“They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!” Donald Trump posted on Twitter in the summer of 2016, shortly after the British referendum on leaving the European Union. The nickname didn’t stick, but he was still correct. He would be elected president on the same wave of anti-immigrant, nationalist sentiment that carried “Leave” to victory in Great Britain.
More than two years later, however, the nativists on both sides of the pond are running into walls, not building them. Trump can’t get Congress to cough up money for the southern border wall, and the United Kingdom’s Conservative prime minister, Theresa May, can’t get Parliament to approve her Brexit deal with the EU.
What is surprising is that of the two leaders, Trump is the one who has bent to political reality. It took a month, but Trump finally accepted that, as Politico reported he fumed in private, “Nancy is never going to give me what I want.”
But May can’t seem to let go of Brexit. On Tuesday, Parliament is expect to consider a slew of amendments from all major parties. The outcome is wholly uncertain, but the prime minister hopes it will be majority backing of some sort of modification to the rejected deal, which she can use to reopen negotiations with the EU. Meanwhile, the prospect of a catastrophically abrupt “No-Deal” Brexit looms if Parliament and the EU can’t agree on an orchestrated process by the March 29 deadline legally established by May two years go.
The British government has escape routes, such as calling a new referendum that could overturn the previous one, but they are all politically distasteful for May. The most likely option is an extension of the deadline of the “Article 50” exit process, though that also would require agreement between the UK and EU. May has refused, so far, to ask for an extension—it would look like surrender and could cause the collapse of her government—but Parliament, in theory, could force her hand.
Trump has an advantage over May; as leader of a presidential and not a parliamentary system, he can surrender without fear of immediately losing his job. Furthermore, May is not singularly to blame. Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has signaled he supports Brexit too, just not the way May is going about it. That leaves the British people without a strong party championing the “Remain” cause.
Trump’s capitulation should prompt some rethinking by the British leaders. He learned a hard lesson: Nativist, nationalist populism can whip voters into an electoral frenzy, but sticking by it to the bitter end is not worth wrecking your economy and your institutions. In trying to stay true to his rabid base, Trump denied paychecks to 800,000 workers, weakened national security, risked airline and food safety, and if it kept going much longer, the shutdown would have seriously harmed economic growth. After a month of rising panic, Trump made the rational decision that whatever the disappointment his base would suffer, he had to stop the bleeding.
With the government shutdown, Trump could turn back. If Brexit is actually triggered, there is no turning back. So British leaders need to heed the rising panic now, before it’s too late. As the Guardian recently reported, many British businesses are planning to leave the country if a No-Deal Brexit is implemented. The head of Europe’s largest aerospace manufacturer, Airbus, said, “Please don’t listen to the Brexiters’ madness, which asserts that because we have huge plants here we will not move and we will always be here. They are wrong.”
Yes, if May moves to extend the “Article 50” deadline or calls for a second referendum, she could suffer an intra-party revolt and be removed from office. If Corbyn pushed for a second referendum, he might alienate pro-Brexit Labour voters who, while a minority of the party, are potentially necessary elements of a winning coalition for the next election. The political risks for them are real. But so is the risk to their country, and their place in history, if they abet permanent economic calamity through either a “hard” or “soft” Brexit.
The fundamental question the British leaders have to ask themselves is: Is Brexit worth it? Is it worth taking such an enormous risk with the British economy to abide by an ill-informed knee-jerk snap decision by the voters 2 ½ years ago? Polls indicate that “Remain” could win a do-over referendum. Now that voters have seen how complicated and messy disentangling from the European Union will be, why not give them another chance to say whether they really meant it?
May has no deeply felt ideological reason to insist on driving Britain into a ditch no matter the cost. After all, she campaigned against Brexit during the first referendum! And if she pulled back from the Brexit brink, Corbyn would probably follow suit, or else risk his own intra-party revolt.
So take a page from Donald Trump. You can turn back. You can refuse to let your most anti-immigrant supporters force you to blow up your economy and render your country a laughingstock. Might you lose personal power in the end? Perhaps. But when your people put a self-inflicted wound on your country, history will treat you kinder if you stop the bleeding instead of cutting off a limb.
Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.