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Theresa May’s Brexit Ship Is Going to Sink

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Theresa May in Berlin, Germany on 02/16/2018 © Photocosmos1 / Shutterstock

November 19, 2018 06:05 EDT

Despite her titanic efforts, Theresa May’s ship of state has sprung some dangerous leaks.

The idea of a coherent British government, unified around a shared vision of its own future and the destiny of the nation, has become increasingly impossible to imagine. The mere idea of finding a Tory leader capable of achieving a consensus around the technical details of Brexit, let alone its ultimate realization, appears to be as likely as the British Isles simply pulling up anchor and drifting over to the other side of the Atlantic.

In fact, the closer we get to the fateful date of March 29, 2019, the more it appears that the Brits who voted for Brexit in 2016 had something similar to that metaphor in mind when they made their choice. We don’t like the weather here, or the food, or the company. Let’s move on.

The maritime metaphor has a lot of merit for this former nation that “ruled the waves.” In recent months and, even more so, in recent days, ministers have been jumping ship, leading to increasing speculation that a mutiny is imminent, with the bounty of the British economy on the line. By November 15, the ship of state was taking on water because of the portholes left open by departing ministers. Then, at the height of the tempest the day after, Michael Gove stepped in and volunteered to batten down the hatches for Prime Minister Theresa May and lend a hand to the dangerously thinned out crew, especially after the dramatic departure of of Dominic Raab, May’s Brexit secretary, her official storm navigator.

Known for his personal ambition and trusted by few, even in his own party, Gove is — if not a charismatic politician — at least a “name” in the Conservative Party, if only for his proven ability to alienate nearly everyone in education when he was secretary of education.

It would be reasonable to speculate that Gove sees this move as an opportunity to position himself as the logical replacement of May after her imminent fall after a vote of no confidence, following the logic of “last name standing.” When questioned by a reporter about his intentions, Gove found a wonderful way of explaining and justifying his newfound loyalty to May: “I am looking forward to continuing to work with all colleagues in government and in parliament to get the best future for Britain.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Excluding any particular person. Though possibly designating an inclusive view, it can be used cleverly to express future exclusion

Contextual note

This move enables Gove to project himself as the healer, who can unite a divided nation and define the “best future for Britain.” Although insisting on his endorsement of May’s leadership, he tellingly walked away from the reporter in the same interview when she asked him if he supports “deal as it stands.” He intends to use his influence to modify the terms of the draft agreement, even though the Europeans have unanimously said there would be no further negotiations.

We learn from a Downing Street spokeswoman that, “[May] is very pleased that he will continue doing the important work he is doing there.” This is worth decoding. It could be May’s optimistic way of saying: He will stay in his place, as environment secretary, now that we’ve righted the ship. His role is to help me remain as PM, not to replace me.

Historical note

Brexit has turned out to be the ultimate learning experience about how democracy shouldn’t work, or rather how it can’t work. When then-Prime Minister David Cameron confidently proposed the referendum, he saw it as a simple way to dismiss an annoying question. He understood that it was so preposterously risky that a majority of “reasonable” people would vote to remain in the European Union. He was sure he could count on the loyalty of his own Tory crew to back him, since doing otherwise would be suicidal for the party and the nation. Offering the referendum, however, would allow those who shouted the loudest — the UK Independence Party, in particular, but also his own backbenchers — to let off steam, after which things could carry on as normal.

All Western democracies have habituated their populations to think of politics in binary terms without realizing the potential danger for a civilization in which all choices are complicated. There are rarely more than two parties to choose from. That has become an absolute rule in the US, considered the model for democracy. But even in Europe, where in most countries multiple parties exist, sometimes with proportional representation, elections tend to reduce to a choice between the two major contestants. In terms of policy or rather ideology, there is even less nuance: It’s left vs. right, even though in terms of actual governance there tends to be little difference.

When politics is reduced to the idea of choosing between two opposed approaches, generally there is some allowance for grafting the major concerns of the minority into the policies endorsed by the majority. But when the choice is starkly binary — remain or leave — the situation begins to resemble that of the Roman Coliseum: Let the gladiator live or die based on the public’s appreciation of his performance. If the verdict is death, there’s no way of offering a little bit of life.

And that’s where Theresa May and Britain appear to be now. Over a hundred years later, it’s the British ship of state that has lifted anchor and is heading for the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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