Politics & Policy

This Week in Brexit

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a visit to West Yorkshire, England, September 5, 2019. (Danny Lawson/PA Wire/Pool via Reuters)
Any questions?

Last week in British politics, the government lost its majority; MPs voted to take control of the Brexit process; a bill passed that would force Prime Minister Boris Johnson to request a three-month Brexit extension from the EU if no deal is reached by October 19; Johnson attempted to call a snap election, but failed to get the required two-thirds support of the House of Commons; 21 Conservative MPs, including Winston Churchill’s grandson, were kicked out of the party for rebelling against Johnson’s Brexit strategy; Tory cabinet ministers, including Johnson’s own brother, resigned, having lost faith in the government; and the High Court upheld Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament, suspending it from tomorrow until October 14.

[Deep breath.]

This week in British politics, the anti-Brexit speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has announced his intent to step down; the Brexit-delay bill has been granted “Royal Assent,” making it the law of the land; the prime minister has visited the Irish taoiseach in Dublin and the have two released a joint statement admitting to “significant gaps” in their visions for Brexit; and the Commons has rejected Johnson’s second request for a general election.

[Another deep breath.]

Soooooooo . . . any questions?

1) Why did Johnson purge the 21 dissenting Tory MPs?

Members of the government, which typically incorporates around half of the parliamentary party and its ministers, are in general expected to support the prime minister on key votes. If they feel they cannot do so, they normally resign. By expelling the rebels, Johnson was turning this implicit expectation of loyalty into an explicit demand, and then applying it to all members of the parliamentary party.

Isn’t that too confrontational? Isn’t it counterproductive? It may look that way, but given that we now appear headed toward a general election one way or the other, and Brexit still hasn’t happened, it makes a certain strategic sense. Here’s why:

First, it’s important to remember that 70 percent of the Conservative party (nationally) voted to leave the European Union. Polling would suggest that even those who didn’t vote to leave think Parliament ought to honor the referendum result. In other words, uniting the Tory party nationwide and delivering Brexit go hand in hand.

Second, if the Tories want to avoid another hung Parliament or another majority-in-name-only (whereby anti-Brexit Conservative MPs deliberately frustrate a no-deal scenario), then every seat will have to count. They will need every Tory MP who wants to be reelected to believe in the government’s manifesto and campaign message, which goes something like this: If you want a Conservative prime minister to get Brexit done and dusted so we can move on to other matters, vote for me. If you want a Marxist in No. 10 who will destroy Brexit and then the economy, vote for Jeremy Corbyn. Those are the only options.

Any Tory MP who complicates this narrative is, in the government’s eyes, not worth the cushion they sit on.

2) Who seems poised to do well in an election?

In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, both the Conservative party and the Labour party favored Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. But as pressure from Brussels increased, as did internal division within the respective parties, they were each forced to renegotiate their positions.

What was sometimes described by political journalists as Labour’s “strategic ambiguity” on the issue translated to party members as incoherence. This, among other factors, contributed to the rise of the Liberal Democrats as well as to the creation of a small, cross-party coalition of independents. Similarly, with some Conservative MPs fighting to block Brexit, the Tories’ credibility as the pro-Brexit party was compromised. Which, again among other factors, contributed to the fast ascent of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which had striking success in the most recent European elections, despite having been founded just weeks earlier.

Now Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has promised to try to stop a no-deal Brexit, as well as to push for another referendum on the question. This is to appeal to Remain voters and compete with the promises of the Liberal Democrats. Johnson, meanwhile, has positioned his government to do the opposite in order to compete with the Brexit party.

Though Labour does not want to see an election before the October 31 Brexit deadline — at this point, the polls suggest it would lose — it can’t keep forestalling one forever. Corbyn’s hope is that if the general election takes place after the Brexit deadline passes, and Brexit still hasn’t happened, then the Johnson government’s credibility will be destroyed. He seems poised to get his wish, too, with Parliament prorogued until mid October and no election yet approved. But Labour has its own credibility to worry about, and an opposition party opposed to holding a general election is . . . not a good look, to put it mildly.

3) What is Johnson’s game plan?

In short, Johnson’s campaign strategy is to speak over and above the noise of Parliament and directly to the people. As outlined above, his message is straightforward enough. And as far as optics go, he has the advantage of being the polar opposite of Theresa May, who, readers will remember, was badly punished by voters in the 2017 general election for having the approximate charisma of a wet blanket.

To summarize, Johnson’s deliberately confrontational parliamentary strategy involves: 1) Purging the parliamentary party of MPs he deems disloyal; 2) continuing preparations for a no-deal Brexit; and 3) bringing about a general election.

As for Johnson’s theatrical campaigning strategy, it involves: 1) The political persona he has been creating for himself since childhood, that of a fun and bold guy. 2) The political narrative that he has been attempting to forge over the past few years, that he is a true statesman, prepared to do whatever needs to be done during a time of national crisis, like Churchill. 3) The fact that he is neither Theresa May (who failed to offer her own party, let alone the country, a vision of Brexit) nor Jeremy Corbyn.

4) Would a no-deal Brexit be as bad as is feared?

We don’t know, though Johnson & co. are doing their best to prepare the country for the worst. What we do know is that no-deal Brexit will not be easy. It will not bring immediate economic or political closure. It will not be a clean break. And much of what happens next depends on the EU, which may well decide to continue punishing Britain after it leaves so as to discourage other countries from such a move in the future.

But specifically, beyond leaving the single market and customs union on World Trade Organization terms — something the Irish backstop, the temporary customs union proposed by the EU as a way of preserving the soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, prevents, which is why it is a red line for Johnson — what would no-deal look like? Again, we don’t know, perhaps for the same reason that it is futile to micro-manage the national economy. Adam Smith’s invisible hand would — one has to hope — continue to steer the wheel. Some have suggested that the U.S./U.K. trading relationship could help realign global financial markets to both countries’ benefit. But even if that’s the case, most of Britain’s trade is still expected to be with EU countries, and it would be a grave mistake to pretend otherwise.

As Parliament goes on recess until October 14, the future of Brexit and the U.K. seems, to say the least, as uncertain as ever.


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