foreign interests

Boris Johnson’s Brinkmanship Can’t Solve the Brexit Mess

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on September 4, 2019. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Barely a month into his already tumultuous tenure, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson may already be on his way out, felled by the same combative approach to Brexit that likely got him the job in the first place.

Johnson was dealt a major defeat in Parliament on Tuesday, when MPs voted to take control of the next day’s agenda, the first step in advancing a bill that would prohibit him from carrying out a no-deal Brexit without legislative approval. In response, the prime minister introduced a bill for an early general election. If two-thirds of MPs vote in favor of that bill, a snap election will be called, likely around October 14, less than three weeks before the Brexit deadline.

A total of 21 members of the prime minister’s Conservative Party joined the opposition in voting to take control of the agenda on Tuesday. In response, the government said it would take the whip away from these members, which would expel them from the party and prohibit them from running as Conservatives in the next election. The party had already lost its one-seat majority in the House of Commons earlier in the day, when MP Phillip Lee defected to the Liberal Democrats, saying his former party had “become infected by the twin diseases of English nationalism and populism.”

When the Tories elected him as their new leader in July, following the resignation of Theresa May, Johnson promised that on his watch, the U.K. would leave the European Union by the current deadline of October 31, no matter what. By taking an adversarial stance and showing that he was willing to crash out with no deal, Johnson hoped to intimidate Brussels into offering him a better deal than the one May had negotiated, which he and other Brexit hardliners helped kill last year.

Johnson has loudly and repeatedly pledged not to ask for another extension or to accept any deal that left the U.K. beholden to any E.U. rules after Brexit, as May’s deal would have done unless and until London and Brussels could solve the thorny question of the Irish border. He insists that the U.K. can absorb the economic shock of a no-deal Brexit with new trade deals with the United States and other countries. He enjoys the support of President Donald Trump, who has promised to do a “very big trade deal” with the U.K. after Brexit.

At the same time, Johnson has maintained that he is making progress toward the mythical “better deal” with Brussels, which nobody believes because it isn’t true. The E.U. has consistently refused to make concessions on the Irish border issue, for the very good reason that it doesn’t want to resurrect a hard border on an island that was racked by sectarian violence as recently as the 1990s. Beyond some comments about how the border issue could surely be solved with technology, Johnson has put forward no new ideas for breaking this impasse except to play chicken and hope the E.U. turns away first.

In taking this hardline position, Johnson has thrilled the hard-Brexit fanatics of the far right, both within his party and outside it, at the expense of alienating nearly everyone else. Mainstream Tory MPs, many of whom never supported Brexit in the first place, will not countenance leaving with no deal and consider it wildly irresponsible for the prime minister to advocate this course of action. The threat of expulsion was not enough to intimidate legislators capable of putting country before party, when the alternative is allowing a crash-out with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The opposition Labour Party, meanwhile, is only too happy to let Johnson hang himself by his own Eton collar and drag the rest of the Conservative Party down with him — though a Labour victory in a general election is by no means assured. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is unpopular, lacks a clear Brexit plan of his own, and has been widely criticized for dragging his party too far left just as Johnson is dragging the Tories too far right. The only thing U.K. business leaders fear more than a no-deal Brexit is the possibility of Corbyn — who has proposed to nationalize rail, water, mail, and electricity companies; force large companies to hand ten percent of their shares to workers; and oversee a massive redistribution of income and wealth throughout the U.K. — becoming prime minister.

So an election could produce a Corbyn government, or it could give Johnson a mandate for his “deal or no deal” Brexit strategy. More likely, it will produce another hung Parliament, where neither party controls enough seats to act on its agenda. In that case, the U.K. will likely remain politically paralyzed and destabilized by the nigh-on-impossible burden of implementing Brexit.

Comments from legislators on Tuesday revealed a deep distrust of Johnson. The cross-party bill to be advanced today will require the prime minister to ask for another delay in the Brexit deadline until January 31, unless MPs approve a new deal or a no-deal Brexit by October 19. Corbyn insisted on locking in this bill before a general election, which Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon said was necessary to make sure Johnson didn’t call an election for October, then “change the date so that during the general election campaign we crash out of the European Union with a no deal.”

Johnson has already proven that he is amenable to running out the clock: Last week, he asked the Queen’s permission to suspend Parliament from September 12 until mid-October, which even some of his fellow Tories decried as a constitutional outrage. It also emerged on Tuesday that Johnson had cooked up this plan two weeks before it was announced, generating more outrage and giving the opposition more reason to anticipate further dirty tricks.

Tuesday’s drama was accompanied by dueling protests by pro- and anti-Brexit demonstrators outside Parliament, a reminder of the rift in British society this matter has opened. A general-election campaign in this environment would surely be among the most acrimonious the U.K. has seen in recent history. Both sides are already sharpening their slogans: Corbyn says Johnson wants to make the U.K. subservient to Trump, while Johnson has called the legislation blocking no-deal Brexit “Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill.”

Meanwhile, the U.K. is in a full-blown constitutional crisis over Brexit, straining relations and testing the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of its government. That crisis was previously evident in March when the Speaker of the House of Commons blocked a third vote on May’s Brexit deal and Parliament seized control of its agenda from her government.

Indeed, Brexit has always been a constitutional crisis in the making, ever since May’s predecessor, David Cameron, made the fateful decision to placate a troublesome segment of his electoral base by holding a referendum that he neither wanted nor expected to pass, on a decision that the government and legislature would never have made on their own and had no desire to implement. It is an object lesson in the dangers of policymaking by plebiscite: It looks democratic on its face, but leaves no room for common ground or compromise. In this case, the “will of the people,” as supposedly expressed by the 52 percent who voted Leave, has effectively hobbled the representative institutions meant to act on it.

Boris Johnson’s Brinkmanship Can’t Solve the Brexit Mess