft the Brexit deal. The parliament got busy debating on what the deal should include and reject. After lengthy acrimonious debates, Theresa May on March 29, 2017 triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which set the two-year time frame to conclude the divorce procedures.
But Theresa May, buoyed by opinion polls, called for a snap election in June 2017. May wanted a fresh mandate to strengthen her hands in negotiations with Brussels and also keep troublemakers like the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party at bay. But as the Conservatives lost their majority, Theresa May kept her job by tying up with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
In June 2017, formal negotiations with Brussels began. But when negotiations stalled in Brussels, rebel Tory MPs sided with opposition Labour in December 2017, and passed a resolution that forced the government to guarantee a vote in parliament on the final Brexit deal.
After rocky negotiations, the deal drafted between Theresa May and Brussels was rejected by the parliament thrice (on January 15, March 12, and March 29, 2019 respectively), primarily by MPs from both the main parties. There were three main options—hard Brexit, soft Brexit, or no-deal Brexit—that MPs failed to agree upon. The deadlock over the deal forced Theresa May to seek extension from Brussels, which now stands at October 31, 2019. If by that date the parliament does not approve a Brexit deal, Britain has to quit the EU without a deal—no-deal Brexit by default. At that time, the call for a second referendum increasingly became louder. Many also called for fresh elections.
What’s amazing is that the Brexit issue has shown that British MPs can ignore their party leaders and vote against them, which is unthinkable in other parliamentary democracies. The House of Commons showed it was fully sovereign and MPs represented their constituencies, not their party leaders. After three turbulent years as PM, Theresa May resigned on June 7, 2019, after the third rejection of the deal.
Conservative MPs then chose Boris Johnson, a committed Brexiteer, as their leader. He took over as PM on July 24, promising that he would take Britain out of the EU by October 31—“do or die”. But soon after taking over as PM, he moved a bill in parliament for fresh elections on October 15, which was defeated. He then advised the Queen to prorogue the parliament for five weeks from September 10 to October 15, ostensibly “to prepare a new legislative agenda”. Actually, Johnson’s move was to prevent lawmakers from blocking his Brexit plans, cement his position and avoid scrutiny.
But woe to Johnson as the Supreme Court on September 24 unanimously announced that the parliament prorogation was “unlawful”. He now owes an apology to the Queen and the parliament. With calls for his resignation, Johnson now faces a hostile parliament and has lost control over Brexit. Unless the parliament decides what to do next, Britain is inching towards a no-deal Brexit.
Cynics say that Britain could not destroy the European Economic Community (EEC) from outside, so it went into the organisation to sabotage it. But now with twists and turns every step of the way, the ongoing Brexit drama has totally wrecked Britain’s political culture.
Mahmood Hasan is a former ambassador and secretary of Bangladesh government.