Reasons to Bet for or against Brexit

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the House of Commons in London, England, September 3, 2019. (©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via Reuters)
At this point, it looks like a toss-up.

Almost anything can happen in three years, except taking a nation out of the European Union. Even one with its own currency, a major financial capital, and one of the largest national economies in the world.

As the vote came in for Brexit in the summer of 2016, I expressed skepticism about the EU respecting a national plebiscite that goes against its long-term plan of a federal superstate Europe. They have more than I expected. I said that I didn’t think the United Kingdom’s political class would fight for a good deal. This turned out to be true. I also predicted that Nigel Farage would be finished by a Brexit. And he would have been. But Brexit hasn’t happened, so Farage is back.

I can’t say my predictions have been all that great. Ahead of the vote, I accepted the conventional wisdom and thought Remain would win somewhat comfortably. As events changed, so did my views. I thought the convert faith that Theresa May expressed made Brexit more likely. Then I thought that the snap election result in 2017 potentially doomed the whole project.

Now the United Kingdom sits within a constitutional crisis. Why? Mostly because of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011, which was meant to keep the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition together. It used to be that once the prime minister and his government couldn’t get their business through the House of Commons, an election would happen almost automatically. Now, because of the FTPA, a two-thirds majority is needed to call a snap election. And so a majority of Remain and anti–No Deal parliamentarians can keep Boris Johnson in as prime minister and vote against him. With the connivance of an unscrupulous speaker of the House, they can send plainly unconstitutional legislation through, attempting to marionette him. Journalists are making a great big deal that Johnson is the first prime minister ever to lose his first five votes in the Commons, as if this were his fault, and not the newly malfunctioning rules of Parliament itself. Johnson has tabled a motion for an election, but the opposition would rather imprison him as prime minister than run against him.

Why? Because he’s likely to beat them in an election.

So, if we were betting today, would you bet on Brexit happening? I’m torn.

The case for Brexit happening boils down to this: Boris Johnson is prime minister, and his political career depends on effecting Brexit. And not just his, but the Tory party’s survival would be imperiled by the failure to Brexit. Nigel Farage is waiting with his Brexit party, ready to eat the decaying carcass of this one dominant political body. Working in Johnson’s favor is that he is significantly more popular than Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party who cannot be thrown out, but whom hardly anyone seems to want to make prime minister. When an election comes, and it must, a Johnson-led majority would owe its position to a prime minister who has a mandate to take the U.K. out. European patience for Brexit is also running short. Uncertainty threatens to bring about recession in a weakening German economy. Emmanuel Macron wants to push an ambitious vision for the European Union, and a long-term vegetative-state Brexit is a threat to them.

Then again, maybe not. Think about it. Why did Boris Johnson have to expel 21 Tories from his party? Were they not sufficiently motivated by the threat of the Brexit party to act, and act swiftly? Can they not read the polls? Of course they can. But they read their personal email, too. And overhear dinner conversations.

The structural problem isn’t just that there is a different sentiment reigning in Parliament than among the people, as if the previous election were a mere accident that will be corrected by another. No, the problem is that Britain’s political and larger metropole elite class is much more in line with Remain than with Brexit. The increased pace of defections is a sign that this class is increasingly polarized against the Brexiteers. Johnson’s demand that his party get on board with his brinkmanship in a negotiating strategy is straining the relationship of elite Tories with their social set, including their families.

The prime minister’s own brother defected, broadcasting his displeasure. The tolerance of this metropole class for brinkmanship against Brexit is effectively endless. Hence we have seen the speaker of the House become the toast of London for wrecking the traditions and impartiality of his office. The metropole class is able to reward this Remainer’s peevishness with media appearances, prestige, possibly seats on important social and corporate boards, jobs, and money.

And so it is going to be a close-run thing. Johnson for now has public desire to “get on with it” at his back and seemingly enough poll support. But it’s quite possible that his party can select new candidates, run as a Brexiteers’ party in a few weeks or months, and still discover that it has resisters popping up in it, gumming up the works.

It’s very, very hard to get a political class to do something it doesn’t want to do. People choose the approval of their powerful friends over those of the voters when they are forced to choose. Brexit is a time for choosing.

I think it’s a toss-up.

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