interesting times

Why Boris Johnson’s Horrible Start Could Still End in Tory Triumph and Hard Brexit

Blindness or vision? Photo: Danny Lawson/AFP/Getty Images

“Floppy Johnson Can’t Get an Election” was the rather genius front page headline of the right-wing Sun in Scotland yesterday. And yes, it did appear that Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, just proved one of Machiavelli’s points: that being seen as devious is the opposite of actually being devious.

His sneaky attempt to constrain the time Parliament could use to prevent a “no deal” Brexit — by proroguing the Parliament for five instead of three weeks around the annual party conventions — backfired. (It was not a Trump-like assault on the Constitution, but it was definitely pushing it.) Then his thuggish threat to throw any dissenters out of the party if they voted against “no deal” — forbidding them even from standing in the next election as Conservative Party candidates — not only failed to intimidate enough of them, but deepened the broader distrust. It is not good PR when a party expels some of its most distinguished and experienced parliamentarians for simply obeying their conscience and best judgment. And it is terrible PR when your own brother quits your government, as Jo Johnson did this week.

This radicalism gave the sense that the old Conservative Party was being replaced by a new populist right-wing movement — NUKIP, as Alex Massie drolly called it, (after the defunct anti-EU UK Independence Party, or UKIP). A leading and influential pro-Brexit blog, Guido Fawkes, reflected the new tone: “Brexit By Any Means Necessary” was the slogan, accompanied by a video of Malcolm X. When a Conservative Party cites Malcolm X as a role model, it seems safe to say it is no longer conservative in any serious meaning of the word.

So Johnson, having suffered three crushing defeats in Parliament at the hands of moderate Tories, will be hard put to leave the E.U. by October 31 “do or die,” as he promised. And having lost his majority entirely, he cannot even call a general election to get a fresh mandate, because the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, passed only in 2011, requires a two-thirds majority of the Commons to call one, and Labour won’t bite until the law forbidding a no-deal Brexit on October 31 is assented to by the queen. The opposition, alongside dissident Tories, has been able to thwart Johnson’s no-deal strategy (so far), postpone Brexit (possibly forever), and has won the right to pick when the next election takes place. This remarkable state of affairs — the Leader of the Opposition who has been calling for an election almost every day of the past year has suddenly decided to take some time to think it over — has led to some reports that, on Monday, the government will actually forward a motion of no-confidence in itself, just to get an October 15 election campaign underway. Not the greatest of starts for a new prime minister, is it?

More worrying, Johnson’s tactics have further torn the Tories apart. Freshly fired (by text!) former cabinet minister Rory Stewart expressed the unease: “It was a pretty astonishing moment. Remember, only a few weeks ago I was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party … and I was in the Cabinet. And it has all gone very quickly in six weeks. It feels a little bit like something you associate with other countries — one opposes the leader, one loses the leadership race, no longer in the cabinet and now apparently thrown out of the party and one’s seat too.” That’s the voice of the civilized Tory, aghast at the hardball norm-breaking from Number 10.

Twenty-one such Tories were prepared to sacrifice their entire careers to prevent what they believed could be a catastrophic gamble for the country — because catastrophic gambles are simply not compatible with any sane definition of conservatism. Compare that with the GOP’s complete capitulation to Trump, and you can see how British conservatism has not completely imploded like American conservatism has. Many of these quitters were pro-Brexit (and had voted for Theresa May’s deal), but could not countenance a crashing out.

And Boris was definitely showing some strain. He lost his majority while he was speaking in the Commons — and lost his concentration. His first Prime Minister’s Question Time this week showed more bluster than balls. And his speech yesterday in Yorkshire in front of newly trained police officers was even more shambolic, if, at times, somewhat endearing.

But what looks like a dreadful start for Johnson may not end that way. It could also lead to triumph. Here’s why: It seems inevitable now that a general election will happen this October or, at the very latest, November. If Brexit has not happened — and it’s pretty clear at this point that it will not have — then the election is effectively going to be a second referendum. This time, the choice will be starker than in 2016: a no-deal Brexit or staying in the E.U. And this week, by firing the dissenters, Johnson has succeeded in making the Tories the uncomplicated “Leave Now” party. By clearing up any confusion, Johnson will thereby stymie the threat to Tory seats by the Brexit Party, which stormed to victory in the recent European elections. He may even secure an election “nonaggression” pact with the Brexit party on a clearly “no deal” agenda. What Boris has effectively done is rerun the referendum as an election campaign.

His argument is a simple and powerful one: In the referendum, a majority voted to leave the E.U., and this decision should be honored or democracy itself is undermined. The E.U. will not let Britain eat its cake and have it too, and has insisted that the U.K. remain largely under E.U. rules even as it leaves the E.U., offering a compromise that was rejected by the U.K. Parliament decisively three times. So a “no deal” exit is the only realistic version of Brexit left. It’s the people’s will against the elites’. The idea that voters did not know what they were doing in 2016 is delusional. They were told endlessly that leaving would mean catastrophe in economic terms, and they still voted to leave. The real question is: Why have we not left on time? What’s left to argue about? Get on with it. (A more elegant case for the restoration of British sovereignty — not empire, as some ludicrously claim, merely sovereignty over its own citizens — is made by the invaluable Christopher Caldwell here.)

