More than three years after British voters narrowly supported pulling the U.K. out of the European Union (EU), everything is coming to a head. After winning the Conservative Party’s leadership contest in July — a contest triggered by former Prime Minister Theresa May’s inability to get Parliament to support her negotiated exit agreement with the EU — current Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy regarding Brexit this summer has been to bluster and threaten to storm out of the EU with no deal in place come October 31 unless the EU rewrites the deal it crafted with May. His hope seems to be that the EU, more out of impatience than anything else, will pony up enough concessions that Johnson can claim victory and sign on to a divorce agreement that doesn’t destroy the British economy.
Upping the ante as the deadline neared, Johnson decided two weeks ago to “prorogue” Parliament — to prevent members of parliament (MPs) from sitting in session — for five weeks in the run-up to Brexit in order to minimize the time that parliamentary opponents to No-Deal could organize. That suspension of Parliament kicked in on Monday evening.
In this tactic, Johnson has been egged on by Dominic Cummings, the abrasive political strategist who devised the winning anti-EU strategy during the referendum campaign, and whom Johnson has brought in as his closest adviser. Cummings is a burn-it-all-down sort of guy, a take-no-prisoners strategist very much in the Steve Bannon mold. He is quite happy to destroy the Conservative Party as a big-tent-type political institution if it means that he can secure a hard Brexit utterly separating the U.K. from the regulatory structures of Europe — and entirely ending the freedom of movement that currently allows other EU nationals to live and work in the U.K., and U.K. nationals to live and work anywhere within the EU.
Cummings’s vision is anathema to most of Britain’s business community as well as to a sizable number of Conservative parliamentarians, and to a majority of the British public — most of whom have never actively supported a chaotic No-Deal exit. But his ideas do appeal to the most hard-core and vocal of Johnson’s Conservative Party base.
Johnson is gambling that he can win from the right, as Trump did in the United States. Thus, over the past few weeks, the prime minister has wholeheartedly bought into Cummings’s methods and vision. Johnson believes that if he can deliver Brexit by October 31, then, backed by the far-right tabloid press and riding a wave of jingoistic fervor, he will be able to win a snap election either in an official or unofficial alliance with Nigel Farage’s ultra-nationalist Brexit Party. Farage has long made a career for himself as an immigrant-basher, stoking fears not only of Eastern European migrants coming into the U.K. through the EU’s freedom of movement rules, but also of Muslim and non-white migration from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.
At least in part, the Cummings-Johnson calculation is based on the assumption that, in swinging rightward, the Conservatives can consolidate anti-EU sentiment to their short-term political benefit. However much the idea of No-Deal alienates many moderate voters, large numbers of those same moderate voters are also deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who comes out of the left wing of his party, taking the reins of power. Johnson believes that — as with establishment Republicans in 2016, who held their nose and voted for Trump — British Conservatives and independents will ultimately fall into line.
However, here’s where things have gotten more complicated over the past week. The political opposition, including moderate MPs from within the Conservative Party, called Johnson’s bluff and fought back against his attempts to push forward a No-Deal exit and his rush to call a general election. For they fear that if he were allowed to call an election either in the run-up to the Brexit deadline date, or immediately after he had bounced the U.K. out of the EU (but before the full economic consequences of that exit were clear to most voters), he could well win, albeit with only about 35 percent of the vote. And they further worry that once he had secured a majority in Parliament, he would be able to push his increasingly nationalist, nativist, confrontational agenda on the country.
And thus, a desperate rearguard action is underway to block Johnson’s strategy.
Last week, all the opposition parties plus more than 20 Conservative MPs united to take control of Parliamentary business before the legislative chamber was prorogued. They then used that control to successfully push legislation to block a No-Deal Brexit, and to order the prime minister to go to Brussels to request an extension from the EU of the exit process if a deal hasn’t been reached by October 19. In response, Johnson had 21 rebel Conservative MPs, who had ignored the party’s instructions to vote against the legislation, expelled from the party — in British political parlance, they had “the whip withdrawn,” meaning they cannot run for re-election under its banner. Among these were senior party grandees, including Winston Churchill’s grandson, and longtime cabinet ministers such as Phillip Hammond and Kenneth Clarke.
