British prime minister Theresa May has watched her carefully negotiated Brexit plan go down to defeat not once but twice. With the deadline looming, she just made a desperate offer to Parliament: Pass my version of Brexit and I will resign.

When most people promise to quit their jobs, it's used as a threat--give me what I want or I'll leave. But in the ever-more-bizarre world of Brexit--Britain's planned exit from the European Union--the very opposite just happened. Facing drastic disapproval ratings, prime minister Theresa May just promised to quit her job if she does get what she wants.

As the rest of Europe and the world looks on in bewilderment, the U.K. has been tearing itself apart for the last two years over the question of when, how, and maybe even if to depart from the E.U., as mandated by a referendum in 2016. So much has happened since then it's impossible to keep track of it all. But here are the basics: Theresa May carefully negotiated an exit deal that would allow trade to keep flowing between the EU and Britain and--very significantly--would put off the prospect of an international "hard" border between the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. Back when that border existed, it was a focal point for violence and no one wants to see that again. But to leave that border open could require the U.K. to abide by European trade rules that many pro-Brexit leaders abhor. May's deal basically kicks that decision down the road and promises the the U.K. will abide by European trade rules meantime. Hard-line "Brexiteers" don't like that because they fear Britain will wind up bound by those rules forever, effectively negating Brexit. Anti-Brexit lawmakers don't like the plan either because they don't want to leave the E.U. at all. 

But if Parliament can't back May's plan, it can't seem to decide what it does want. So much so that in a series of votes, members of Parliament just rejected eight (eight!) different alternatives to May's deal. These ranged at from holding a second Brexit referendum before any deal is finalized to a "hard" Brexit in which Britain would leave the E.U. with no deal at all in place. That would badly disrupt trade and of course lead to that hard Irish border no one wants.

Meantime, Britain's original two-year deadline for departing the E.U. is up in a couple of days. If Parliament votes in May's deal, the E.U. is willing to extend that deadline to May 22. It might wait even longer, especially if Britain signals an interest in holding a second referendum or rethinking its departure. If none of that happens, the new deadline is April 12, at which point presumably, Britain would have to leave with no deal.

With the government apparently in complete disarray and time running out, May has made one final, desperate plea to save the deal she created: She offered to resign if it passed. It could be an appealing offer--as every scenario for Brexit has unraveled, her popularity and authority have plummeted to the point that her own Conservative Party, which made her prime minister in the first place, seems to want her gone. 

Her resignation offer says a lot about May's character. Back when she was just a member of Parliament, before the referendum, she wasn't a Brexit supporter. But then a strange series of events landed her in the highest office in the land after another candidate for prime minister accused May of not caring about the future because she's childless. Suddenly, May's role was to defend Brexit, which after all the voters had chosen although by a slim margin. She gamely did just that and went about negotiating the best deal she could.

That deal wasn't good enough for the members of Parliament, who've acted more like spoiled children than national leaders. No one could have blamed her at that point for throwing up her hands, letting the deadline pass, and leaving the U.K. with no place in the E.U., no trade deal, and new checkpoints at the Irish border.

To her credit, she chose not to do that to her fellow citizens. Instead she's offered to make the huge sacrifice of her role as prime minister and any hope she might have had of trying to stay in office and salvage her political career. (She had already promised not to run for re-election but perhaps that would have changed if her popularity rebounded.)

Some long-time Brexiteer opponents of her deal, notably Boris Johnson, now say they will back it. But it's twice gone down to crushing defeat and a huge number of MPs would also have to change their minds. Is May's offer to leave enough to make that happen? We should find out within the next few days.

Published on: Mar 27, 2019
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