Theresa May’s Brexit Problem
LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May reportedly “needed some time to compose herself” in a recent meeting with her presumed ally Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor categorically rejected May’s proposal to do a “side deal” on European Union nationals living in Britain before the United Kingdom officially triggers Brexit negotiations by invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon.
After an initial phase of post-referendum arrogance and euphoria, it has become increasingly obvious that May’s government completely misread the likely EU response to a British exit from the bloc. It now seems likely that the UK will continue to stagger from failure to failure at an accelerating pace.
May’s dilemma stems from the fact that the “Leave” coalition, while sharing certain conservative values, comprises two incompatible factions: mostly middle-class, affluent pensioners who want to leave the EU because they think it is too bureaucratic and protectionist; and mostly working-class voters who want to leave because they favor more protectionism.
Clearly, there is no form of Brexit – or post-Brexit Britain – that will satisfy both groups. This explains May’s desperation to push Brexit through as quickly as possible. She wants to get out before voters realize that the Leave campaign sold them a false bill of goods, including the promise that they could keep all of the benefits of EU membership, particularly full access to the European single market, without having to allow free movement of labor.
Moreover, although May was in the “Remain” camp during the referendum campaign, she realizes that, as Prime Minister, she will be held responsible for any failures in the Brexit negotiations. She also knows that she cannot possibly succeed politically, because the media will always spotlight “defeats,” while hardly noticing “wins.” That gives her every reason not to define her goals, and then to declare whatever deal she secures a “victory.”
Paradoxically, while the Conservative Party leadership has decided to represent the incoherent Leave coalition, no one is speaking for the 48% of voters who sided with Remain, except for the Liberal-Democratic Party, which has minimal influence in Parliament. This is even more surprising when one considers two deep structural factors that will cut short Leave’s continued political dominance in the medium term.
For starters, a significant cohort of Leave voters tends to be “politically disengaged.” Leave won by a margin of 1.2 million votes, one million of which were cast by people who did not vote in the 2015 general election that furnished David Cameron and the Conservatives with undivided power. These disengaged voters will likely not participate in future elections, though they might mobilize for a second EU referendum, if one were to be held.
Second, the Leave camp has an age problem: my own rough estimate suggests that, every year, Leave-voter deaths will exceed those of Remain voters by 150,000, while new Remain voters entering the electorate will surpass those of Leave by 150,000 (after adjusting for differential turnout between young and old). This generational dynamic alone will tip the balance in Remain’s favor by about 300,000 voters each year, and it will eliminate Leave’s majority by 2020.
Shortly after the referendum, I asked a former senior Tory official why no respectable politicians wanted to represent Remain voters. “No one in Britain (either Remain or Leave) really cares about the EU,” he replied. But while that may have been true in July, it is not true now, as indicated by both sides’ passionate response to the result itself, and then again to the recent High Court decision affirming Parliament’s role in triggering Article 50. Equally telling were the last two parliamentary by-election results: pro-Remain liberals overturned a 23,000-vote Conservative majority in Richmond Park, London, while the UK Independence Party – which favors a “hard” Brexit – made gains in Sleaford and North Hykeham, in the east of England.
As Lord Ashcroft’s fascinating exit poll following the Brexit referendum shows, Leave and Remain voters’ attitudes differ on almost everything, from the death penalty to environmental conservation. And anyone reading the two sides’ increasingly heated online interactions can see that they heartily despise each other.
There is now a profound divide – what British politicians call “deep blue water” – between Remain’s growing constituency and Leave’s diminishing one. This will be the defining split in British politics for at least a generation. And yet the vast majority of practicing politicians are on the declining side of this divide, where the supply of leaders far exceeds demand for them.
The UK is approaching a fundamental political realignment, for which the current government is totally unprepared. It will come – probably quite suddenly – as soon as enough people recognize that May has, through little fault of her own, inevitably failed to “get the best deal for Britain.” As the economist Herbert Stein famously observed, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” So May’s government might last until May, but not much longer.
Jacek Rostowski was Poland’s Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister from 2007 to 2013.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
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