British Prime Minister Theresa May’s new Brexit strategy is collapsing even before the European Union responds. Her plan offered an awkward compromise between a clean break from Europe, which would cause enormous economic disruption, and remaining in the E.U., which voters rejected two years ago. Apparently, it’s an offer nobody wants to accept.
May’s Conservative Party is bitterly divided between Leavers and Remainers. The Labour opposition is split, too. Many on both sides, though, are calling May’s soft Brexit the worst possible outcome. Remainers say it’s an unworkable fudge — a clean break would be better than this. Leavers call it Brexit in name only — staying in the E.U. would at least be honest.
Europe might soon reject May’s approach anyway. This became more likely on Monday, when, under pressure from Leavers in her party, May was forced to yield on provisions that will make her plan even less palatable to the E.U.
If her proposal can’t break the deadlock, there’s another way to go. The choice between staying and leaving should be put back before voters.
This won’t be easy, but it’s starting to look possible. A former minister has come out in favor of a second referendum, the first senior Tory to do so. Labour’s leadership hasn’t ruled it out. Such is the disarray in both parties that no plan — leave, stay or split the difference — looks capable of commanding a majority in Parliament. In this state of paralysis, with Brexit deadlines looming, the House of Commons could decide to throw the decision back to the country out of sheer inability to do anything else.
Granted, if that happened, the result would be uncertain. Recent polls suggest movement in favor of Remain, but it’s less than decisive. The E.U.’s position on whether Brexit can or should be stopped is also unclear. Europe’s leaders might feel they’ve had enough of Britain, and if they took a hard line during another referendum campaign, it could push support back to Leave. Whatever happened, the issue would not be settled: As soon as a second referendum reversed the 2016 vote, a campaign for a third referendum would begin.
Yet Britain’s past two years of self-sabotaging politics have proved one thing: Voters in 2016 were offered a choice they didn’t understand. They opted for Brexit without knowing what it would mean. By now, voters have at least learned that, whatever form it takes, it will be complicated and costly.
That’s not all that’s changed since the 2016 vote. Britain’s relationship with Europe has fractured, perhaps beyond repair. A second vote won’t fix that, but it might avoid the impending chaos of a no-deal Brexit. At the moment, every other option looks worse.
FROM AN EDITORIAL ON BLOOMBERG VIEW