British Prime Minister Theresa May blamed members of Parliament for the need to extend the Brexit deadline, a move that’s already undermined attempts to win support for her Brexit deal.
May gave a brief speech on Wednesday, hours after she had asked the European Union for a short extension to the current March 29 deadline. But rather than reassure the country, the prime minister’s remarks incited a backlash from the public and members of Parliament (MPs) — the very people she needs to back her plan.
In her address, May called the request delay “a matter of great personal regret for me” and said that she was certain the public had had enough. She continued, saying:
You’re tired of the infighting, you’re tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children’s schools, our National Health Service, knife crime.
You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side.
It is now time for MPs to decide.
The speech bombed for many reasons. For starters, it reiterated what May has been saying for months — pass my deal, or risk a no-deal exit from the EU or no Brexit at all.
It also failed because many of May’s critics believe the prime minister holds at least some of the responsibility for the current impasse. The prime minister has promoted Conservative Party unity throughout the Brexit process, often caving to pressure from the pro-Brexit hardliners rather than attempting to forge a consensus among moderates across parties. And through it all, May has insisted on pushing her unpopular Brexit deal through Parliament. She’s even planning to try a third time, despite losing the two previous votes by historically large margins.
May sent a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk earlier on Wednesday asking for the EU to push the UK exit date to June 30, to try once again to win approval for a Brexit deal, and, if it passed, give lawmakers time to pass the necessary accompanying legislation.
But Parliament defeated May’s deal last week by about 150 votes, which is a tremendous margin to make up. Attacking MPs for failing to vote on a deal they all hate doesn’t exactly seem like a sound strategy — and it incensed members of Parliament within the opposition Labour Party and within her own Conservative Party, who took to Twitter to express their frustration.
Resorting to the 'blame game' as the PM is doing is a low blow. Democracy loses when a PM who has set herself against the HoC then blames MPs for doing their job. Distracts from Art 50 extension, all part of her strategy to run down the clock and rule out other options. Toxic.— Sam Gyimah MP (@SamGyimah) March 20, 2019
The Prime Minister’s statement was disgraceful. Pitting Parliament against the people in the current environment is dangerous and reckless. Yesterday her government attacked their civil servants. Now she’s attacking the MPs whose votes she needs. It will have cost her support— Lisa Nandy (@lisanandy) March 20, 2019
Theresa May's attempt to put Parliament against the people on #Brexit tonight is sinister. It is the populism of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. History will judge her brutally. Our country deserves so much better than this.— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) March 20, 2019
In response to the Prime Minister's statement many of my constituents have emailed me tonight. Not one says back her deal. Not one.— Jess Phillips (@jessphillips) March 20, 2019
May’s speech mostly channeled anger over the Brexit process in the direction of the MPs, some politicians pointed out, potentially making them targets of a divided British public exasperated with the political paralysis.
“I do get death threats. [Theresa May] knows this”— Victoria Derbyshire (@VictoriaLIVE) March 21, 2019
Conservative MP Dominic Grieve says the PM's speech encouraged the public to “vilify” MPshttps://t.co/yN278BdwgB #VictoriaLIVE pic.twitter.com/yXHiAgHoCQ
I’ve thought long and hard before saying this, but @theresa_may knows that MPs across the House are subjected to death threats - some very credible. Her speech was incendiary and irresponsible. If any harm comes to any of us, she will have to accept her share of responsibility.— Wes Streeting MP (@wesstreeting) March 20, 2019
May’s speech also inspired Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow to give MPs a pep talk, in which he said that “none of you is a traitor.”
"None of you is a traitor... the sole duty of every member of Parliament is to do what he or she thinks is right"— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) March 21, 2019
Commons Speaker John Bercow defends Parliament, after MP accuses Theresa May of "pitching MPs against the public" over #Brexithttps://t.co/1siloYzy2k pic.twitter.com/PhFkQYkANT
The Brexit debate is far from over
Parliament does have some responsibility for the Brexit logjam. It’s punted on past opportunities to wrest control of the Brexit process. The handwringing may also seem kind of weird with just eight days to go until the deadline and the European Union still discussing whether to grant the UK an extension.
Tusk, the European Council president, indicated that the EU would be open to a short extension (though they’d likely set the date in May, rather than May’s proposed June 30) on the condition that the UK Parliament approves the Brexit deal next week. But, ultimately, all 27 EU member states have to agree. It seems unlikely that these countries will risk a disastrous no-deal on March 29 if May’s agreement fails again — but it certainly can’t be ruled out.
May’s speech, however, had the unintended effect of amplifying the very real political crisis that’s unfolding in the UK. Her withdrawal agreement is a compromise and likely the best she could have made by adhering to her Brexit red lines. But that hasn’t stopped the deal from being deeply unpopular, and her address only increases the perception among MPs that the prime minister is trying to strong-arm them into voting for this proposal by threatening them with the two extreme options: no deal, or no Brexit at all.
MPs may ultimately be willing to take the least bad option, but her speech offered them little incentive to take the political risk to back her unpopular plan.
The UK is also still deeply divided on how (or if) the UK should break up with the EU. Support for “remaining” has increased, but so has support for a no-deal Brexit instead of May’s deal, according to a recent YouGov poll. On Thursday, a petition for the UK government to Revoke Article 50 — which would basically cancel Brexit — received 1 million signatures, after briefly crashing the UK Parliament website.
May’s pitch — in short, “Listen to me, and let’s get Brexit over with” — won’t easily overcome this polarization.