In the 32 months since the UK made its decision to leave the European Union, the politics of the country have fundamentally changed.
Brexit became the single most important issue facing the nation, cutting across long-established demographic divides. The traditional two-party system was turned on its head.
This, at least in part, is the result of a question with a binary answer like Leave or Remain, and the inevitable consequence of nearly half the country ending up on the losing side.
The consequences of these divisions have been largely confined to battles within the UK’s political class. But, with Brexit due to happen in 30 days, a storm is coming.
Whatever the outcome of the political machinations of the next week or so – no deal, ratification of the government’s deal, a delay, a second referendum, a general election – at some point, the bandage that has kept closed these wounds has to come off.
That bandage is the premiership of Theresa May. Since the referendum, it has been in the interest of all political parties to keep the Prime Minister in place. But once Brexit happens – or doesn’t, as the case may be – the battle will begin over what sort of country Britain will be. The gloves will come off and the warring political factions will be ready. And if you think Brexit has been bloody so far, strap in.
Keeping May in Downing Street has allowed others to grandstand and frustrate her Brexit plans while not having to take any responsibility for the carnage.
For the opposition Labour Party, this has meant kicking back against nearly everything May has done to date with little consequence.
For rebels within her own Conservative Party, it has meant criticizing her deal and opposing it on supposedly principled grounds. In short: Most of the political class in the UK has been very good at telling May what they don’t want while offering few practical solutions.
What possible reason could any politician have for taking a principled stance against government policy when it’s clear that its days of governing are edging closer to an end?
Lawmakers of all stripes in both main parties see in Brexit divisions the chance to fill a void that will exist after March 29.
For some, that means starting new political movements (see the breakaway MPs that left both main parties last week); for others, it’s the chance to take their party’s leadership and with it the top job. In the case of Labour, a “damaging” Conservative Brexit presents the chance to trigger a general election and end nearly a decade in the political wilderness.
While clarity on the UK’s future may be in short supply today, after March 29, the country’s Brexit purgatory ends.
So what are the most likely outcomes?
One, a version of May’s deal is grudgingly accepted by Parliament on March 12 and quickly ratified with the EU. The UK would enter a transition period on March 29 while the future relationship with Europe takes center stage as the new battleground. That would essentially put every option except Remain back on the table.
Two, lawmakers request an extension to the Brexit deadline. That could happen in a vote planned for March 14 in the event that her deal fails to get parliamentary support on March 12, and lawmakers reject no-deal on March 13. In this outcome, all options, including Remain, would likely be back on the table.
The least likely but default option is a no-deal crash-out, which, according to most non-partisan analysts, would be catastrophic for both the UK and the EU. The House of Commons may get the chance to vote on this outcome on March 13, but very few believe it could command a majority.
Accompanying each option is a credible argument for removing May from power.
If May’s deal passes, her job is done. Though she is currently immune from a formal leadership challenge, colleagues could try and persuade her to resign of her own accord, arguing that it was time for fresh leadership in her party and for the country as the UK finds its new place in the world.
If May is forced to request an extension to Article 50 (something which would require unanimous approval from all the 27 EU member states), then she will have failed. Here, the options are numerous. Suddenly it would be credible to call for her deal to be ripped up and for a whole new set of negotiations to begin, and that could really lead anywhere. It would also be credible to argue that these negotiations should be conducted by someone else, either from within the Conservative Party or by calling a general election, offering the nation the chance to change the government directly.
Much as Labour might like to say that May had botched the negotiations and that it deserved to take the reins, no serious polling data suggests that it could win an election. And while Labour now says it backs some kind of second referendum, it’s still not clear just how committed the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is to to this.
Arguably, Labour’s move is arguably just a bit of party management. Its members and MPs are more pro-Europe than the Conservatives, and it has experienced more defections than the Conservatives over its handling of Brexit. Its suits Corbyn just fine to appear more Europhile than the Conservatives, by supporting a second vote that may never happen.
Corbyn has long made it clear that his preferred option is an election. It’s possible that backing a second referendum gives him fuel to demand an election, if that referendum is denied by the government.
Back to the point about the arguments so far being confined to politicians. We know that May doesn’t want to lead the Conservative Party into the next election. And we know that most in the UK don’t see her as an essential fixture in the next phase of Brexit. Indeed, if her deal is grudgingly voted through, then it’s unlikely her own party would want her to have any part in the future trade talks.
With the two main parties so divided, it’s hard to see how their members could agree on a policy agenda to put to the public.
So what about the public? The final thing we know for certain is that Brexit has altered the mindsets of the electorate at large. Brits now identify more as Leavers or Remainers than they do as Conservative or Labour supporters, according to a recent study. Demographically, that has blown up the old political system (lovers of psephology can read more about this here). This means that not only would uniting a party behind anything be near impossible, but dragging the voters along with you is now more complicated than ever.
So, with 30 days to go, it might be tempting to think that for better or worse, the Brexit craziness will finally be over and done with soon. Good luck with that.