British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered embarrassing defeats on Tuesday (4 December) at the start of five days of debate over her plans to leave the European Union that could determine the future of Brexit and the fate of her government.
May wants to secure parliament’s approval for her deal to keep close ties with the EU after leaving in March, but opposition is fierce, with Brexit supporters and opponents alike wanting to thwart or derail her plan.
On the first day of debate, before the ‘meaningful’ vote on 11 December, her government was found in contempt of parliament and then a group of her own Conservative Party lawmakers won a challenge to hand more power to the House of Commons if her deal is voted down.
The vote is called ‘meaningful’ after Section 13 of the Withdrawal Act which requires parliamentary approval of the outcome of the negotiations with the EU, which were wrapped up at the 25 November EU summit.
That could reduce the likelihood of Britain leaving the EU without any deal, prompting sterling to recover some of its losses after the vote on contempt drove it down to levels not seen since June last year.
The debates and final vote on 11 December will determine how, and possibly even if, Britain leaves the EU as planned on 29 March, in the country’s biggest shift in foreign and trade policy in more than 40 years.
May’s plans are vulnerable to more change at the end of the debate, and advice from a senior EU legal aide that Britain had the right to withdraw its Brexit notice opened yet another front in her battle to win the approval of parliament.
Different sides in the debate are urging people to put pressure on their MPs ahead of the 11 December vote, hoping their vision of Britain’s future will win the day.
Polls indicate that some Britons — a minority — do support May’s compromise deal with Brussels, hoping to put an end to a tortuous debate.
But hardliners instead want a cleaner break to escape the “tentacles” of Europe once and for all, while moderates are campaigning for a deal that binds Britain closer to Europe.
Despite May’s repeated denials, another group of Britons is hoping that the confusion created if and when MPs reject May’s deal will ultimately lead to a second referendum.
The impression for now is that all options are up for grabs.
“No one’s getting more reconciled,” said Tom Clarkson, research director at the consultancy BritainThinks.
“Brexit is a massive division,” Clarkson said, pointing out that focus groups had revealed family arguments, friendship breakdowns and “an overall mood of pessimism”.
‘Bored of Brexit’
A poll by Survation last week of 1,030 people found that the Brexit deal was less popular (37%) than remaining in the EU (46%).
But 41% of the same respondents said they wanted their MP to vote in favour of the deal compared to 38% who said they should oppose it.
“There is a difference between what the public want conceptually and what they think should happen now, relative to the current political situation,” said Survation chief executive Damian Lyons Lowe.
The pollster said this contradiction created “an impasse that many believe can only be bridged by returning to the polls in another referendum or election”.
But even advocates of holding another vote admit that the result could be similar to the 52-48 split in 2016.
Starting its case for MPs to approve the deal, the government has argued that most people simply want Brexit to happen and for the country to move on.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt used the term “BOBs” to describe constituents who are “bored of Brexit”.
“They want us to get on with it and deliver Brexit,” he said.
The trouble is there are still deep rifts over what kind of Brexit there should be or if there should be Brexit at all.
“It beggars belief that two and a half years after the referendum, and with just months to go before the Article 50 process comes to an end, we are still no nearer to knowing what sort of future we are trying to achieve,” wrote Jeremy Warner, a columnist for Daily Telegraph.
The public debate is dominated by hardliners on both sides, creating “a volatile and unpredictable environment,” researchers at King’s College London wrote in a recent study.
With the government constantly on the brink of collapse, the risk of a no-deal Brexit looming and the prospect of a second referendum in the air, many Britons would agree.
Guardian columnist Marina Hyde wrote: “Get ready for Brexit advent, where a new political hellscape opens every day”.