On the 25th October 1864, during the Battle of Balaclava, 600 mounted British soldiers of the Light Brigade followed the orders of their incompetent commander and charged a large force of well-positioned Russian field guns. 157 men of the Light Brigade were killed in a few minutes.
The event is remembered in British history mainly because of Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” It begins with the famous words. “Into the valley of Death rode the 600.” The event has also become a metaphor for hopeless and avoidable failure.
And so it came to pass that on 15th January 2017 the British prime minister, Theresa May, had her Light Brigade moment. The withdrawal deal she had negotiated with the European Union was rejected by parliament. She lost by 230 votes, the biggest defeat inflicted on a British government in modern times. 419 MPs, many from her own party, voted against her. The political world knew for months that the May deal was heading for defeat. Mrs May knew, parliament knew, the media knew and millions in the UK knew. But she charged on.
The political slaughter was immense. The prime minister’s credibility was destroyed and her authority cut to ribbons. Remarkably, staggeringly, she is still prime minister. Not only did she suffer an enormous defeat, she did so knowingly and on top of two other recent serious defeats. So, why is she still in office and what happens next?
She survives because an attempt by members of her own Conservative party to remove her in December last year failed and under party rules the leader can’t be challenged again for a year. What’s more important is that even if she resigned the Conservative party would not be able to agree on a new leader and the leadership battle probably see the party split, so Mrs May survives.
Labour, the official opposition, want her and her government out. The day after the EU vote Labour tabled a vote of no confidence in Mrs May and her government. Governments that lose a no confidence vote must resign and a general election be called.
Labour lost the no confidence vote when all of the Conservatives who had voted against Mrs May on the EU deal voted for her. Mrs May also needed and got the 10 votes of the Democratic Unionist Party. It too had voted against her on Europe but voted to keep her minority government alive.
Britain today is in political chaos which is undermining its political, economic and social stability, its global reputation and its global influence. So, what happens next? Almost anything, but in order of most likely, here goes;
- The UK asks the EU to suspend its notice to leave for up to a year, thus buying time to find a consensus for a deal that can win a majority in parliament and be agreed by the other 27 EU states. This could split the Conservative party, though resolve the problem and end the impasse. The UK would be out of the EU with a deal that satisfies most of parliament, most of British business and should win the support of the British people.
- Call another UK referendum asking the people to decide on leaving or staying in the EU. This too could split the Conservative party, but has shot up the list of possibilities in recent weeks. Polls say the majority of the public appear to support such a move. It’s not yet clear if parliament agrees. It would have to approve the idea and pass legislation. For many MPs a second referendum is a last resort, but the tide is perhaps flowing towards such an answer.
- Mrs May’s government has no majority and is kept in power only by the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party. Mrs May, who as prime minister has the absolute power to call an election, could decide an election is a better way of resolving the issue. This would keep her party together, although it is impossible to predict the outcome of a public vote. In the febrile politics of our times anything is possible. It could be a triumph or disaster for Conservative or Labour or again deliver a hung parliament.
Other scenarios exist, such as a majority of MPs from various parties coming together to give full control to parliament. Should events reach absolute stalemate and the damn immovable, the Queen, on advice from trusted advisers, could summon the prime minister to advise that a resolution must be found and found quickly. That would almost guarantee a general election. We are not there yet, though not that far away.
One thing is though becoming crystal clear. The British public is fed up. Whether they voted Leave or Remain they find it hard to believe that two and a half years on from the EU referendum nothing has been agreed. Their faith in the democratic process and the institutions of the state is weaker than at any time in living memory. Things now must move at speed. Mrs May must find a consensus within a very few weeks or go back to the people in a general election or a new referendum.
There are now no easy or painless answers.
Martin Roche is a graduate of the great and ancient University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he read politics and international relations. He began his working life on a daily newspaper in Scotland and has since written for many newspapers, magazines and radio stations in the UK and internationally. As a communications consultant, he has advised political and business leaders in over 20 countries.