Brexit is exhausting. From the political class trying to deliver Brexit, to the voters who still have not seen it delivered, to the journalists trying to make sense of it, Brexit fatigue is making the UK a very odd country to live in.
This week, we saw two examples of the impact Brexit fatigue is having on both the governing and the governed.
Prime Minister Theresa May fired her Defense Secretary on Wednesday night for his alleged part in a leaking information from the National Security Council to the media. Williamson denies having anything to do with the leak, but the government says the matter is closed.
This is a big deal. A man who was until Wednesday in charge of the UK’s defense policy stands accused of leaking information relating to national security to a journalist.
The leak in question related to the government’s plan to allow Huawei, the Chinese state-owned telecoms company, to help build the UK’s 5G network. As the Daily Telegraph reported last month, ministers had raised concerns in a private meeting that the move would open up the UK to potential cybersecurity risks. Huawei has repeatedly denied the accusations.
It’s hard to argue that the Telegraph, once in possession of the information, should not have run it. After all, this is a matter of national interest. (Disclosure: The author of this article is a former employee of the Telegraph.)
The issue here is the venue from which the leak originated. As May said in her letter to Williamson confirming his dismissal, ministers and security officials at the National Security Council ought to be able to have “frank and detailed discussions in full confidence that the advice and analysis provided is not discussed or divulged beyond that trusted environment.”
Long before the Huawei affair, May’s government had developed a reputation for being one of the leakiest in history. It’s just that the leaks tended to originate from Cabinet meetings.
Yet even those leaks would once have been regarded as unusual, if not deserving of dismissal. It used to be the convention that Cabinet ministers adhered to the rule of collective responsibility – that whatever private disagreements each might have, all would publicly support the Prime Minister’s final decision.
But Brexit has become such a dominant and polarizing issue, and has remained unresolved for so long, that the intractable arguments at the heart of government have spilled into the public domain. And as May’s authority dims, ministers’ impunity grows.
The furor around Williamson, whether he was responsible for the leak or not, illustrates just how comfortable senior ministers have become with leaking sensitive information, and how little they fear the consequences.
The second example of Brexit frustration can be seen in the results of municipal elections held across the UK this week, in which the governing Conservatives and the opposition Labour parties both lost huge numbers of seats.
It’s tempting to read an anti-Brexit protest into these results, as both main parties lost seats to groups that support remaining in the EU. But while pro-remain voters found comfort in the europhile certainty of the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, Brexit supporters had less clear options.
While the Conservatives and the Labour Party are nominally pro-Brexit, their positions are confusing. The Conservatives have entered negotiations with Labour in an attempt to compromise on a deal, diluting the clarity of their pro-Brexit message. Labour’s participation in those discussions has muddied its attempt to keep remain-supporting voters on board with a position that tried to face two ways at once.
And considering that Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party did not stand in these elections, a “pure Brexit” option was not on the ballot in any real sense.
That will all change when Farage’s crew wades in to the European elections, which take place on May 23. Yet, even a thumping victory for Farage won’t tell us anything definitive about the public’s preferred outcome for Brexit. It will be another roar of frustration at those in power for not getting on with the job.
The UK’s decision to vote for Brexit might have been the answer to a simple question: In or out. But since then, the matter of how to leave the EU has turned out to be a great deal more complicated.
Politicians have been left to find the answer to that question alone. To date, they have come up with nothing. Brexit was never a party issue, so it’s deeply misleading to interpret Brexit from the results of national elections fought on party lines.
The Brexit political vacuum has created a new normal in the UK. It has allowed government and opposition to kick the can down the road over and over again. It has allowed people in the upper echelons of politics to openly fight with one another. It has lowered the quality of political discourse to the point of violence. And it has created room for new political movements that stand for nothing, other than their positions on Europe, to appear more powerful than parties with decades of governing history.
Political vacuums can be exploited. We need only look to the recent violence in Northern Ireland, which led to the murder of journalist Lyra McKee, to see that this isn’t a game.
But they can also be exploited by people who don’t always act in ways we expect the democratically elected to behave. As the Brexit process grinds on, it looks increasingly likely that the party with the most stamina will ultimately win the day.
The UK would do well to look at the contempt being shown to the constitution by the executive branch of one of its closest allies: The Trump administration’s response to the release of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Once a precedent has been set, it’s hard to undo it.