Welcome to the New Britain, Where Every Week Is Hell

Another week brings another political crisis as the time to reach a Brexit deal runs out.

Theresa May speaks to reporters after surviving a no-confidence vote on January 16.
Theresa May speaks to reporters after surviving a no-confidence vote on January 16. (Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty)

LONDON—Theresa May is clinging on as prime minister, her Brexit withdrawal agreement is floundering, and the European Union is showing no signs of budging. Yup, it’s Crunch Week in Brexit Britain.

But then again, when isn’t it? It was “Crunch Week” when British and EU negotiators raced to sign off on a deal late last year, it was “Crunch Week” when lawmakers in London rebelled against it, and it was “Crunch Week” when May finally presented the agreement to Parliament earlier this month. Oh, and then there was “Hell Week,” “Hell Week 2.0,” and “Bloody Hell Week.” British media have taken to regularly describing the state of the country’s politics as being in “MELTDOWN,” “DISMAY,” and “MAYHEM.” (It is not ideal that the prime minister’s name lends itself so well to the puns the British tabloids are so fond of.)

Indeed, in the two and a half years since Britons made the consequential decision to leave the EU, the process of their departure has been defined by political chaos. In 2017, it was the snap election in which May lost her party’s governing majority after gambling with the hope that she could expand it. The year that followed was one of a near-constant stream of negotiation deadlocks, cabinet resignations, and no-confidence letters. And though 2019 has only just begun, it appears to promise more of the same.

It began with May holding a previously delayed vote on her negotiated Brexit agreement with the EU, which British lawmakers rejected by a record-breaking margin—the kind that, in normal times, would have almost certainly resulted in the prime minister’s resignation.

But these aren’t “normal times,” and May isn’t your average prime minister. She survived a vote of no confidence called by the opposition Labour Party against her government, weeks after getting past another vote of no confidence, that one called by her own Conservative colleagues.

That May continues to survive without the governing majority or authority to get her deal through Parliament is a testament to how far some of her Brexit deal’s biggest opponents—including the hard-line Brexit supporters within her own Conservative Party and their partners in the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party—will go to stave off a general election. Though they might not like the prime minister’s deal, they like the idea of a Jeremy Corbyn–led Labour government even less.

But it’s also emblematic of just how divided lawmakers remain over how, or even if, Britain’s departure from the EU should happen. The only parliamentary majorities that exist are those who oppose May’s deal (which is the only agreement the EU says it will consider) and those who oppose leaving the EU without a deal altogether (which is the legal default should the U.K. fail to agree to an alternative plan by March 29).

So what happens next? The truth is that no one, least of all the prime minister, seems to know. After a week of cross-party talks with opposition lawmakers about the government’s next steps, May announced her plan last week: to return to Brussels to seek further concessions. If May’s latest plan sounds familiar, that’s because it is: The prime minister has already appealed to the EU to make changes to the deal, to little avail. The bloc said in a recent statement that it would not agree to changes to the withdrawal agreement.

Lawmakers have spent the past several days debating and adding amendments to May’s proposal, which will go up for a formal vote this week. Should they agree to her plan, then she will return to Brussels (though what she will accomplish there is unclear). If not, other seemingly impossible scenarios will likely be considered, including postponing Britain’s exit date or holding a second referendum. And with them, more crunch weeks will surely follow.

The only realistic certainty is that this won’t be the last crunch week facing Brexit Britain. There won’t be time for many more of them, either.