Brexit – the acronym for Britain exiting the European Union (EU) – has become a long-running saga dominating that Island’s political spectrum and has attracted media attention not only in Europe but the world over. Because of Brexit one Prime Minister and Head of Government, David Cameron, had lost office in 2016. Due to the same reason, his successor, Theresa May is now giving notice that she would vacate No 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister. In my recollection, no national emergency, not even the two world wars, had brought such havoc on the British cabinet.
When the Conservative Party, under Ted Heath, took the United Kingdom into the EU in 1973 there were those in the party and many in the opposition that were against it. With time, despite overwhelming economic benefits to the Island the critics citing loss of sovereignty to the EU and the possibility of the country being awash with immigrants from poorer parts of Europe, became a fixture in the political firmament of the nation. Until David Cameron as Prime Minister decided to do something permanent about it by promising, during an election campaign, to put it to the country in a referendum to vote No and leave, or Yes and stay.
Actually he promised two referendums, the other one was to clear the outstanding Scottish Independence matter. He led his party to campaign for Yes and stay votes for both Scotland to remain a part of the UK and also for the status quo to continue in the relationship with the European Union. He won the referendum on the Scottish Independence. However, the EU matter became a different kettle of fish. Voters can be fickle, you know. Against all expectations the majority voted No and Leave which finally consumed his Prime Ministership. After that definitive vote I wrote a piece for Sunday Trust of 7th August 2016, expressing sadness for the fall of David Cameron, whom I considered a great Prime Minister. I wrote:
“I watched the fall of David Cameron, UK’s Prime Minister, on live television with sadness. After his triumph in the Scottish Independence referendum he appeared confident to win the EU referendum. However, as the votes were being counted, and they seemed to skew towards outing Britain from the EU, it was obvious to those familiar with the British political terrain that Cameron’s glittering career had come to the end of the road. But the end came sooner than even he expected. After the loss of the referendum vote on 24th June he declared that he was resigning and would leave by the start of the Conservative Party conference scheduled for October 2016. But matters seem to have gone out his hand and just a few days later found him out of office.
“Many would say the Prime Minister was the architect of his own failure. For how could one explain having two heavy referendums within one parliamentary lifetime that promised no clear, likely, favourable outcome for the Prime Minister’s party? Even if it was an electoral promise, was there any compulsion to run them early in the life of the parliament? Where I come from in Borno, my folks would just shrug their shoulders and explain what had befallen Prime Minister Cameron as “hau”. This is a malevolent spirit in Kanuri mythology that afflicts a normally reasonable person, doing very well in the course of his life, to take an abnormal and unusual course of action that could lead only to doom.
“To charge into a referendum holding a “Yes” banner to staying in the EU when at that time the whole of the continent of Europe was being swamped by the kind of refugees – mostly Asian, mostly Muslim – the average European is not kindly disposed to, amounted to a political suicide. Probably Cameron thought victory was within his grasp, but when even senior members of his Conservative Party, some serving in the font benches as Ministers of his Government, (Grove and Johnson) were rebelling and openly campaigning for a “No” vote, it was clear to us observers that Cameron was heading to the abyss.
“To me it was a great error of judgement and Cameron paid for it dearly. British party politics is cruel to leaders who loose elections. A leader who loses an election doesn’t just loose face, he must go ahead to commit a political suicide or what the Japanese would call a political hara-kiri (self-annihilation), and should he hesitate the party would rally round to assist him to do so. It is always done in an orderly, gentlemanly fashion. This is what happened to Jim Callaghan when he lost to Margret Thatcher in 1979, John Major when he lost to Tony Blair in 1997 and Gordon Brown when he lost to Cameron in 2010 to cite a few examples.
“That was the scenario that unfolded after the “No” votes triumphed in the referendum. We watched in amazement Cameron making his resignation speech while speaking directly to a beleaguered country, in front of No 10 Downing Street that morning. In a matter of hours, party members particularly those who shared the front benches with him in the parliament threw their hats into the ring to contest replacing him as party leader and Prime Minister. To his relief, his close working colleague, Theresa May, Minister of Internal Affairs, who faithfully toed the Party lines to campaign for the “Yes” vote in the referendum, won the contest.”
Theresa May started on a high note but it has been one disappointment after the other. In March 2017, Prime Minister May triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon signalling the start of the procedures of quitting the EU. The following month she called for a snap general election hoping to strengthen her hands in the Brexit negotiations. It was disappointing as she even lost the majority her party had in the parliament. To be able to form a government she had to cuddle up to the Democratic Unionist Party, known hardliners, who would be inflexible to some terms of the withdrawal agreement.
The truth of the matter was that the implications of withdrawal from the EU was not quite manifest to the average British voter when the referendum took place. When the market started reacting to the planned withdrawal with massive upheavals such as causing the British Pound to fall to its lowest level against the Dollar in 30 years and international companies started giving notice of relocation to mainland Europe, the reality started to sink in. Then filibustering started in earnest in the parliament. Even though Prime Minister May had painstakingly negotiated a withdrawal agreement with her colleagues in the EU, her colleagues in the British Parliament have made it impossible to see daylight.
The Scots wouldn’t have it because they want to see a continued movement of people between UK and EU and also they prefer to remain in the single market. The Irish are vehemently against the negotiated agreement because they cannot contemplate a hard border with their kith and kin in the Republic of Ireland. It is probably only the English and Welsh that are supportive. An unkind onlooker would surmise that the whole thing has broken down to a tribal fracas.
Theresa May had not been able to muster any tangible votes to implement the exit date of 29th March 2019. In fact, as I write now there is no firm date of exiting the EU. She had even offered to leave office if her deal could speedily be passed in the Parliament. The general impression in the Parliament is that it is her shambolic approach to the negotiations that had brought the country to this sorry pass. She is regarded as a dead duck anyway and even her party colleagues do not envisage her as part of the cabinet that would lead Britain after Brexit – whenever it happens.
The ink is yet to dry on Brexit. Keep a date with this page.