Brexit Woes and a Broken Parliament: The Perilous Path Ahead for British Democracy

Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement has been rejected multiple times in Parliament. The EU says it can’t be re-negotiated, but that’s beside the point. Despite two series of indicative votes, MPs refused to back any alternative version of Brexit. There also wasn’t enough support for a no-deal Brexit, nor for revoking Article 50 to cancel Brexit altogether.

In other words, Parliament rejected all the options available. There were none left.

Even those who oppose the withdrawal agreement cannot fairly blame it for the current deadlock. The results of a twice-failed parliamentary maneuver proved that there was never any deal that Theresa May, or anyone, could have passed in the current Parliament.

Yet the Prime Minister cannot be pardoned for her two-year reliance on a factitious coalition, which once propped up the government but now renders her powerless. The DUP and allied Tory rebels now hold the legislative process hostage by demanding Brexit, opposing a hard border, and decrying the backstop all at once – positions that contradict each other by definition, and for which there are no plausible solutions. Those MPs are guilty of either Orwellian-level doublethink, or wilful dishonesty about their real priorities – so take your pick.

Can’t decide? This might help (or not): the DUP previously expressed their desire for a frictionless border and “comprehensive free trade and customs agreement with the European Union” in their 2017 campaign manifesto, yet subsequently opposed a customs union with the EU. A customs union would have been the only outcome that came remotely close to satisfying some of the party’s contradictory demands. Ken Clarke’s proposal for that exact arrangement was also only three votes shy of a majority – with DUP support, the scales could have tipped toward an orderly Brexit. But why follow your own stated policy objectives when you could just… not?

To Labour’s credit, their party has overwhelmingly voted to support various alternative proposals, even ones that don’t perfectly match their preferred outcome. Yet after the defeat of Labour’s own Brexit plan (and all other options they supported) Jeremy Corbyn now seems content to mostly just remind us that his rival’s plan was rejected too. The weakness of the Leader of the Opposition is that, while he indeed “opposes” the Prime Minister with great gusto, he can offer no other way forward either.

There seems to be a broad willingness to exchange the country’s well-being for another day’s worth of partisan sound bites. Each main faction (since “parties” aren’t the modus operandi right now) has virtually ceased proposing new alternatives. The priority now is simply for Group A to oppose Group B’s ideas, even if those same ideas belonged to Group A yesterday.

As Brexit appears increasingly likely to end in calamity, many MPs retreat further into hard-line ideological positions. They’ve opted for inaction over compromise and self-preservation over pragmatic solutions, fearing the potential fallout inherent in every plausible Brexit outcome. It’s a destructive and self-fulfilling prophecy – a high-stakes Parliamentary version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, with the public on the losing side of all outcomes.

We therefore find ourselves in a vicious cycle of political paradoxes. No deal, but no No-Deal. No Brexit, but no second referendum. No Conservative party, but no Labour – but hey, don’t forget that first bit, right?

Without diminishing its importance, Brexit is now a sideshow to (and symptom of) a much more serious issue:

The UK is experiencing a genuine democratic crisis.

No one knows what might happen next, let alone what should happen. Although the word “unprecedented” has been tweeted non-stop for three years by every journalist in Britain, we really are in uncharted territory now.

Theresa May has now been granted a longer extension by the EU, and is currently engaging with Jeremy Corbyn to find a compromise. These are both extremely positive developments. However, the central issues outlined above remain unresolved until a deal is reached. It is hopeful, but unlikely, that the current talks will produce an entirely unique Brexit proposal. Barring such a breakthrough, any May-Corbyn compromise would likely consist of one or more proposals that were previously rejected individually by MPs during the indicative votes process.

We should all pray that both parties agree upon a joint plan and/or MPs change their current stances and back a course of action – no matter what course that may be. But assuming the continued absence of this ideal outcome, the onus is still on Theresa May to break the deadlock.

Here are some of her only maneuvers left:

Option 1) Continue Grinding Away at the Vote Deficit

Theresa May could keep pleading with Tory rebels and try to find something – anything – to offer the DUP that would secure their support for the current withdrawal agreement

This is probably the worst option, is least likely to succeed, and most likely to result in a No-Deal Brexit. The legal default would force a free fall departure from the EU, and the indicative votes suggest there may be zero consensus for a Plan B if MPs find themselves in the final hour without a deal. Pursuing the same old strategy as before would therefore continue the current game of parliamentary Russian Roulette – this time with far worse odds. The UK has been lucky so far, twice receiving extensions from the EU to avoid disaster. Yet one must wonder if that luck could survive a potential third request.

Nor should an automatic/default No-Deal exit be viewed as a solution. Even if you think that exiting the EU on WTO rules is ideal, failing to pursue that route via legislative decision would still represent a non-functioning parliamentary democracy.