The immediate consequence of this mass expulsion is that the government Johnson presides over now no longer has a parliamentary majority. In fact, it is an intimidating 40 seats shy of a majority.
In normal times, this would have automatically led to a general election being called. But the British political climate post-Brexit is far from normal.
In the wake of last week’s vote, Johnson and his right-hand man Jacob Rees-Mogg — an eccentric imperial nostalgist derided by critics as the “Right Honourable Member for the eighteenth century” — demanded that Parliament support the call for a general election. In bygone times, Johnson wouldn’t have had to ask: the calling of an election would simply have been the prime minister’s decision to make. But eight years ago, Parliament passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It created a default assumption that there would be five years between elections unless two-thirds of MPs voted for an earlier election. This they did in 2017, when Theresa May decided to trigger an election. But, in September 2019, with the very real threat of a No-Deal Brexit looming over every political calculus, the opposition parties have refused to back Johnson’s call to dissolve Parliament.
For now, at least, Johnson’s hands are tied: he has been ordered by Parliament to avoid a No-Deal Brexit, but he has publicly declared that he would rather be dead in a ditch than go to Brussels to request an extension. He has been warned that, unlike a sitting U.S. president, he could be arrested and imprisoned if he fails to follow the law — and yet the exit ramp, an election, has been ruled out for now, since he can’t get Parliament to agree to call one.
And so, boxed in by Parliament, Johnson is looking for any and every alternative, including plans to “test to the limit” the law barring a no-deal Brexit — possibly by trying to bait the EU into kicking the U.K. out. His advisers have purportedly urged that he send a letter to the organization indicating his team’s intent to sabotage EU decision-making processes if Brexit isn’t completed by the end of October.
Meanwhile, late last week, Boris Johnson’s younger brother Jo, who had long supported the “remain” camp vis-à-vis the U.K.’s membership in the EU, resigned his position as business minister, saying that he was “torn between family loyalty and the national interest.” Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Amber Rudd also quit Johnson’s cabinet, resigned from the Conservative Party and warned that Johnson was launching an assault on democracy itself. Other resignations are likely to follow as the Conservative Party undergoes its most serious schism in living memory.
All of this could doom Johnson’s chances in the general election, whenever that election might now be held. However, that outcome has been made more murky by the fact that many voters have so little faith in the political process and so little respect for elected politicians that the more punches that land squarely on Johnson’s jaw, the more ardently Brexiteers seem to respond positively to his leadership. A far-right Conservative Party, its moderate wing shucked off and replaced by a monolithically anti-European, hyper-nationalist party looking increasingly like Trump’s GOP, might yet rise from the ashes of this fratricidal party battle.
In fact, the latest polls suggest that support for Johnson’s rebranded, far-right Conservative Party has increased over the past weeks. It is now polling at 10 to 14 percent ahead of a Labour Party hobbled by widespread dislike of its leadership.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Johnson would win a parliamentary majority in an election. After all, the combined level of support for the Conservative and Brexit Parties seems to be somewhere between 45 and 47 percent, and the large lead the Conservatives enjoy more reflects the dismal support levels for Labour than mass popular approval for the Conservatives. Dig deeper and it looks like Johnson’s party has topped out at about 35 percent, which, during the heyday of two-party politics, would have resulted in electoral annihilation. It also appears that much of that support is soft; in fact, some polls suggest that if Brexit were indeed once again postponed past the October 31 deadline, much of Johnson’s poll bounce would evaporate.
What is clear in all of this, however, is that those opposed to both a hard Brexit and a more general shift dramatically rightward in British politics are operating with precious little margin for error. Unless they form effective electoral alliances to facilitate tactical voting amongst their supporters around the country, Cummings’s strategy could work: In a first-past-the-post system, where each of the 650 parliamentary constituencies sends to Parliament as an MP the candidate who received the most votes, a minority of voters could elect a far-right government, purged of its moderating influences, with a working legislative majority. This, of course, was the case in the U.S. in 2016. And that government, emboldened by electoral success, could, despite all the high drama and blocking maneuvers of this past week in Westminster, then take a wrecking ball to Britain’s system of government and its long-standing relationships in Europe and beyond.