And, most significantly, that it isn’t what they signed up for.
But even though there may be a direct route to a second referendum visible beyond the potholes, the road ahead is still treacherous.
On Nov. 14, Prime Minister May presented to her cabinet a draft Brexit agreement worked out between U.K. and EU negotiators. She claimed it lived up to the spirit of the 2016 referendum, but many in her party disagreed. On key points, it fell far short of what she promised that a Brexit — Britain outside of the EU — would deliver.
Several cabinet ministers resigned, and there were bitter attacks from within her Conservative family. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading Euro-skeptic Tory MP, said the deal would make the U.K. a “slave state.” Boris Johnson, who earlier resigned as foreign secretary over May’s handling of the issue, warned of a “vassal-state.”
But Tory efforts to oust May as prime minister failed, at least for now.
The draft agreement is expected to be presented to leaders of the other 27 EU countries in an “emergency summit” scheduled for Sunday.
Much of Europe loathes the prospect of losing the United Kingdom from the European Union for fear that other countries, such as Italy, could follow suit. This has shaped their approach.
The strategy has been to turn the screws on U.K. negotiators, and to make it as unappealing as possible to the rest of Europe to abandon the EU.
To many people — not only in Britain’s opposition parties but also to many Conservatives — they may have succeeded. It is difficult to make the case that the United Kingdom would be better off with this draft agreement than with its current membership within the EU.
Worries about Brexit have rocked Britain’s economy. Immigration levels have dropped, making the fears of being “overrun” by refugees less urgent. And evidence keeps emerging that — similar to the U.S. and other European elections — there was tampering by Russian intelligence agencies conspiring with Britons to tilt the 2016 vote in the direction of the “Leave” campaign.
There is also the fact that young people in particular — who largely abstained during the 2016 referendum — have roared back in their opposition to Brexit.
The headline from last year’s British election, which narrowly elected May’s Tories as a minority government, was the overwhelming opposition of young people toward the Conservatives as a form of buyer’s remorse after ignoring the Brexit referendum.
Assuming the draft agreement is approved by other EU leaders, the challenge for the prime minister will be to get approval from the House of Commons sometime in December. That is regarded as unlikely.
May presides over a minority government, and she is certain to be opposed by several MPs in the Tory caucus. The opposition parties, led by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, have said they will vote against the agreement.
An irony here is that Corbyn himself — a fierce critic of the EU for all of his life — is still trying to straddle a confused middle ground without revealing what, in the end, Labour will do apart from voting against the agreement.
If the Brexit agreement is voted down by parliament, the prime minister will have to make a choice.
Will she insist that the government goes ahead with Brexit — without any deal with the EU? She claims that she will not do that, since most economists predict catastrophe for Britain in that scenario.
Will she resign as Tory leader and prime minister? Given her dogged stubbornness to see this agreement through, that seems unlikely.
Will she regard a parliamentary vote against the agreement as a vote of non-confidence in her government, and call for a new election? Also unlikely, since polls suggest the Tories would lose.
That leaves this tantalizing possibility:
That she would describe this agreement as the best for Britain, and call for another referendum that “puts it to the people” to choose between this vision of a post-Brexit Britain versus the status quo within the European Union.
If that happens, May would have every reason to worry because recent polling suggests that voters are becoming less enamoured with the notion of leaving the EU.
That was evident a few weeks ago when an estimated 700,000 from all over the U.K. marched peacefully on parliament to demand a second referendum. They called for a “people’s vote” in the biggest protest against government policy in the U.K. since the Iraq War in 2003.
A recent poll by Britain’s Channel 4 indicated that 54 per cent of U.K. voters would vote to “remain” in the EU. It was described as the largest independent poll in the U.K. since the 2016 referendum.
May’s draft agreement received a low level of support, even among those who voted to leave in 2016. There appears to be a growing number of people who, however reluctantly, are concluding that the terms of exiting the EU now appear less attractive than the status quo.
If this trend holds, it would be a potentially mortal threat to the Leave forces in any second referendum. For the European Union itself, it would be like dodging a bullet.
It is not hard to imagine that the rest of Europe would work overtime to suggest that, if the U.K. remained within the EU, it would receive concessions on some of the major issues that led to the 2016 vote.
This issue is coming to a head at a crucial time in Europe.
Within the U.K. itself, it is seen as a pivotal moment in the country’s history. By withdrawing from Europe, the future points Britain in the direction of a “Little England” that would likely result in less government, less regulation and more doctrinaire conservative policies.
But inside of the EU, the United Kingdom would be aligned with the broader, social democratic ideals of today’s Europe, however flawed.
As for Europe itself, the struggle is to contain the growing populist and nationalist forces that seem on the ascendancy. With a strong Britain within the EU, that battle seems winnable. Without Britain, it is less so.
In that sense, this latest battle over Brexit is a global concern that has meaning well beyond Britain’s borders.
BREXIT: A timeline
Nov. 14: Prime Minister Theresa May presented a draft Brexit deal to her cabinet. It fell short of what she had promised, triggering several cabinet resignations. But efforts by Euro-skeptic Tory MPs to oust her failed, at least initially.
Nov. 25: Leaders of 27 European nations are expected at a special Brexit summit to formally ratify the deal. It needs to be backed by a supermajority of leaders.
December: After five days of scheduled debate, the agreement would be put to the House of Commons for approval. Its passage is doubtful, since the Conservative Party lacks a majority and it will be opposed by the opposition Labour party. Many Tory MPs may oppose it as well.
If it is defeated, May could proceed with a “hard” Brexit — one with no deal with the European Union — but that is regarded as potentially catastrophic to the U.K. economy. Or May could resign, forcing a Conservative leadership contest or a general election, but the Tories would likely lose any election.
An alternative scenario is a second referendum on whether U.K. voters want the current agreement on offer or to remain in the European Union.
January-February, 2019: If some form of agreement is passed by the Commons, it would have to enact the necessary legislation.
March 29: The historic “Brexit Day” when Britain’s exit from the EU would be declared. If a second referendum is planned, the EU would be required to extend the March 29 deadline, but this would be a formality.
April and beyond: If Brexit is proceeding, a 21-month transition period would begin so that trade relations can be negotiated. Many aspects of U.K. membership in the EU would remain in place, including free movement across borders, but Britain would no longer have an EU vote.
Dec. 31, 2020: The transition period is scheduled to end. But it is expected this period would need to be extended, perhaps for several years.
Tony Burman, formerly head of CBC News and Al Jazeera English, is a freelance contributor for the Star. He is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyBurman