Topical: Not only is there the Brexit timetable and framework to work on, but the EU will also be further rocked by issues emanating from, at the very least, Italy, Spain and France. Picture: REUTERS
Topical: Not only is there the Brexit timetable and framework to work on, but the EU will also be further rocked by issues emanating from, at the very least, Italy, Spain and France. Picture: REUTERS

Proposal for a healing tsar to reunite Britain, the headline screamed in the UK’s Guardian newspaper on Monday. One of the leading contenders, apparently, was Bob Geldof, he of Live Aid fame. 

It says a lot about the state of the UK that not everyone would have dismissed the headline for what it was, an April Fool’s day joke. Life on that island has been stranger than fiction in its most recent history, leaving observers unable to decide whether to laugh or cry.

What is one supposed to make of a prime minister, desperate to get her Brexit deal with the EU passed, promising her own MPs that she would quit if they approved it? It was an interesting inversion of the more conventional “back me or I go” call to arms.

She still lost. A social media user noted that Theresa May proved to be so inept that she couldn’t even manage to fall on her own sword.

Almost three years after the UK decided to pull out of the EU, seeking to reverse a political, economic and legal integration process dating back more than four decades, its MPs in March held a vote on various options to manage that withdrawal and future relationship. All options, from leaving the EU without an agreement to agreeing, to seeking a permanent customs union with the EU, were rejected.

On Monday, parliament again failed to find common ground on an alternative to May's deal, prompting one frustrated Conservative MP to quit the party.

The fact that nobody knows how this story will end, just 10 days before the country potentially crashes out of the world’s biggest and richest trading bloc — which accounted for 44% of its exports in 2017 — is a sad indictment of the UK’s political class.

The EU has tried to help. Britain didn’t fall off the cliff edge on March 29 as scheduled because Brussels decided to give a desperate May until April 12 to convince her parliament to endorse the deal she signed with the European bloc. If that happens, the UK will get another extension, to May 22, to allow it to pass the necessary legislation to facilitate its exit.

The fact that nobody knows how this story will end, just 10 days before the country potentially crashes out of the world’s biggest and richest trading bloc — which accounted for 44% of its exports in 2017 — is a sad indictment of the UK’s political class.

The country’s reputation for pragmatism and predictable politics has been truly thrashed, and what was once one of the big powers in Europe has lost the respect of its partners.

Dispensing with diplomatic niceties, Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth, described the situation in words one would not normally expect to see in a business publication. He lamented what he called the “big shitshow” in Westminster.

Brexit was always going to be a long and painful process that could probably take a decade or more to achieve, considering the complexities and the highly unlikely prospect of the country reaching consensus on what kind of Brexit it wanted.

In the binary choice they were given, voters were left none the wiser of those implications and many thought it was something as simple as cancelling one’s gym membership, which ironically isn’t always so simple either.

Predictably, divisions within the governing Conservatives are threatening to tear it apart. With her cabinet openly squabbling and defying her, May is prime minister only in name.

She won’t be the first Tory leader to be accounted for by the party’s divisions over Europe. Better politicians than her — Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron — all suffered the same fate.

And hers was probably sealed the day she triggered Article 50 to get the clock ticking towards the UK’s departure from the EU without having worked out a coherent strategy of where she was taking the country. It was bound to catch up with her. 

That was always the problem with Brexit. From [former prime minister] David Cameron’s decision to call the referendum to May’s decision to trigger the withdrawal and impose red lines that made compromise impossible, everything has been done to manage intraparty political management rather than the broader national interest.

That will be a depressingly familiar theme to South Africans. The lesson to learn here is that when politicians and their supporters put party ahead of the nation, the results can only be disastrous.

That’s something our politicians should keep in mind as they make noise about everything from land reform to the independence of the SA Reserve Bank.