The Slatest

This Week in Brexit: A Plague on Both Your Houses

British Prime Minister Theresa May votes in local elections.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images.

For once, the biggest political news in Britain this week wasn’t directly Brexit-related. Gavin Williamson, the defense secretary seen as a close ally of Prime Minister Theresa May, was fired on Wednesday over a media leak about a National Security Council meeting concerning plans to allow the controversial Chinese company Huawei to help build the country’s 5G network. (Williamson denies he was the sources of the leak.) Parliament also declared a “climate emergency,” making Britain the first country in the world to do so, following widespread protests in London by the group Extinction Rebellion and a speech to MPs from teenage activist Greta Thunberg. But don’t let this focus on critical global concerns like climate change and cybersecurity make you think there was no Brexit news this week. There’s always Brexit news.

This week in bipartisan shellackings: Voters throughout much of England and Northern Ireland went to the polls on Thursday to vote in local elections. These voters may or may not have included former foreign secretary and aspiring future prime minister Boris Johnson, who tweeted that he had just voted, then deleted that tweet after people noted that no elections were being held in his district of London. Aides suggested he voted near his second home in South Oxfordshire, but that raises questions about why he deleted the tweet or why he’s registered to vote outside the constituency he represents in Parliament.

That mystery aside, it was expected to be a very bad night for the ruling Conservative Party, with supporters frustrated over Theresa May’s failure to deliver Brexit on time, and it was very bad: Although votes are still being counted, the Tories have already lost 850 local council seats throughout the country and have lost control of at least three councils. Sajid Javid, the home secretary and another aspiring future prime minister, says the party should expect to do even worse in European Parliament elections later this month, assuming those actually happen.

It was also an unexpectedly bad night for the Labour Party, which has lost at least 80 seats. The big winners of the night are the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and independent candidates.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who was heckled at a Conservative conference in Wales by a party member telling her to resign, said the election results were a message from voters to the leaders of both parties to “just get on and deliver Brexit.”

That’s certainly true for her party’s supporters, but for Labour, it’s not as clear. The party lost votes to the Lib Dems and Greens, two staunchly pro-remain parties that both favor a second referendum on Brexit. It may be that voters don’t like Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalent position in negotiations on Brexit and want him to take a firmer stand.

This week in negotiations: Before the elections, May and Corbyn were both signaling that they were getting closer to a Brexit deal. May is reportedly considering agreeing to keep the U.K. within a customs union with Europe. This would allow British businesses to continue to enjoy tariff-free trade with Europe. It would restrict Britain’s ability to negotiate its own trade deals on goods with other countries, though May’s allies emphasized this week that Britain would still be able to negotiate deals on services, intellectual property, and other areas.

This would be viewed as a betrayal by hard-line Brexiteers within May’s party. But after they rejected her withdrawal agreement three times, she’s more or less written them off and decided to try to negotiate with Labour. Corbyn could also face a backlash for helping May deliver Brexit, particularly if he ignores demands from supporters for a second referendum.

This week’s new faces: After Williamson was sacked, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt was appointed defense secretary. The Navy reservist will be the first woman to hold the role. She’s also known for having once appeared on a diving reality show, which is a thing, apparently, and once saying the word cock six times in a speech to Parliament after losing a bet with her Navy buddies. So, that’s fun. She’s also a pretty hardcore Brexiteer.

Taking her place as international development secretary and joining the Cabinet is Rory Stewart, the former diplomat known for his best-selling memoir about walking across Afghanistan. Stewart was a remainer but has been an enthusiastic public advocate for May’s Brexit plan, which may be part of the reason he’s in the Cabinet now. Naturally, he too thinks he’d be a great prime minister.

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