These are not easy times for Theresa May. The Brexit negotiations are at a crucial point where the British prime minister needs to be tough, but hardly a day goes by without new revelations of sleaze or ministers’ doing their own thing. The defense secretary quit after allegations of sexual misconduct, and Mrs. May’s most trusted lieutenant may follow; another minister quit after unauthorized meetings in Israel; the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, was lambasted after making a statement that could mean more prison time for a Briton imprisoned in Iran.
Even in normal times the scandals would have rocked the government, but the brutally complex and consequential task of extricating Britain from the European Union, prompted by an ill-conceived referendum almost 17 months ago, has all but paralyzed the government already. Mrs. May is compelled to keep both “Remainers” and “Leavers” in her cabinet and so has only a limited ability to crack the whip over her ministers.
Meanwhile the European Union has warned that unless there is an agreement within two weeks on how much Britain will pay to clear its commitments on leaving the bloc, there will not be enough time to work on trade matters to have a draft ready for a union summit meeting in December. At the same time, Mrs. May faces stiff battles in her Parliament this week over a key bill transferring European Union laws to Britain. The uncertainty has spooked business leaders from both sides of the English Channel.
The political mess in Mrs. May’s government, compounded by her failed gamble on a snap election in June, has made the going far tougher and the uncertainties far greater. At this juncture, these must include the possibility of a new government.
If there is an upside, it is that what’s happening in Britain is at its core a democratic debate — furious, bitter and divisive, to be sure — over the fundamental conflict of national identity and supranational organizations in a confusing and rapidly changing world. That same debate is shaking up politics across Western democracies, not least the United States. Nobody knows how it will end, but it is democracy, and there is no reason yet to fear that the center cannot hold.