Opinion | Andrew Brown

Theresa May dodges a bullet — but the battle on Brexit will continue

Anti-Brexit campaigners wave Union and EU flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Wednesday.
Anti-Brexit campaigners wave Union and EU flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Wednesday. (Daniel Leal-Oliva/AFP/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain has for the moment faced down the rebels in her party, winning a vote of confidence Wednesday among Conservative members of Parliament, or MPs, by 200 to 117. That means that less than a third of the 635 members in the House of Commons have confidence in her. But this is a larger fraction than has confidence in any of the alternatives to her or to the deal she has negotiated to extract Britain from the European Union. Nonetheless, a third of her own MPs have now voted that they have no confidence in her, and losing this vote will not stop them. Even if party rules mean she’s safe from another internal challenge for a year, her most determined enemies — within her own party — are preparing to bring the government down.

The Brexit deal she has won from Brussels cannot get through Parliament. No other deal is on offer. The only options, as she has said, are her deal, no deal, and no Brexit. None of them commands a majority in Parliament, but if nothing happens to stop it, Britain will leave the EU| on March 29 with no deal in place to replace it.


Britain is like a disabled pleasure steamer that is drifting toward an enormous waterfall. Captain May stands — for the moment — in the wheelhouse. Some passengers want her to steer away, but the loudest are screaming at her to stop the waterfall. The engineer says there’s just enough power to run the boat ashore on an island before it goes over the cliff, but everybody shouts him down. “Shut down the waterfall!” they yell. The boat begins to pick up speed, revolving faster, throwing off some passengers. The yelling begins to take on an edge of panic, but the passengers still prefer to fight over who gets to stand at the wheel and tell the waterfall to stop at once.

If MPs were able to vote freely, there would be broad majorities in all parties for two propositions: Brexit will be something between disaster and a catastrophe, and Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is unfit to be prime minister. But if these questions were put to party members, you’d get the opposite result. The members of the Labor party can’t see anything wrong with Corbyn (except that the media and MPs are biased against him). The members of the Conservative party think the only problem with Brexit is that foreigners are being obstructive about it and that most of their MPs are traitors at heart.


The combined effect of these pressures is that Parliament is helpless to prevent the two outcomes that most of its members privately believe will be disastrous. Yet this is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy.

If nothing happens to stop them, events are hurrying us toward a situation where we get Brexit without any deal and, after a short interval for the effects to sink in, while the trucks queue up from Dover to London, the pound crashes, and the National Health Service runs out of medicines first, and then of workers, we get a Labor government headed by Corbyn, one of the few people in British politics who has always been opposed to the EU. He would then have to negotiate a graceless surrender with the rest of Europe more or less on the terms already agreed to by Theresa May and rejected by everyone else in British politics.


The negotiations that have paralyzed the Tory party are impossible because they involve what the American anthropologist Scott Atran calls sacred values, the ideas and the symbols that people are prepared to form tribes around and die for: patriotism, democracy, human rights, and freedom. The two halves of Britain have irreconcilable interpretations of these values. That division runs right down the middle of both the Labor and Conservative parties. As Atran points out, sacred values can’t be traded off for material advantages. Any attempt to do so only makes the other side harden its position. He proved this elegantly with a series of experiments using Israeli and Palestinian subjects, where he asked people on what terms they would accept a peace deal. Palestinian resistance to giving up the right of return in a notional peace deal was only increased when they were offered more money to do so.

Some similar dynamic explains why Leave voters appear immune to the argument that leaving the EU will make Britain poorer. It is only partly because the Leave side is a coalition between the people who think they have nothing left to lose and those who know they can afford any losses. It is also an expression of the profound British nostalgia for World War II, which is remembered as the mythical time when sacred values trumped all others and everyone was lifted out of their individual shells of selfishness and released to be their very best selves. That hardly anyone now alive can remember it only strengthens its power as a myth.


This is not to say that the Remainers, the metropolitans and cosmopolitans, have no sacred values themselves. They — we — do. These would include tolerance, diversity, and faith in reason. There’s only one problem: These values of inclusiveness are not in fact inclusive. They are not very widely shared. And they exclude those who don’t hold them. This is true in Britain just as much as in every other Western country.

But in Britain it coincides with a wider crisis. Brexit marks the final breakdown of the British imperial state, the one which lasted from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II. It was held together not just by institutions, but by belief in institutions: in law, in parliament, in what they were supposed to represent. The deep underlying crisis of British politics is that the symbols no longer work. Neither Leavers nor Remainers believe that voting changes anything. Why should they when neither party has managed to be honest about the choices really facing us?

Countries and political systems are not just social arrangements. They are acts of collective imagination just as much as money is. And just like currencies, they lose their power to change the world if no one any longer believes in them. Whatever the outcome of the present crises, the future belongs to whoever can restore that sort of shared belief, and give it form in new political arrangements. Whoever ultimately succeeds Theresa May as prime minister, no candidate for the larger job is presently in sight.


Andrew Brown is an editorial writer for the Guardian. This column has been updated from a piece that appeared in Dagens Nyheter in Stockholm.