As Brexit rolls on and on, never ending yet returning each day to the same starting point and the same existential questions, the British press has often invoked the movie Groundhog Day. Or Dead Man Walking, with Prime Minister Theresa May in the role of the condemned. Or The Walking Dead, starring zombie May.
But for those hoping to better understand the absurdity of the situation, we’d also recommend another classic: Dr. Strangelove.
For the past three years, the choices made by the United Kingdom’s political leaders have been abysmal. Never in the field of political conflict have so few caused so many self-inflicted wounds.
It started with David Cameron, calling a referendum he did not want, on a subject he aimed to put to bed, in the hope of losing. That sure worked out swell.
It has continued to this week, with both of the U.K.’s main political parties coming apart at the seams.
The unanticipated victory of Leave in the 2016 referendum has led to one absurdity after another, including the assumption of the premiership by Ms. May, despite the fact that she’d earlier pitched her tent in the anti-Brexit camp known as Remain.
Ms. May remade herself as the leader who could guarantee that Britain left the European Union – “Brexit means Brexit,” she promised. To ensure that happened, she built a doomsday device.
In Dr. Strangelove, the doomsday device was the blackest element of the black comedy: A nuclear weapon so powerful that, to deter enemies, it would destroy the entire world if attacked. To keep her Brexit plans on track, and deter attacks from both sides of the aisle, Ms. May created her own doomsday weapon. It’s called a no-deal Brexit.
If Parliament wouldn’t accept the Brexit deal she negotiated with the European Union, the alternative would not be the status quo. Instead, on March 29, a bomb would go off.
Under no-deal Brexit, Britain would still leave the EU. But it would do so with no arrangements of any kind with its neighbours, including no deals on trade or borders. That would plunge the economy into a temporary state of chaos – food shortages, rationing of essential medicines, a recession.
The doomsday threat worked about as well for Ms. May as calling a referendum he planned to lose did for Mr. Cameron. Her Brexit proposal has twice gone down to defeat in Parliament by overwhelming majorities.
Part of the problem has been that one wing of the Conservative Party, its most Euroskeptic members, actually want a no-deal Brexit. They want the doomsday device to go off. Its existence has emboldened them.
Which brings us to what happened on Thursday. Parliament should have taken control of the agenda from the enfeebled government. It should have voted in favour of another referendum, offering voters a real choice – the Brexit terms Ms. May has negotiated with the EU, or the status quo.
There’s considerable support in Parliament for a second referendum, possibly even majority support, but with the leadership of both parties opposed, a second referendum isn’t in the cards – yet.
However, Parliament on Thursday did vote to extend the Brexit negotiating deadline past March 29, assuming the EU will agree to that. It also did Ms. May a favour and voted against a no-deal Brexit, asking her to disarm the doomsday device. A no-deal Brexit is still not impossible, but it’s far less likely.
And that means the Brexit battle of Britain versus Britain restarts, but with new wrinkles. With the clock no longer ticking on a time bomb, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party may, in the coming days, reconcile itself to voting for Ms. May’s soft-Brexit deal. That’s because, if Brexit doesn’t happen soon, it may never happen at all. Its dangers, including the threat to peace in Northern Ireland and to Scotland’s continued membership in the U.K., are becoming ever more apparent.
Ms. May’s Brexit deal, twice overwhelmingly rejected by Parliament, is to be voted on again Tuesday. At the same time, the odds are growing of Brexit dying in a second referendum, or expiring slowly in a deadlocked Parliament.
The world’s longest running production of Groundhog Day isn’t over yet. But some kind of an end, whether happy or tragic, is at least becoming possible to imagine.