Option 2) Call a General Election

This would likely be the next logical step forward. It addresses the broader issue of a hung Parliament, and comes closest to how an impasse is meant to be resolved. However, while a general election would adhere to expected political norms and conventions, it would not guarantee a favorable outcome.

The chaos of the past two years, combined with public fury over the current state of things, could produce unexpected election results that break the deadlock. But it’s also distinctly possible that a new Parliament would make matters worse instead. Voters in Leave constituencies – outraged by a twice-delayed Brexit – could try to replace moderate Tories with hardcore Brexiteers. While that isn’t inherently a bad thing, it does reduce the likelihood of compromise if new MPs are elected on a strict ideological mandate. Labour MPs face a similar risk; most represent constituencies that voted Leave and shouldn’t expect to receive an enthusiastic “welcome home” after Labour reversed course to back continued free movement.

It’s also unlikely that any party would win an outright majority, and building a coalition government might prove impossible. Any agreement would likely be contingent on a shared vision for Brexit (which brings us back to square one.) In the event that Labour overtakes the Conservative Party, they would face the additional challenge of convincing potential allies to put Jeremy Corbyn in the captain’s seat. That would not be an easy task.

Parliament is broken, true. But an election based on unsolved Brexit woes might deepen the cracks further. There must be another backup plan prepared in case a Parliamentary shuffle results in the same old dance as before.

Option 3) Call a Second Referendum

If compromise is unattainable and a general election does not break the deadlock, then Parliament will have failed as a political institution. By extension, parliamentary democracy will have failed the UK as a system of governance. This is said without a hint of exaggeration, sensationalism, or alarmism.

Should that dire situation arise, a second referendum would be justified to legislate via direct democracy instead.

There are many fair criticisms of the first referendum that should be considered if the Prime Minister is forced to craft a second. Chief among them: an oversimplified choice between the false dichotomy of  “Remain” and “Leave.”

Those two choices did not give Britons an opportunity to clearly express their will in 2016. The ballot never provided a chance to vote on the various things that “Leave” could mean, nor was the issue adequately addressed in debates and media analyses. The actual options are far too distinct, and too numerous, to accurately place under a single umbrella.

Any second referendum must therefore provide a range of specific, well-developed choices. It may be necessary to allow voters to select multiple options, and/or implement preferential voting. In addition, MPs must commit to supporting the public’s decision this time, regardless of their preferred outcome.

But there are still grave dangers associated with this path.

Although the first referendum suffered from a lack of detailed options, a second referendum might suffer from an overabundance of choice and information. The current withdrawal agreement includes nearly 600 pages of complex political and legal information. Could the public genuinely be expected to make a well-informed decision to support or oppose it, when MPs themselves required legal advice to fully understand its implications?

What about other Leave options? How many should be included on the ballot, and how should they be chosen? If there’s no clear consensus in the referendum results and/or the margin of victory is miniscule, should there be a subsequent runoff referendum for the top two choices?

Even if all those issues are resolved, there’s still the obstacle of successfully communicating the justification for a second referendum. Many critics – including Leave and Remain supporters alike – view the existing People’s Vote campaign as nothing more than a thinly-veiled “Remain 2.0” whose only intention is to cancel Brexit, even at the cost of pragmatic solutions.

The above criticism isn’t entirely unfair – especially when you look at the groups currently backing the campaign. It also makes a new referendum tough to legitimise across the political spectrum, even for the new and distinct purpose of providing a democratic solution to Parliamentary impasse. Therefore, the new justification for a second referendum must remain distinct from the original contentious People’s Vote campaign. This is not a re-do of the first vote, nor is it an option that anyone should be proud to implement. But it may become the only democratic route left to resolve a system-wide institutional failure.

If an option to revoke Article 50 isn’t on the ballot, expect accusations that the government has deprived Britons of a fair choice. On the flip side, offering revocation as an option would prompt fierce criticism from Brexiteers for ignoring the original mandate to leave. Either way, it’s possible that large swathes of the country would reject the results of a second referendum as politically illegitimate. Although the current situation is already a democratic crisis, such an outcome would be the final nail in the coffin.

The choice facing Theresa May is unenviable. No matter what happens next, Parliament will undoubtedly be asked to stomach plans that are less than ideal. Whether MPs barrel forward toward the cliff edge or steer to safety is anyone’s guess, but the road Parliament chooses will have grave repercussions that reach far beyond Brexit. Continued inaction is itself a choice, and by far the worst one. Refusal to compromise would be an active decision to further degrade the UK’s political institutions – perhaps irreparably.


By Aidan Hughes. Aidan Hughes received an MA in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice from QUB. He previously completed his BA in International Studies and Creative Writing at Virginia Tech.