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Running down the clock: How British politics fell into a Brexit coma

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“Please do not waste this time.” That was the message to British politicians from European Council President Donald Tusk following the decision in April to grant a six-month delay to Brexit.

Tusk’s fear was that once the cliff-edge of a no-deal Brexit was removed, Theresa May’s government and the UK Parliament would simply fall back on their heels and fritter away the additional time granted to them by the EU.

So far that fear has proven entirely justified.

The first decision taken by the government following the agreed delay, was to reinstate Parliament’s Easter break — previously due to be cancelled in order to deal with Brexit legislation.

The decision was defended at the time due to British politicians and their staff being thoroughly exhausted from almost six months of intense parliamentary activity leading up to the United Kingdom’s original exit date of March 29.

Seemingly endless weeks of late-night votes and growing public protests outside parliament’s gates, left politicians on a very short fuse, and caused concern about the mental health of those who work in Westminster.

However, hopes that the British political establishment would return from its break refreshed and ready to solve its Brexit crisis were short-lived. Instead Westminster has fallen into an extended political coma.

Brexit votes have been entirely suspended following the three-times defeat of May’s deal with the EU.

Instead the House of Commons agenda has been padded out with a long list of “general debates” on everything from TV licenses to the anniversary of the death of the former Labour leader John Smith.

In recent weeks the only significant piece of legislation presented to members of parliament has been a previously long-shelved piece of legislation on banning animals in circuses.

Working days in the House of Commons, which typically start around lunchtime, and extend well into the evening, have been repeatedly brought to a close as early as three in the afternoon.

Cross-party talks are going nowhere fast

The House of Commons
UK Parliament

Meanwhile the prime minister, who previously filled her days with dashes back and forth from Brussels and the House of Commons chamber, has instead triggered a new set of long-running negotiations with the opposition Labour Party, in a claimed attempt to secure a new Brexit “compromise” which will allow the UK to leave the EU.

But while both Downing Street and the Labour leadership claim publicly that the talks have been worthwhile, after more than a month of discussions, both sides concede privately that there has been basically no progress.

“We have yet to see the sort of substantive movement that is needed to secure an agreement,” a senior Labour source admitted this week.

The government is similarly gloomy about the prospects for the talks.

“Labour basically want us to accept their Brexit policy in total,” one senior government source told Business Insider. “That’s just not going to happen.”

Yet, despite this pessimism, the talks continue from week to week, punctuated occasionally by statements from both sides about how “substantial” or “serious” the discussions have been. However, when asked to point to a single significant example of progress or compromise, neither side is able to.

The suspicion, popular among the hundred or so journalists based in parliament’s press gallery, is that both sides are deliberately dragging out the talks in order to avoid taking any of the difficult decisions needed to bring Brexit to a conclusion.

For both the Conservative government and the opposition Labour party, the political crisis in Britain has been hugely damaging with both suffering at the ballot box following the decision to delay Brexit.

With both parties deeply divided on what to do, and no majority for any alternative Brexit plan in parliament, the suspicion is that the easiest option for all sides is simply to do nothing and wait until Brexit is inevitably delayed again.

Theresa May remains in office, but not in power.

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn
Reuters

Further adding to the political stasis has been the situation of the prime minister herself, whose own political future is in growing doubt following her party’s dire performance in this month’s local elections.

Yet despite all of the fury directed towards her from Conservative MPs and members, there is no agreement in the party about when she should stand down, or who should succeed her.

And while there are now dozens of putative campaigns for leader, most of the leading contenders for the job would prefer for the contest to take place after a Brexit deal has been passed. As a result, while the dismay about May continues to grow, nothing significant is ever done to actually get rid of her.

Just this week senior Conservative sources briefed that May had until 4pm on Tuesday to spell out her departure plans or face being ousted within weeks by Tory MPs. As with the other recent deadlines in British politics, this one came and went with nothing fundamentally changing.

When it comes to the question of May’s future, it has become much easier for Conservative MPs to do nothing, than to do something.

Allies of the prime minister privately deny that she is deliberately trying to string out both Brexit and her own future.

“She just needs to deliver this right?” one senior figure close to the PM told Business Insider this week.

“So I’m not sure what incentive there is to play for time and if that is even possible.”

But whether the current political deadlock is the government’s deliberate intent, or whether it is just the result of a parliament that is irretrievably divided on Brexit, the fact remains that there is no end in sight for Britain’s political crisis.

May’s premiership and the Brexit process she leads, is simultaneously both dead and alive.

Like Schrödinger’s cat the question of what to do about Britain’s political crisis has been locked inside a box, with nobody seemingly willing to open it again.


Got a tip? Email this reporter at [email protected], or send them a direct message on Twitter at @AdamBienkov

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