COVENTRY, England—Theresa May’s humiliation at the hands of the European Union was completed on Thursday not by one of those dramatic votes that has been beamed around the world from a rowdy House of Commons but via a technocratic single-page letter signed by a little-known British civil servant.
Away from the bear-pit of British parliamentary democracy and not illuminated by the cameras, the letter from Sir Tim Barrow to the president of the European Council accepting another Brexit extension confirmed what we’ve long suspected: The British prime minister has failed to deliver on the promise that has defined her premiership.
The country will not be leaving the European Union within the two-year framework set out in 2017. May still hasn’t dared to admit it in public, but her agreement to delay Brexit day until October 31—Halloween—means Britain now faces the nightmare scenario of holding elections next month to elect new members to a European Parliament the country voted to quit three years ago.
Her unwillingness to come clean about it will only help to stoke the anger of a nation that feels badly let down over Brexit.
Europe fears an influx of vengeful pro-Brexit lawmakers looking to stir up trouble in Brussels. Britain’s main parties worry they will be crushed by their more radical counterparts on both sides of the Brexit spectrum in the midst of a period of political frustration that has threatened to upend the traditional two-party system as well as splitting neighbors and family members down a new political fault line.
The Labour Party is so scared of the reaction from its pro- and anti-Brexit wings that it has tried to navigate the maelstrom with a policy of “constructive ambiguity.” That will be sorely tested by pressure to fully explain their ultimate policy goal during the election campaign—do they want to stay in the European Union or not?
Labour is currently engaged in Brexit negotiations with the government, but the prospect of the two parties striking a deal that would pass Parliament in time to avoid the European elections seems remote.
Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding Eurosceptic, has been edging towards an anti-Brexit position but nowhere near fast enough for the majority of the party’s grassroots members and even many of its politicians. Some of the lawmakers quit the party in February to join an explicitly anti-Brexit party that is expected to contest the European elections under the name Change UK. The Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens also want Britain to remain in the European Union—voters are likely to flee the main parties in record numbers as they seek to express a clear preference in what could become a proxy second referendum.
On the other side of the European debate, the Conservatives came face-to-face with an old nemesis on Friday. Nigel Farage launched his new Brexit Party which will stand in next month’s elections on the simple message that May’s deal must be thrown out and a “proper Brexit” delivered.
May and the Conservative Party argue that they are trying to deliver Brexit, but opinion polls increasingly suggest that her compromise deal is hated by Brexiteers as well as those who want to Remain.
One of the most prominent voices inside the Conservative Party pushing for a harder Brexit, or even a no-deal crash out of the union, has been Jacob Rees-Mogg. Earlier this month, he finally relented and backed his leader’s compromise deal saying that he feared Brexit might not happen at all unless the party united behind May.
There is little sign of unity. On Friday, his own sister came out against that position in dramatic fashion; appearing unannounced on stage in Coventry to be named as one of the Brexit Party’s election candidates.
Annunziata Rees-Mogg was a two-time Conservative nominee selected to be on the party’s A-list of candidates under former leader David Cameron. Her decision to quit and fight against her brother’s party highlights just how savagely Brexit has cut across party and familial lines.
“You don't do everything your brother or sister says to you; I don't do everything he says to me. We agree on the outcome, we just see different routes there,” Annunziata Rees-Mogg told The Daily Beast. “It's been a very, very sad, gradual erosion as Theresa May has gone to Europe with her begging bowl time and time again. I could no longer stand by and watch that.”
She said she would be “stunned” if her brother also left the Conservative Party to fight for his version of Brexit, but splitting members and voters away from the Conservatives is the primary aim of the Brexit Party.
The party’s campaign was launched in the heart of Brexit country. Coventry is less than an hour on the train north of London, but the Midlands is worlds away when it comes to the biggest political issue of the day, as both traditional Labour and Conservative voters here have swung decisively behind Brexit.
Another of the Brexit Party candidates, Ben Habib, a former Conservative donor, said had run out of patience with the party’s Brexit position last year. He hadn’t told his Conservative contacts that he was joining the Brexit Party until he was unveiled as a candidate at the event on Friday. “I don't imagine they'll be pleased, but I did warn them I wasn't happy at all,” he told The Daily Beast.
Habib expects the party to capture the national imagination and secure as much as 20 percent of the vote. “If people come out en masse, it could be contentious and it could be quite an interesting proxy,” he said. “The main parties will have to listen.”
Farage hopes the new Brexit party will offer voters a clean slate after his old right-wing U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) became embroiled in a number of racism scandals.
“I don't think that Middle England, decent people, want to vote for a political party that is linked with extremism, violence, criminal records and thuggery,” he said.
The Brexit Party, however, has already lost its original leader, Catherine Blaiklock, when old racist and Islamophobic social media posts emerged last month suggesting the party may still attract some of the offensive elements drawn to Farage’s outspoken politics.
The clean start, and Britain’s broken political landscape, has drawn some unlikely supporters to the Brexit Party. Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, another of the party’s new candidates, is a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
“My son still finds it very difficult to countenance this,” she told The Daily Beast.
“It’s widely recognized that Left and Right have lost their meaning so we need new principles to base our politics on, and for me the question of democracy is the key—I'm not doing this for Nigel Farage.”
Farage hopes to push his Brexit betrayal narrative hard enough for the party to have a lasting impact on a British political system that is straining under the pressure.
“The very word Brexit is no longer just about leaving the European Union. The word Brexit represents a state of mind,” he said.
Increasingly the word Brexit represents a country losing its mind, and that might just be Farage’s moment to strike.