Theresa May was warned about Brexit. She didn’t listen.

  • By
  • Anne Applebaum

At every fateful historical turning point — every time a bad decision is taken or a wrong choice is made — there is always someone who tries to stop it, someone who predicts the consequences, someone who proposes an alternative plan. Cicero tried to halt the fall of the Roman Republic; Churchill opposed appeasement. And there are less mythical, more recent examples, too: Before the invasion of Iraq, the State Department conducted a massive study of the country, foreseeing many of the problems, making many proposals for a post-Saddam Hussein regime — all of which were ignored by the Pentagon after the invasion in 2003.

Usually, the problem isn’t that no one knows that things are going to go badly. The problem is that the people in charge do know but don’t care, don’t agree or simply have other priorities. This is what is happening right now in Britain, where a bitterly divided cabinet has so far refused to come up with an alternative to the European Union-United Kingdom deal negotiated by the British prime minister, Theresa May. Her plan has been rejected three times by the House of Commons, a failure of historic proportions. And yet not only has she refused to choose something else, she has not wanted to discuss anything else in public.

And so the discussion has continued without her. Anyone who tunes in to parliamentary debates or watches “Prime Minister’s Questions” knows that debates in the House of Commons can often seem ritualized, with both sides trading carefully scripted insults and sound bites. But on Monday night, the British Parliament suddenly became a place of substance again, as several members made serious, considered, alternative proposals, and then answered tough questions about them. For once, a critical political debate was not taking place on television, or behind the scenes, but on a public stage, inside the institution created for that purpose.

Several people made passionate cases; one them was Nick Boles, a Conservative MP who has held government jobs in the past but is not in the cabinet. He was proposing an alternative deal: Britain should stay in the single market free trade area, which it helped create, and inside a customs union with Europe. There are advantages to this proposal — it would eliminate the need for a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and preserve all existing trade arrangements — as well as disadvantages: Among other things, it would allow “free movement” of British and E.U. citizens in one another’s countries to continue, a policy that the current government has decided its priority is to end.

But the truth is that every Brexit proposal requires some kind of trade-off, some kind of compromise. There are advantages and disadvantages to each one, even if the prime minister has so far refused to discuss them. “Our constituents do not send us here for an easy ride in which we duck difficult choices,” Boles argued. But he was speaking to a half-empty chamber. The government, and most of the Tory party, boycotted the debate, refusing even to listen.

They returned to the chamber to vote. And, thanks to the Tories who refused to back not only the Boles proposal but also every single other alternative — as well as other parties who selected one option but not others — all of them lost. The House of Commons, which has already declared that it doesn’t want May’s deal and that it doesn’t want to crash out with no deal, has also voted against the single market, against the customs union, against another referendum and against revoking Article 50, which would reverse the process. Once again, the refusal to compromise, or to admit the possibility of trade-offs, or even to listen, means that no policy won a majority. After the votes, Boles stood up, announced his resignation from the Tory party and walked to the other side of the chamber.

It is possible Europe might agree to a delay (and the prime minister suddenly said she might be willing to negotiate with the opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in order to get one). But if that doesn’t happen, Britain is still due to crash out of all of its trading relationships with its closest neighbors, without any kind of deal, on April 12. Of course, that would not end the story: The agonizing process of rewriting hundreds of treaties would then begin anew, from a much worse place. Britain would face the same hurdles and the same requirements from Europe as it does now, while facing high tariffs and trade barriers of a kind nobody even remembers. Britain will also have lost its credibility as a negotiator and, indeed, as a serious country.

When history is written, it will be noted that, at this crucial moment, there were people who said this would happen, who warned of the consequences and tried to stop them. The problem isn’t that no one understands what is happening, or that no one has proposed an alternative. The problem is that the prime minister — a woman who prefers not to negotiate and not to compromise — has until now decided, simply, to ignore them. Forced by her cabinet, she may now try to listen. If it turns out to be too late, she can’t say she wasn’t warned.