Last month, U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask Brussels for another extension of the October 31 Brexit deadline, as the so-called Benn Act required him to do if Parliament hadn’t approved either a withdrawal agreement or a no-deal Brexit by October 19. Johnson also said that the deadline was “do or die.” Today, his enemies were delighted at news that these pithy proclamations seem to have backfired: Once again, we’re back to Brexit Mañana!
On Monday, the European Union granted the U.K. a “flextension,” pushing back the Brexit deadline to January 31, with the caveat that Britain can leave earlier if Parliament ratifies a withdrawal agreement before December 31. The request was made by the U.K.’s ambassador to Brussels on behalf of the House of Commons, meaning Johnson may have violated the law in keeping his word: The Benn Act required that he request the delay himself.
In an effort to maintain public trust ahead of these latest developments, Johnson made it clear that he disagreed with the approach that brought them about. First, he refused to sign the letter requesting an extension that he’d been forced to send to the EU. Second, he sent an additional, signed letter that contradicted the first letter. Johnson is not the only one who feels frustrated by Parliament’s continual indecision, of course. Even French president Emmanuel Macron opposed a delay, and only changed his mind in the hope that granting one might lead to a general election and thus break the impasse. According to reports, France is expected to push for an absolute deadline should Brexit be delayed beyond January 31, even if that means putting a no-deal Brexit back on the table.
From the British government’s perspective, further delay could result in a softer Brexit. This perhaps explains why the EU has granted the request. With Parliament continuing to weaken the government’s negotiating position — pushing through laws that attempt to thwart even the possibility of a no-deal Brexit — Johnson’s “do or die” Brexit threat has been (rightly) interpreted by Brussels as a bluff. At this writing, Downing Street has 24 hours to accept the EU’s extension. So far, the government has reiterated its desire for a general election on December 12. But with three days until the supposedly unmovable deadline (Halloween), this problem is not going away.
Strangely, after months in which the government’s enemies remained more or less united in their desire to delay a snap election, some of them are now also calling for one. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party — both of whom are now transparently anti-Brexit — want an election on December 9. Together, they have drafted a law that would rewrite the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 to change the threshold for dissolving Parliament and calling an election from a supermajority of MPs to a simple majority.
Why would they want to do that? The Tories are currently 10 points ahead in the polls, and other polling suggests a high level of frustration with parliamentarians who, in the eyes of millions of Brits, are most responsible for betraying the referendum result. Wouldn’t a general election simply provide Johnson with a majority and secure his power for another five years?
Johnson’s enemies believe — or rather, they hope — that it will be harder for him to win an election without having delivered on his black-and-white, “do or die” Brexit promise, and they’ve been buoyed by the limited public support for either his deal or a no-deal Brexit. A recent YouGov poll found that only 19 percent of voters believe the agreement to be a good deal and only 3 percent believe it is a very good deal, while the BBC reports that an average of just 38 percent of voters profess support for no deal.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s enemies may be underestimating the depths of the public’s anger with them. Britons have endured three years of political stagnation — an enormous waste of public time and resources. They have endured the consequences of David Cameron’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which makes an election difficult without the support of the opposition party. They have endured the idiocy of Oliver Letwin (the same Letwin who pretty much singlehandedly convinced Margaret Thatcher to introduce the fatal poll tax) and the blatant partiality of Speaker of the House John Bercow, who, together, have created further obstacles to achieving Brexit. And they have endured the political neglect of much-needed, long-delayed efforts to reform education, health care, housing, and a range of other services.
Unlike Johnson, his opponents lack vision and decisiveness. Where Johnson has a very clear aim of Brexit and a clear plan to achieve it, their solution seems to be to cancel the process entirely and hope that no one ever mentions it again. This is as unacceptable as it is undemocratic, and deeply unpersuasive to boot. My own hunch is that the British people, in their wisdom, will reject it.