“You can’t sing songs of sixpence
The coin has been abolished
You can’t rely on common sense
That tower has been demolished
Opinion is the only rule
The stupid and the vain
The selfiwalla, the face book fool
Behold the mark of Cain!”
— From The Ditty of Dirty Dati by Bachchoo
Britain is in turmoil and at the juncture of historic change. The population holds its breath. The events of the last week have for some been the redemption of a tryst with destiny. For others it has been what the TV serials call a cliffhanger. But this week it ended in defeat. England was beaten by its European rival and that was only football when it lost to Croatia in the semifinal of the football World Cup. But the nation was fixated, analogous to Nero watching football while Rome burns. In the world of politics, Britain is in turmoil. The government, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, faces challenges from within her own party, from the British Parliament, from the countries and negotiators of the European Union and perhaps from the democratic will of the British electorate.
The matter of belonging and partnering with Europe has bedeviled every Tory government since the time Ted Heath was PM, be it Margaret Thatcher, John Major or James Cameron’s government. Not that the division of opinion hasn’t reared its head in the Labour Party, but it didn’t threaten the governments of Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Mr Cameron called the 2016 referendum, hoping to end the divisions, believing that the populace would follow his lead and vote to remain. It didn’t. The Brexitiers won by a narrow margin of 52 to 48 per cent of vote. Mr Cameron resigned and Theresa May, who had voted to remain, took charge of the party and government and declared that she would implement the will of the 52 per cent despite her own vote and advocacy against leaving. “Brexit means Brexit” was her opening statement.
She appointed several prominent Brexiteers from her own party to her Cabinet. Then began the very complex task of withdrawing from a continent that buys most of Britain’s exports — goods and services. British businesses are umbilically tied to European manufacture and markets. The Brexit voters, free of the actual responsibility of knowing about or disentangling Britain from its commitments and its dependency on European markets and security networks, voted for the slogans that the Brexit lobby put out: “Take back control of our borders!” —- a euphemism for keep Europeans and foreigners out.
“Restore power to the British Parliament” despite the fact that very few who voted for the slogan can say which regulation of the European Union was disputed or challenged by Britain. Poor Ms May was left with the task of solving the insoluble and came up with a plan which she put to her whole Cabinet on Friday, July 6, at her country retreat, Chequers. The Cabinet agreed with this “Chequers Deal” —– until a day or two later when her senior minister for negotiating Brexit, David Davis, and his deputy resigned. Mr Davis said he would be in charge of negotiating a deal which was in all but name a deal to stay in the customs union and close to the single European market which would mean, despite assurances from Ms May, that Britain would not be free to cut trade deals with countries outside Europe.
Mr Davis has been in charge of the negotiations with the EU and knows the tenor of their concerns. He maintains that the Chequers deal is a dead duck as Europe would either water it down, virtually pulling Britain back into the EU, or refusing it altogether. This would result in “no deal”. Britain would then have to leave Europe without a customs or trading agreement. Having resigned, Mr Davis was immediately seen as the hero of the “no deal” and would be in a strong position in the country which voted, even if marginally, for a deal which would decisively keep immigrants out and make Britain the isolated island it so foolishly voted by a slender majority to be.
But there were other lions of the “no deal” camp in the Cabinet and they had to take a decision on whether they would let Mr Davis assume the “no deal” mantle. One of them, the maverick politician and foreign secretary in Ms May’s Cabinet, Boris Johnson, handed in his resignation letter. He can’t stay with the Chequers deal whose precariousness, with MPs of the ruling party threatening to vote against it and with the almost certain rejection of it by the Europeans, could bring the Theresa May government down. That could signal a leadership contest within the Tory party or it could result in the dissolution of Parliament and a general election. By all accounts from within the Tory party, Mr Johnson doesn’t have the numbers to promote him into the leadership so he has found himself in a limbo of posture and ambition.
I don’t know if Ms May believes in omens, but if she does she ought to take the defeat of England by a junior member of the European Union seriously. Croatia is not Germany, but as one of the 27 states of the EU it has the prerogative of voting against the deal she proposes and its veto can derail the process.
Good counsel would advise her to think about more immediate threats. She has replaced Mr Davis and Mr Johnson with Brexiteers who profess to support her Chequers deal down the line.
The suspicion remains that very many in her Cabinet are not convinced that the deal delivers what the narrow majority of xenophobes and “make-Britain-great-again”-types want, but they will remain loyal to Ms May because they fear that her downfall would trigger an election which their party would lose. Even more chaos for Britain would follow as the coalition of Labour, Scottish Nationalists and Liberal Democrats would be as divided in its approach to Europe as the ruling Tories are today.