After delivering a Tory conference speech that knocked off the nation’s socks yesterday and presenting a new U.K.–EU Brexit deal today that might conceivably be endorsed by Parliament, Boris Johnson should perhaps be enjoying a good press. But the message of most media commentary is that Boris is stymied yet again, or still, or maybe forever — the Prisoner of Downing Street kept confined by a slim majority of MPs united on nothing except their opposition to him, to Brexit, and to holding a new election.
So Paul Goodman’s epigram that Boris and the Tories can’t win an election without getting Brexit and they can’t get Brexit without winning an election remains the only significant truth as other events related to Brexit come and go. What is less noticed, however, is that Boris’s enemies in the anti-Brexit coalition (henceforth the ABC coalition) are equally stymied. They can’t win an election if they vote Brexit down and they can’t vote Brexit down without winning an election. That’s because most of the signs are that Boris would win an election in which Brexit was at issue.
Indeed, the longer-term prospects for the ABC coalition are even more discouraging. Even if they manage to halt or reverse Brexit, they would have to hold an election not long afterward, which Boris would be heavily favored to win. If elected, he could then simply cancel their cancellation and bring in whatever kind of Brexit he wanted. He would then have five years in power to make Brexit work.
In these circumstances, the interests of the ABC parties favor keeping Boris in power (i.e., by not passing a vote of no confidence in him) but tying his hands ever more securely so that he can do little or nothing to obtain either Brexit or the election he craves. Their device for doing so is the so-called Benn bill, which instructs the prime minister to request an extension of U.K. membership in the EU to next year, to avert the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.
At least their interests did favor that. But in the past few weeks the ABC parties have thoroughly frightened themselves with a new Project Fear: They have convinced themselves that Boris might produce a rabbit from a hat that would finally get Brexit done — or, rather, two rabbits from a hat.
The first is the compromise Brexit deal that Boris announced earlier today, which might conceivably be endorsed by Parliament. That’s a genuine rabbit, but probably a short-lived one, because the European Union will almost certainly reject it even if Parliament does not. The second rabbit is the possibility that Boris would then get through a no-deal Brexit, breaking the legislative bonds that MPs placed on him by bringing it in through an order in council — an act of legislation that bypasses MPs through simple executive fiat.
Former prime minister John Major, a passionate old Europhiliac, raised this fear last week. But the fear isn’t false simply because Major predicted it. Boris would certainly be denounced as acting undemocratically if he were to attempt this way of achieving Brexit. But the ABC parties have been acting that way for most of the past three years. And, besides, would he be acting unconstitutionally? Orders in council are a regular way of legislating in Britain’s “mixed” constitution. More to the point, it’s how almost all EU directives were passed into U.K. law for 40 years with their enthusiastic consent. The ABC parties and other Remainers can’t suddenly discover that they’re unconstitutional.
So the ABC parties alarmed themselves with the turnip ghost of Superhero Boris, who might pull a no-deal Brexit out of the capacious hat of the U.K. constitution if he remained in power any longer. That was too big a risk for Remainers to take. That being the case, they had to pass a vote of no confidence and get Boris replaced. So while Boris was speaking to the assembled Tories in Manchester, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalists, Remainer Tory dissidents, and the 57 varieties of malcontents met in London to agree on how to do so.
But replacing Boris requires an agreement on who should be the next prime minister. And the different parties couldn’t agree on whom that should be. It’s not hard to see why. Jeremy Corbyn is the main problem. He has to insist that as leader of the opposition he’s the natural candidate to replace Boris. He can’t agree to a more moderate Labour figure taking the job, because that would quite plausibly lead to his losing the leadership of his party, since most Labour MPs think their party is doomed under him. Nor can Corbyn agree to either the Scot-Nats or the Lib-Dems providing the leadership of an anti-Brexit government, because that would give their parties a large increase in prestige — and Corbynite Labour is currently at daggers drawn with both. Labour was virtually evicted from Scotland by the SNP in the last election, and the party is currently lagging behind the Lib-Dems in most U.K. opinion polls. Equally, those parties don’t want to rescue Corbyn from his own growing unpopularity by placing him in 10 Downing Street. Consequently, stalemate.
So far, they can’t agree on a candidate. And if they do eventually select one, the tensions and divergence of interest between all the members of this “government of national unity” would mean that it would soon fracture and lead either to the return of Boris or to an election or, quite possibly, to both. In the meantime, Boris is in the state quite often mentioned in political history but rarely seen in such a clear and unambiguous light: He is in office but not in power.
Not all Tories are unhappy with this state of affairs. Extreme Remainers — the latest is former Justice Minister David Gauke, on the Conservative Home website — argue that since Boris is trapped both by the rejection of his compromise with the EU and by the restrictions of the Benn bill on his Brexit policy, he will be simply unable to get Brexit through by October 31. Because he repeatedly promises to do so, they feel, his failure will show that a clean or full Brexit is an unattainable delusion and that Boris himself is a blowhard. He will either fall or turn to wiser heads, i.e., themselves, and a saner policy.
This is the conviction of quite a number of Tory MPs. But it seems to run up against two logical problems. The first is that in the scenario they sketch, Boris would be failing not because his attempted Brexit had proved itself a delusion by producing massive economic disruption but because MPs from all parties, supported by the European Union, had prevented it from coming into effect. The second is that these Remainer Tories would be among those who had halted or reversed Brexit. And as Daniel Hannan pointed out earlier, if a minister is prevented from pursuing a policy by other MPs voting it down or otherwise obstructing it, the voters in the next election are far less likely to blame the minister for pursuing the policy than his rivals for voting it down.
It seems that Hannan’s skepticism is also the private opinion of most Tory and other Remainers. For they show every sign of wanting to postpone the next election into the longest possible future. The exceptions to this rule, as I hinted above, may be the MPs belonging to the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalist Party. For them the opinion polls hold out the delicious prospect of winning massive votes from an ailing Labour Party and replacing it as the leading progressive party in England and Scotland respectively. No one should doubt their anti-Brexit credentials, but that may not be enough to keep them honest and Europhiliac indefinitely.
For the moment, however, Boris remains the Prisoner of Downing Street, which, however, he does not seem to find unduly confining.