Making Sense of the Brexit Chaos

Pro-Brexit supporters in London, England, August 29, 2019. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
Where the U.K. stands amid a drama-filled week in Westminster

Cast your mind back, if you can bear it. Back three years to the summer of 2016, after the people of Britain made history in voting to leave the European Union. Back to when every political party promised to honor the result of that vote. Back to when we Brits had something resembling a functional parliamentary democracy, and something resembling a room full of adults leading it.

The years that followed were the “surely” years. Surely “taking back control” of our money, borders, laws, and trade — as was promised by the Leave campaign — means being outside the EU’s single market and customs union. Surely the Remain-voting Theresa May is sincere when she says time and time again that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Surely all parties will honor the referendum result as they’ve promised to, delivering a moderate Brexit while unifying the country.

Well, my dear reader, surely has left the building. In fact, last I heard, surely had boarded a boat with some elves and was sailing off into the Middle Earth sunset.

Parliament this week is a picture of pure chaos. MPs voted yesterday to take control of the parliamentary agenda. The government withdrew the whip from 21 of its own rebels, effectively kicking them out of the Tory party. Today, MPs voted 329 to 300 to back a bill designed to force Prime Minister Boris Johnson to delay Brexit if Parliament cannot agree on a way forward by October 19. It was the first of several legislative steps they are expected to take that would block the government from forcing through a no-deal Brexit, in effect once again postponing Brexit altogether. Johnson has responded in the only way he can, signaling that he intends to call an election.

That ought to be the easy part, since the Labour party have been demanding an election all year, right? Not so fast. As a spokesperson for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said this week, “We are committed to the earliest possible election. We want to be sure of stopping no-deal crash-out on October 31st. We want to be sure of the government being unable to change the date or allow a crash-out during an election campaign.” In other words, the government must guarantee that a no-deal Brexit will be blocked before the opposition will grant a general election. Johnson, who needs the approval of two thirds of the House of Commons to bring about an election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act passed in 2011, has had his hands tied.

Naturally, Johnson has categorically denounced blocking a no-deal Brexit as something that would “hand control” to the EU and hence bring about “more dither, more delay, more confusion.” But there is a more imminent threat.  The Johnson government’s entire mandate rests upon its commitment to delivering Brexit by the October 31 deadline. If it went into a general election having failed from the outset to even make that a possibility, it would likely bleed pro-Brexit Tory votes to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.

Do Johnson or his aide Dominic Cummings have any tricks up their sleeves? Do they know what they’re doing? Addressing the House of Commons, Johnson said:

Everyone will know if the Right Honorable Gentleman [Jeremy Corbyn] is the prime minister, he will go to Brussels, he will beg for an extension, you will accept whatever Brussels demands, and we’ll have years’ more arguments over Brexit.

And by contrast, everyone will know that if I am prime minister, I will go to Brussels, I will go for a deal and get a deal, but if they won’t do a deal we will leave anyway on 31 October.

The people of this country will have to choose.

Of course, he is not really addressing the House here. He is addressing the country. And if the latest YouGov poll figures are anything to go by, the Conservatives are set to win a general election. This is something former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, of all people, warned pro-Remain MPs about: An election could seriously backfire.

As the British constitution (paradoxically) crumbles under the weight of its non-existence, Johnson’s leadership style is one of “never, never, never give up.” One of “keep calm and carry on.” One of single-minded determination, initiated and sustained by a commitment to direct democracy. When you look to his heroes, you start to see what he’s up to.

In his biography of Winston Churchill, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson wrote:

Churchill decides from very early on that he will create a political position that is somehow above left and right, embodying the best points of both sides and thereby incarnating the will of the nation. He thinks of himself as a gigantic keystone in the arch, with all the lesser stones logically induced to support his position. He has a kind of semi-ideology to go with it — a leftish Toryism: imperialist, romantic, but on the side of the working man.

Change “imperialist” to “patriotic” and you get what Johnson’s aiming for. Whether or not he can pull it off remains to be seen.


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