This was the week that, vis-à-vis Brexit, everything changed and nothing changed.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has staked his career on taking Britain out of the European Union by October 31. Despite losing a slew of votes last month requiring him to avoid a No-Deal Brexit and to seek an extension to Britain’s exit date if a deal couldn’t be reached before mid-October, Johnson famously — if somewhat foolhardily — stated that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask for such an extension.
Over the past couple weeks, as that deadline loomed, the prime minister’s desperate need to secure a deal — any deal — with the EU only grew. Johnson has said he’s willing to embrace a No-Deal hard exit from the EU — one that would simply tear up existing trade and other relations with Europe and that would result in a chaotic and sudden exit from all of the cooperative agreements around health care access, education access and ongoing residency rights for nationals overseas. But in practice, Johnson has always known that a hard exit from the EU would represent economic disaster for the U.K.: It would reduce incomes and economic growth, put huge pressure on British industry and shred the value of the U.K.’s currency.
Hence his bind: To secure the continued loyalty of the dominant Brexiteer wing of his party — the wing that secured his rise to party leader, and thus prime minister, this summer — he has to deliver on his exit promise. But to secure the long-term viability of his party, and to avoid it being forever associated with a self-inflicted economic calamity and a collapse of the world’s oldest hard currency, he has to smooth that exit as much as possible, even if most economic analyses show that all Brexit paths lead, ultimately, to a Britain that is weaker economically than it would be if the country were to remain within the EU.
The European negotiators weren’t about to be strong-armed into a deal that undermined the EU’s fundamental principles. They saw the inherent weakness of Johnson’s position and pushed hard to get him to sign off on a deal that only somewhat limited the economic fallout for the U.K. while largely protecting European trade and regulation systems, and largely preserving an open border between the Republic of Ireland (which will remain within the EU) and Northern Ireland (which as a part of the U.K. will also be leaving the union).
In Parliament two weeks ago, after the U.K.’s Supreme Court reversed his prorogation of the legislature, Johnson shamelessly blustered, opting for a language of populism and accusing his opponents of being in favor of a “surrender act” vis-à-vis the European Union negotiations. In fact, however, it was Johnson’s team of negotiators who were actually crossing their own red lines in their backroom negotiations. When they rolled out the text of the deal late this past week, it became clear that they had actually been forced into accepting an exit pact with the European bloc that is, by and large, the same as the deal that Theresa May presented to Parliament earlier this year, that Johnson’s hard-core supporters opposed, and that was, three times, defeated by massive margins.
Instead of reinstituting border controls between the two countries and allowing for the possibility of Northern Ireland remaining firmly within European trade systems after the rest of the country exited, as May’s deal envisioned, Johnson’s team accepted temporary customs checks in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. After these concessions, late last week Johnson and the EU team announced that a deal had, in fact, been reached. Johnson then went to great lengths to explain how the Irish Sea checks, and the embrace of supposedly non-intrusive, high-tech methods of monitoring for smuggled goods aren’t the same as the much-derided “backstop” that May’s plan envisioned. But scratch below the surface, and checks on the high seas are really not so very different from checks on the land border. In both cases, they acknowledge the reality that, with a divided Ireland now split in its relations with the EU, absent some customs checks it will become a smugglers’ paradise for those wanting to avoid tariffs and customs duties on goods making their way between the U.K. and the EU.
As a result, because of the Irish provisions in Johnson’s deal, the Democratic Unionist Party, the hardline Protestant politicians from the north upon whose support Johnson’s fragile government relies, ended up opposing Johnson’s hurriedly arranged stitch-up deal.
When May was prime minister, the Democratic Unionists’ refusal to support her Brexit deal had doomed it in Parliament, since hardline Conservative MPs in the so-called European Research Group took their cues on this from the Democratic Unionist Party. Johnson, however, had already secured the European Research Group’s support during his leadership campaign, and he believed that, because of this he could still command a parliamentary majority for the plan even without the Northern Irish party’s blessing. He would, of course, also need the support of politicians who had less reason to help him out: the twenty MPs whom he had excoriated and then expelled from the Conservative Party last month after they rebelled to support the bill barring a No-Deal exit, as well as a handful of pro-Leave Labour Party MPs.
In the end, however, he didn’t get the chance to see if that messy majority could indeed be cobbled together. For, when Parliament was reconvened on Saturday for an extraordinary session — British parliamentarians love their weekends, and this was the first Saturday sitting since the Falklands War in 1982 — one of the ex-Conservative MPs, Oliver Letwin, promptly proposed an amendment mandating that Parliament withhold support from Johnson’s Brexit deal until specific legislation on how to implement it was in place. In a moment of high drama, with hundreds of thousands of Remain demonstrators parading through Central London in the streets around Parliament to demand a second referendum, MPs voted, by a narrow margin, to support the Letwin amendment. As a result, yet again it is likely that Britain’s exit from the European Union will be delayed by another few months — and the prospect that opponents of Johnson’s deal will be able to build supports for a second referendum has, at the eleventh hour, grown somewhat more likely.
Immediately after this latest parliamentary defeat, Johnson’s luckless government withdrew the main motion, postponing the showdown over the actual contents of the exit deal that he had negotiated with the European Union at the very least until next week.
And thus the soap opera continues. Since the parliamentary vote last month mandated that Johnson would have to write a letter to the EU requesting another three-month extension on the exit if no deal had been approved by Parliament by 11 p.m. on Oct. 19, the prime minister truculently did so. But, having previously said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than actually seek an extension — a phrase that has now come back to haunt him — he refused to sign the letter. Instead, in addition to the unsigned letter, he sent an accompanying one (which he did sign) urging the leaders of the 27 other nations in the EU to reject the extension request.
Will the EU leaders choose to respond to the wishes contained in the unsigned or the signed letter? Will Parliament get a second bite at Johnson’s Brexit apple next week? Will those in favor of a second referendum marshal the parliamentary votes to compel Johnson to leave his ditch in which he is playing dead and go back to the people to endorse or reject his deal with the EU?
Entertaining as all this is, it’s not simply a soap opera. As the government’s own preparatory documents make clear, a disorderly Brexit would hit Britain’s poor the hardest, pushing up the price of food and other basic necessities, and driving down wages. And a Johnson-styled Brexit would remake Britain as an increasingly intolerant, inward-looking country — one ever more reliant on the United States for economic support, and ever less likely to embrace the sorts of strict environmental and workplace rights and regulations that are increasingly the norm within the European Union.
It is, of course, still possible that Johnson will be able to ram through his deal at the very last minute. But there is now, over the next few days, a small window of time for opponents of this Brexit deal to finally forge an alternative approach that might command a parliamentary majority.