The British prime minister, Theresa May, could not sell the House of Commons the deal on Brexit that she painstakingly negotiated over 18 months with the European Union. The House, however, could not get rid of May as the prime minister, for she survived the no-confidence motion a day after the political humiliation. Together, the two developments this week showcased one of the worst crises that the British democracy had to confront in recent memory. The twin failures also reflect the profound divisions within Britain. The British vote in favour of leaving the EU in the summer of 2016 was a narrow one. But the division was not along party lines. In May’s Conservative Party, the fracture on Europe is deep and many decades old. The Labour, too, has had its share of Eurosceptics, including its current leader Jeremy Corbyn.
May, who voted to remain in the EU in 2016, has had the task of negotiating Brexit. She now has the even more enviable task of finding a way out of the mess that Britain finds herself in. If she learns from her mistakes in handling the Brexit challenge, ends her political rigidity and puts the country above the party, May could yet hope to succeed. May had presumed that she could bamboozle her party and Parliament into submission by saying either they accept the deal she has worked out or face the disastrous prospect of leaving EU without any deal. May had largely conducted the negotiations with Brussels with a small bureaucratic team. Few Cabinet members were involved in the exercise. Nor was there much of a consultation with the back-benchers in the party or the opposition Labour.
May has promised and begun a wider consultation before she gets back to Parliament with a road map on next steps. She can salvage the situation only by risking a potential split in her party. The hard Brexiteers in her party are unlikely to accept any deal with the EU. Instead of pandering to them, May needs to build a coalition cutting across the party divide to win parliamentary support for a revised deal. Two silver linings around the dark cloud over Britain provide an opportunity for her. Moderates in both parties have come up with plans for softer variations on the Brexit deal she worked out. Meanwhile, the EU has begun to recognise that it has been too hard on May and must be a little more accommodative. If the EU extends the deadline for British withdrawal from March 29, it will create some political space for May to rework the domestic Brexit sums. For a happy ending, the second act in the Brexit drama will need a lot more statesmanship than we have seen in the first.