It is just over 1,000 days since the fated EU referendum in the UK and six years following prime minister Cameron’s famous Bloomberg speech on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, he said in January 2013:
We should think very carefully before giving that position up. If we left the European Union, it would be a 1-way ticket, not a return. So we will have time for a proper, reasoned debate. At the end of that debate you, the British people, will decide.
They did. But the result was divided, and the past two years has seen not only deep division in the country but now laid bare across parliament, opposition, government and the cabinet itself.
Brexit, deal or no-deal was due next week. After long talks between the EU27 in Brussels on Thursday evening a side-lined British prime minister was granted a technical extension.
If Theresa May can get her withdrawal deal through parliament next week, the Brexit date will be pushed back to 22 May to give time to pass the necessary legislation. If that is rejected again, for a third time, the UK will have to propose a way forward by 12 April.
If at that point, the UK wanted to go for a longer extension and EU leaders agreed, it will then have to participate in the European Parliament elections the following month.
This is a clear rebuttal from the EU27 to the UK and specifically to British parliament – it is this deal on the table or no-deal.
With the European elections looming, it is impossible to say if Britain will play a direct role but whatever the outcome, the impact of its struggle towards third country status will continue to ripple across the UK and the continent for years to come.
On shifting sands
In its 330-year history the British uncodified constitution has faced and overcome several struggles, but Brexit has exposed one crisis it was not designed for – a failure of the very British art of compromise. Perhaps more concerning for those looking to work with Westminster is that the eventual resolution of the Brexit question will not provide easy answers to the questions it has raised.
The root of the issue, as with so many Europe now faces, was the referendum of 2016. The United Kingdom’s political infrastructure is not particularly well equipped to deal with referendums, and as a rule of history they are generally avoided, but it has proven completely unequipped to deal with a referendum where people voted differently to their MPs.
There are three tectonic plates which have groaned against one another since the referendum: the will of the people as expressed by the referendum result; the sovereignty of parliament as laid out in the British constitution; and the role of the executive. Faced with these competing forces, politicians began digging trenches. Two years later, they are deep indeed.
Upon this uncertain ground, Prime Minister Theresa May laid the foundations for her Brexit vision.
A day in politics
With hindsight, it is easy to say that the prime minister would have been best served by forming a cross-party Brexit committee to build consensus for her negotiating position – but she did not. The reasons why are varied and were perhaps made before she realised how seismic the changes to British politics would be.
The first was to the power enjoyed by the executive. Under the Blair-Brown governments, and to a lesser degree the second Cameron government, the executive power of the ruling party was vast. With the majorities they commanded, subtlety was not necessary, and rebellion was ineffective. With tenuous majorities supported by tentative alliances, however, individual voices have never been louder in Britain’s lower house. Unlikely rebel figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, the ex-Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC, the gifted orator Jess Phillips, and Chukka Umunna have all enjoyed an increased profile because of their ability to influence their colleagues.
In a similar vein, select committees have risen from relative obscurity, to increasingly command column inches in the national press. These committees have become the ideal forums for party members disenfranchised with their leaders to make their voices heard. They wield their discontent with lethal grace and have become the scourge of both their colleagues and business leaders across the country.
Finally, is parliament’s benevolent overlord – the deceptively diminutive Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. As parliament struggles to shift the balance of votes toward any of the available options, they have often turned to the Speaker for advice on parliament’s arcane procedures that may grant them a crucial advantage. He has not disappointed, but his role is a symptom of parliamentary arithmetic and its increased influence is unlikely to survive the next majority government.
On top of this, rebellions against three-line whips are now commonplace, leaks from cabinet meetings are now guaranteed, and in modern parliamentary history, there have never been more MPs resigning to stand as independents. More government ministers breaking the principle of collective responsibilities with no repercussions.
Fundamentally, Brexit is a struggle about where power should lie, and what role the competing elements should play in its final form.
British politics has changed, for better or worse, and if a day in politics brings change then a thousand has seen perhaps an irrevocable rebalancing.
Amidst the chaos, any attempt to predict the outcome would seem an act of hubris. For businesses across Europe and beyond, it is crucial that they recognize the new shape of British politics and prepare for future changes as the UK settles into its new relationship outside the European Union.
In many ways we seem to be heading towards an ‘American lite’ system, where power is more evenly distributed between various parliamentary forces. With more roads to power open to us, the question arises of which is the best to take. Parliamentary engagement will likely continue to come in a variety of forms and meaningful change will be driven by the ability to build consensus, perhaps ironically, through compromise.