Perhaps the best way to understand the stalemate since 2016 and increasingly volatile situation is to see Brexit through the prism of party political games.
Decades of opportunism is unravelling
Long before the referendum, criticising and opposing EU treaties was a cheap win for any ambitious politician from outside government. Accuracy, detail or the ability to deliver were irrelevant.
That enabled Nigel Farage to speak vaguely about the benefits of a Norway-style exit without scrutiny. David Cameron could promise a referendum on the Nice Treaty, knowing it would be ancient history by the time he would become PM. Jeremy Corbyn could rail against the neoliberal EU without offering an alternative.
Then the referendum happened and MPs were forced to pick sides. For Tories, backing Leave meant opposing Cameron and, if it lost, sacrificing a Cabinet career. Many long-term Eurosceptics like Theresa May opted for Remain – probably not considering that it would later come back to haunt them.
Once Britain voted to Leave, a new game began. For the Tories, the challenge was to ‘own’ Brexit. To do so, she laid out extreme red lines for negotiations and accused opponents of sabotage. A snap election was supposed to weed them out and deliver a big majority.
For Labour, the new challenge was to simply avoid blame and a narrative that could cost them dozens of seats in the North and Midlands. Whenever possible, change the subject to domestic policy. When nationalism comes to the fore, they struggle – see Scotland. If Brexit was to fail, they had to ensure the Tories would at least share the blame.
2017 election destroyed May’s tactics
The 2017 election then changed the rules. After losing her majority, all relevant parties knew May no longer had the numbers for her ‘Tory Brexit’. If unprepared to compromise, the government would inevitably hit a wall and be forced to change course.
That realisation explains Labour’s fence-sitting ever since. They knew the Tories would not appease their concerns and were determined to avoid their narrative that Labour are trying to reverse Brexit.
So long as they held firm, May’s opportunist tactics would implode first. That moment arrived in March, when it became clear the UK would need to extend Article 50 and that no workable plan was in place.