The Next British Leader Must Salvage Both Brexit and Democracy

The Next British Leader Must Salvage Both Brexit and Democracy

Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street on May 24, 2019, in London. She has announced that she will resign on June 7, 2019.

SourceLeon Neal/Getty

Why you should care

Chaos and indecision in London (and Washington) are giving “democracy” a bad name. Politicians must again learn to compromise.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

The resignation of British Prime Minister Theresa May, announced after 1,045 days in office, deepens what was already a crisis in British politics. We asked our senior contributor, former acting director and deputy director of the CIA John McLaughlin to weigh in on the implications for Britain, Europe and the United States.

OZY: How did Britain get to this impasse?

John McLaughlin: This is one of those situations that is maddeningly complicated to explain while being simultaneously profound and far-reaching in its implications. In terms of the bare facts, I’d boil it down like this. The 2016 popular referendum produced a narrow victory for those wanting the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and left the country deeply divided. May had been searching for a compromise that could meet the minimal demands of those who supported “leave” (Brexit) and those who wanted to stay in the EU. Leavers argue that being in the EU leaves Britain with little control over immigration, its administrative, legal and judicial processes or its finances. The “remain” crowd argues that being in the EU enhances British influence, contributes to the country’s prosperity and gives Britain trading, travel and labor opportunities it could not have on its own.

May lost multiple votes on variations of her plan, which would have essentially preserved many of Britain’s trading relationships with Europe while shedding most of its political and administrative ties to the EU. May initially said that no deal, a “hard Brexit,” would be better than a bad deal. But as her plan went down to successive defeats, she began highlighting the dangers of no deal — most economists predict economic and administrative chaos — and saying it loomed as the likely remaining option if Parliament continued rejecting her plan. And in the last few days, May even dangled the possibility of a second referendum, something she heretofore opposed and for which no support has yet coalesced.

So what happens next?

The Conservative Party, the Tories, will choose a new leader, who will then form a government. This will probably take several weeks of internal party bargaining to winnow the candidates down to two (at least eight have formally declared so far, more surely to follow). The party’s members will then vote on the two finalists. This is still highly fluid, but most British commentators are pegging flamboyant former Foreign Secretary and London Mayor Boris Johnson as the front-runner.

Where do the candidates for prime minister stand on Brexit?

Johnson said just last week that he would take Britain out of the EU, “deal or no deal,” by Oct. 31 (the EU’s latest deadline extension). The other seven who’ve thrown in all say they would at least try renegotiating an agreement with the EU — Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt; former Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey; International Development Secretary Rory Stewart; Health Secretary Matt Hancock; former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab; Environment Secretary Michael Gove; and the just-resigned leader of Commons, Andrea Leadsom. Some, such as McVey, Leadsom and Raab, talk more boldly about a “no-deal” exit if negotiations flounder — though keep in mind that talk is cheap when the main goal is to win No. 10.

Can any of them succeed where May has failed?

I see Brexit as a lot like the health care issue in the United States — it’s easy to project an alluring vision until you, as the one who has to fix it, come up against the realities, complexities and special interests. So Boris Johnson, or whoever is chosen, will get a Brexit education that will include a larger dose of reality than challengers ever have to swallow. In other words, once in office, the new leader will have more trouble blowing off the view of most analysts that getting out of the EU, especially with no cushioning deal, will cause as much pain as gain, maybe more, at least in the short term. This will hit home once a prime minister sees his or her political fate and legacy tied to a decision.

None of the contenders has put forth a deal that looks more likely to gain support than May’s — in London or in Brussels. If they don’t come up with one, they might be cornered into the “no-deal” Brexit that Johnson crows about, but I’m betting that any one of them will shrink from this in the end. Disparaged as May’s plan is, conceivably one of them could still sell a repackaged version of it. It’s commonly said about May that while she’s serious, hardworking and doggedly determined, she lacks the sales and bargaining skills to charm enough legislators into supporting her road map. Might someone else? I doubt it, but we are in the season of weird politics on both sides of the pond.

If unable to break the deadlock, a new leader might be driven to a new referendum — though constructing the question(s) and campaigning would only rev up conflict. Or he or she might have to call a new general election, though the disincentive will be the possibility of heavy Tory losses. A good indicator would be to look at this past week’s European Parliament election results. As of late Sunday, with 10 of the 12 regions declared, the Conservatives reportedly had won only three of 73 seats, losing 15 and landing in fifth place, while the Brexit Party gained 28 seats — so the Tories may not dare risk a go at the national polls in this climate.

How does Britain fit into the world now — what is the broader significance of this?

Given London’s role globally — England as “the mother of Parliaments” — this level of chaos, indecision and political fumbling cannot be good for the democracy “brand.” Especially when the world’s other highly salient democracy, the U.S., is similarly hamstrung. The essence of a successful democracy is the ability to compromise, and both capitals seem for now to have lost that. One can only hope that the next prime minister and his or her Parliament see this larger picture, this larger responsibility — whether the ultimate outcome is a Britain gone from the EU or one that remains within it.

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