This is a very powerful democratic argument. Now look at the polling. From some reports in the mainstream American media, you’d get the impression that the Brits have soured on Brexit, learned the error of their ways, and are now firmly against. But that is not the case. There is now a lead for Remain in the polls, but it’s still only four points: 49/45 percent. A poll released last night found that 52 percent want to leave the E.U. by October 15, deal or no deal, while only 38 percent disagree. But these numbers are less important than where the parties now stand, since we’re now contemplating an election, not a second referendum.

And that is a Tory strength, as it stands. Just before Johnson won the leadership, Labour and the Tories were roughly even: around 26 percent each. Right now, the Tories have recovered under Johnson, as Brexit Party voters have come home, and have a clear ten point lead over Labour: 34/24 percent. The Brexit party still has 13 percent. Now that the Tory position on Brexit is the same as the Brexit Party’s, they form a no-deal bloc of 48 percent of the vote. The unabashedly pro-Remain party, the Liberal Democrats, have 18 percent, the Greens 5 percent, which added to the Labour total, gives the anti-no-deal bloc a total of 46 percent. It’s still close however you look at it.

So how this all shakes out in parliamentary seats is critical. It would be very foolish to make a guess at this moment. The 2017 general election saw polling shift dramatically from the beginning of the campaign to the end. But at the current moment, a big Tory Commons majority is perfectly within grasp. This is where Johnson’s focus is: a new majority Tory government to execute Brexit and a five-year term to ride out the damage.

Johnson has a clear case: that he stands for respecting a democratic vote to leave the E.U., that his opponents are elitists trying to defeat the will of the people in favor of a foreign entity, the E.U., and that Jeremy Corbyn cannot be allowed into Number 10. It’s right-wing populism headed by someone with charisma and a record of winning elections. Labour? Its strongest issues are domestic: better health care, tax increases on the rich, more affordable housing — and in an election dominated by Brexit, those issues will be less salient. Its position on Brexit, moreover, has been hopelessly confused, never quite achieving a clear pro-E.U. stance. In last night’s popular TV panel show, Question Time, Labour’s foreign affairs chief, Emily Thornberry, actually said that if Labour won the election, she would try to negotiate a new deal with the E.U., and if successful, then hold a referendum in which she would vote against her own deal and in favor of Remain. I’m not kidding. 

As for Corbyn, he is the Tories’ secret weapon. An unreconstructed Marxist and anti-Semite, his approval ratings are in the 20s — almost halved from 2017. A new snap poll this week revealed that only 18 percent of Brits think Corbyn would be the best prime minister compared with 40 percent for Johnson. In a new poll, 43 percent of Brits said the worst outcome of a general election would be Corbyn as prime minister, while only 35 percent cited a no-deal exit. Elections are a choice. If it’s Corbyn versus No Deal, No Deal could very well win.

I suspect, in fact, that the Tories could get a thumping majority, and one without any Brexit-dissenting MPs in Parliament. A strengthened Johnson could conceivably get the E.U. to budge a little (though I doubt it), or he could take the U.K. out of the E.U. without a deal, with democratic legitimacy. His government would then be preoccupied with negotiating a new trade deal with both the E.U. and the U.S. Alternatively, if Labour were to win, or go into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, they could keep the U.K. in the E.U. without appearing to be acting directly against the wishes of the people. Or they could hold a second referendum. Either way, some kind of resolution would happen — and through a democratic process like a general election.

I can’t help feeling that’s about as good as it can get, given the 2016 referendum result. British democracy has been tested very thoroughly these past few years, and, unlike the U.S., it has held up pretty well, however messy the process has been. The Tories have not become a cult, or abandoned most of their core beliefs, as the GOP has. When the government has overreached (such as the prorogation), the Parliament has pushed back in a way that has, in my view, been good for Britain’s liberal democracy. And now we face a final showdown: at the polls, in full daylight, the choice clear, the result still unknown. America will have the same chance in 2020. Perhaps what happens in Britain in 2019, just as in 2016, could foretell, in some ways, what happens here.

A Psychedelic Redemption

The best news in a long while is that Johns Hopkins is opening an entire center for the research of psychedelics. In some ways, this is a milestone in a long comeback for the drugs once unwittingly stigmatized by the excesses of the 1960s and ’70s. The data behind the promise of psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, MDMA, DMT, and ketamine is as hugely positive as it is scant, so any potential for new research is welcome. Money quote:

“It’s been hand-to-mouth in this field, and now we have the core funding and infrastructure to really advance psychedelic science in a way that hasn’t been done before,” said Roland Griffiths, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins who will direct the new center. Dr. Griffiths said the new funds will cover six full-time faculty, five postdoctoral scientists and the costs of running trials. Among the first of those trials are a test psilocybin for anorexia nervosa and of psilocybin for psychological distress and cognitive impairment in early Alzheimer’s disease. “The one that’s crying out to be done is for opiate-use disorder, and we also plan to look at that,” Dr. Griffiths said.

