Read: Brexit crisis. Theresa May in trouble. Rinse. Repeat.
That the United Kingdom finds itself in this perilous position with barely 10 weeks to go before its scheduled departure from the EU is as much a testament to the lack of the viable alternatives to May’s deal (there are none with the backing of a parliamentary majority) as it is to her own failure in recent months to sell her agreement to the British public and their representatives. That task has been made more difficult, paradoxically, by the prime minister herself.
For the past two years leading up to this vote, May has insisted that the only thing worse than leaving the EU without a deal would be to leave it with a bad one. This mantra—repeated over and over again despite grim warnings of the political fallout, food shortages, and economic chaos that no deal would entail—was intended to convince EU negotiators that the U.K. would not be cowed, that it would “be prepared to walk out” of the negotiations if necessary. It was also an attempt by May to establish her own Brexiteer bona fides: to prove to those who voted to leave the EU in 2016 that she, an unenthusiastic campaigner for Britain to remain, was committed to see the result of the referendum through.
Read: Can Britain deal with ‘no deal’?
May has since distanced herself from this mantra—that no deal was preferable to a bad deal—and negotiated a Brexit agreement of her own. Her parliamentary adversaries are still using her own words against her, though. Some Brexit supporters within her own Conservative Party who oppose the deal’s so-called Irish backstop—a mechanism to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, which they fear could could keep Britain tethered to the EU indefinitely—have openly embraced crashing out of the EU without a deal.
On the other side of the spectrum, those who oppose leaving the EU at all have used her agreement to push for an entirely different outcome: a new referendum on Britain leaving the EU. “The prime minister has repeatedly told us that the choice before parliament is her deal or no deal,” Sam Gyimah, a Conservative lawmaker and advocate for the so-called People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum, told journalists last week in London. “This is no choice at all.”
The prime minister may have changed her mind, and perhaps no longer believes that no deal is a suitable outcome for Britain, but she has crucially never retracted her claim. And in the meantime, multi-billion-pound contingency plans for such a scenario continue apace. Last month, the British government announced it would allocate an additional 2 billion pounds, or $2.57 billion, for no-deal preparations—a process complete with staged traffic jams, medicine stockpiling, and dubious ferry contracts. May has justified this spending as part of the government’s responsibility to prepare the country for every eventuality.