Brexit's 'cakeism' is dead. The question now is what will replace it

Brexit is becoming an utter disaster. In football terms, the UK is two own goals down with just minutes left in the second half. But, unlike in football, if the UK can’t get its act together, the other team is going to lose as well.

After Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s spectacular resignation on Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May has to find an ability to score quickly – an ability that she and her government have shown absolutely no sign of to date – or the chaos enveloping British politics will extend to its economy, to most of its businesses, to its borders, and infect the second biggest economy in the world, that of the European Union.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has resigned as the UK's Brexit plans remain in peril.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has resigned as the UK’s Brexit plans remain in peril.

By inexorable process of law, Brexit is due to happen at the end of March and there is still no agreement on how it will happen. If there is no agreement, there'll be a terrible legal and economic mess. And for process-related reasons, there are really only a few months left to reach that agreement.

The resignation on Monday of both Johnson and a second Brexiteer cabinet minister, Brexit secretary David Davis, marks the end of an experiment: could May chart a course towards an agreement that satisfied, or at least appeased, the Brexiteers, Remainers, pragmatists and miscellaneous in her party?

Nope. The clearer her policy became, the fewer people supported it.

The crisis came on Friday when May insisted her government get behind a proposal to take to Brussels. That proposal would, she said, deliver on the key ingredients of Brexit: regaining control over immigration, an end to big payments to Brussels, and the ability to sign trade deals.

But the proposed plan was a compromise that put asterisks after these claims.

There was an end to free movement from the EU – but the promise of a “mobility framework” for EU workers.

Any trade deal the UK signs, such as a free trade deal with Australia or joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, would require huge carve-out exceptions because the UK would sign up to a “common rulebook” with the EU for trade in goods.

Some said May’s Brexit plan would turn the UK into a rule-taker, subordinate to a Brussels it no longer had a voice in.

Others said it was a clever compromise that reclaimed sovereignty but not at the expense of alienating the country’s biggest trading partner.

The clearer Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit plan became, the fewer people supported it.

The clearer Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan became, the fewer people supported it.

The hope was that, when this proposal arrived in Brussels, it would encourage reciprocal access to European markets and a deal on seamless border controls to minimise the extra costs to business of Brexit.

But it was a fudge too far, and the Brexiteers revolted.

Leave voters have bombarded their MPs with disgust at May’s plan, which they see as a betrayal. She will have a very, very hard time selling it at home, not to mention to the EU (which is likely to consider it an attempt to cherry-pick elements of the single market).

For all the barbs thrown at May today, for taking almost two years to conclude a comprehensive(ish) plan for Brexit that has nearly fallen apart in less than two days, it’s not entirely her fault.

Democracy itself has failed.

The country voted to leave the European Union. But there has never been a majority in favour of any Brexit that can be coherently and legally described – neither in May’s cabinet, nor in her party, nor in Parliament.

Nor is there a Brexit consensus in the population at large. Polls reveal the population very much wants the kind of Brexit that takes the benefits of the single market and customs union, but none of the costs or responsibilities.

This position is known as ‘cakeism’, from a Boris Johnson quote: “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.”

Cakeism is dead. Gone with its creator. The question now is what will replace it.

The politics are on a knife edge.

Really, it’s remarkable May has made it this far. She is really only Prime Minister because no sane politician would want to be in her shoes.

And, at least at the time of writing, that is still the case. The Brexit rebellion is, as it has always been, a grumpy rejection of the status quo rather than a clear alternative project.

May remains Prime Minister and has chosen a Cabinet that will back her plan, and unless the Brexiteers topple her, all they have left is all they have ever had.


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