We’re seeing depression and suicide rates go up; addiction to meth, heroin, and fentanyl is devastating whole swathes of American society; and, as we live longer, Alzheimer’s will become more of an issue for more and more people. Everywhere you look, the need for improving our mental health in this empty society is huge, and the science really hasn’t advanced much since the mid-1990s. So the fact that the prestigious name of Johns Hopkins could legitimize and deepen this research is, to my mind, immensely important.

Then there’s this aspect to it all:

One finding many drug studies share is that any positive effects are far more likely to last if the participant has an especially intense trip. The intensity is subjectively graded using a variety of measures, including what scientists call the MEQ, for “mystical experience, questionnaire,” although Dr. Griffiths allowed that the term is misleading. “That was a significant branding mistake, because awe is not fun,” he said. “There’s something existentially shaking about these experiences.” It is that existential reckoning, the theory goes, that prompts many people to rejigger their identities or priorities in a way that reduces habitual behaviors or lines of thinking that cause distress.

It seems to me that one thing our culture has lost is a space for “existential reckoning.” Perhaps its polar opposite is being Very Online. But forcing us into such a reckoning is what religion and brutal reality once did for many: It challenged us to assess ourselves fully, to see ourselves under the eyes of eternity, to live with the knowledge of death under a cloud of unknowing. This perspective was reinforced by modes of pre-secular thought as well as by the lived experience in previous generations of existential danger, illness, hunger, and death. In a secular world of previously unimaginable comfort and long lives, we rarely get to access the existential fear and dread that counterintuitively can lead to serenity and perspective. Maybe in modernity, psychedelics are therefore the best alternative to traditional religion, and may begin to replace or supplement its function, as our disenchantment blocks our access to the faith of the past.

I’ve never been more aware of the presence of God than when I have taken psilocybin. And the God it unveils is a loving one, at peace with us — the God I was taught to believe in. You can become aware of the need for love and forgiveness, as your barriers to feeling and knowing slowly give way to acceptance of what is, and unity with it. Of course this can be terrifying. Human consciousness is often terrifying: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me,” as Pascal once said. But for people approaching death, or enduring depression, or lost in addiction, access to these deeper truths can also provide real spiritual sustenance, and uplift.

It isn’t that the chemicals force you to feel one way; it is that they allow you to feel more deeply what you already know but hide from yourself, and this knowledge can lead to a change in your life. The drugs don’t change your life. They give you a chance to see your life and its greatest potential. And then you make a decision to change it. Which is more empowering than any daily SSRI.

An Easy Way to Keep Trump in Check

It barely made the front pages this week, but on Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that it was suspending a range of military infrastructure projects approved by the Congress, in order to build 175 miles of Trump wall, specifically not approved by the Congress: “The Pentagon will take the $3.6 billion from 127 military construction projects that Congress has funded in recent years. About half of the $3.6 billion will come from projects within the United States and its territories; the other half will come from projects the U.S. military was planning in foreign countries.” Those of you who voted Democrat in the last election may have been under the impression that this would prevent new funding for Trump’s wall. But in our current neo-monarchy, your vote doesn’t really count. The Congress, it turns out, only has the power of the purse when the president doesn’t declare a fake national emergency to steal it.

The entire national emergency shtick is a relatively recent one (the National Emergencies Act was passed in 1976), and it exists because norms have always dictated that a president would be responsible enough not to abuse it. But with the arrival of Donald Trump, such norms are effectively null and void. He’ll do what he wants. When he had both Houses in his pocket in his first two years, he had plenty of opportunity to fund his core election promise. He chose huge tax cuts to the wealthy, cuts that only temporarily gave the economy a little sugar high, while giving us annual $1 trillion deficits. And now he wants to become a mini dictator to make up for his negligence.

The only way out of this, it seems to me, is to reform the national emergency laws. Yes, there’s a case for the president having such powers. Some emergencies happen very quickly, and the Executive branch should have the means to respond immediately and swiftly. But now we know that one of the major political parties is prepared to back a president who grotesquely abuses his constitutional powers, we need to put limits on this. Senator Mike Lee’s Article One Act strikes me as a shrewd response. It allows a president to declare a national emergency, but specifies that after one month, the emergency expires unless the Congress renews it by a simple majority. Right now, the Congress can only cancel an emergency declaration with a veto-proof two-thirds majority.

What puzzles me is why no Democrats in the Senate have signed on to co-sponsor the bill. Seventeen Republicans have. If we are serious in trying to repair the constitutional damage of this dangerous presidency, this is surely one of the places to start.

See you next Friday.

Sullivan: Boris’s Bad Start Could Still Lead to Hard Brexit