By denying responsibility for her failures, May degrades executive government and enables rule by Parliamentary Remainers.
Last night, Theresa May lost a second Parliamentary vote on her proposed Withdrawal Agreement, then immediately stood up to deny responsibility.
Some commentators had pondered whether she would resign upon defeat, but no such luck. She stood up to blame Parliament, to pose as the incarnation of order and stability, to reverse policy, to abandon collective responsibility, and to disempower the executive branch.
First, she expressed “regret [for] the decision that this House has taken,” but took no responsibility for her proposal. She had motioned it not once but twice (first in January, after postponing from December, which itself was delayed more than a month after she revealed it). If she had accepted her mistake back in November, she would have had more than four months to negotiate a better deal. Now she has 16 days.
In total, May has wasted 32 months of premiership. She wasted the first eight months with no policy on Brexit, then in March 2017 lodged Britain’s petition to leave under Article 50 (which was not mandated). “The clock is ticking,” Michel Barnier (the EU’s chief negotiator) kept reminding her, but she still had no proposal for the terms of withdrawal, until July 2018, when she foisted on her ignorant Cabinet a policy crafted by unelected civil servants of her own selection. That policy couldn’t pass Cabinet, so in November she secretly accepted a proposed Withdrawal Agreement of the EU’s own making, which Parliament now has rejected twice. Last night, she took no responsibility. Shame on her.
Second, she characterized her disorderly proposal as an “orderly” Brexit, and “the best and only deal available.” In fact, her proposal gave no certainty about when Britain would eventually exit or what its post-exit relationship with the EU would be. Her proposal was for a transition period, not for immediate exit – she still has no policy on Britain’s final exit. Her proposed Withdrawal Agreement committed to extend membership obligations without membership rights from 29 March until at least the end of 2020, and gave the EU a veto on when and how Britain could eventually give up the transition and really leave. That’s not an orderly Brexit, nor is it a Brexit deal. Yet she stood up to blame Parliament for taking away its one chance at an “orderly” Brexit “deal.” Shame on her twice.
Third, she reversed her last remaining Brexit policies. She confirmed that her government would motion on Wednesday for the House to decline to leave without a deal, effectively u-turning on the government’s legislation, passed by the House, to leave on 29 March with or without a deal. Then she confirmed that her government would motion on Thursday to extend the two-year Article 50 period beyond 29 March, given rejection of no-deal Brexit on Wednesday – which she clearly expected and urged, in contradiction to her prior statements that Britain would leave on 29 March, without extension, with or without a deal. She is enabling opposition policies to further frustrate Brexit.
Fourth, she abandoned “collective responsibility” (that is: Cabinet voting with government policy) by allowing these votes to be “free votes.” A responsible premier would resign once she lost control of her Cabinet, but May is not a responsible premier.
Fifth, she disempowered the office of the premier by saying that Parliament – not the premier – must tell the EU what “use” it wants to make of an extension of the Article 50 period, whether it wants to “revoke Article 50,” and whether it wants “to hold a second referendum.” In other words, May has gone beyond just abandoning policies, she is now transferring the responsibility for making and executing policies to the rest of the legislature.
May isn’t just ruining Brexit, she’s ruining responsible government.