Being a classicist, Boris Johnson would be familiar with the Gordian knot. But for anybody whose schoolroom memories need refreshing, the knot in question was put in place by Gordius, king of Phrygia. Reputedly only a ruler of Asia would be able to untie the knot — making it a slightly less glamorous version of King Arthur’s sword in the stone. In any case, when confronted by the knot, Alexander the Great is said to have spotted the fast way to undo the problem and simply whacked at it with his sword, so proving that he should become the king of Asia.
If ever there was a fearsome knot in modern politics it is the question of Brexit. Not that the knot was as completely tied in 2016, when the British people were given a straightforward choice. The question the public was then asked was whether it wanted to “remain” in or “leave” the European Union. The public voted by a majority (52 percent to 48 percent) to leave, though it has since appeared that for those who set the question this was the wrong answer. Or at least not the answer that the political class expected the public to select. And so the knot tightened and became ever more knotty with each resulting effort to untie it.
The civil service, it turned out, had not been instructed to prepare for the eventuality of a “leave” vote. Then–prime minister David Cameron and his colleagues may simply have expected the “remain” side to win. Or they may have feared that if word had got out that the civil servants were preparing for the possibility of a “leave” vote then that would have bolstered that side of the campaign. Whatever the reason, on June 24, 2016, Whitehall turned out to be unprepared for what was one of only two possible results.
With Cameron having resigned just hours after that vote, the stunned victors plunged into a bout of fratricide. The lead Brexiteer — Boris Johnson — was politically assassinated by his own leadership-campaign chief, the second most prominent Brexiteer — Michael Gove — who then made an unsuccessful bid for the leadership himself. Unsuccessful because, with the victors in disarray, a path through the middle of the Conservative-party membership (who vote in leadership elections) was created for Theresa May. And so the former home secretary who had given a single half-hearted speech in favor of Remain ended up becoming the Conservative-party leader, the prime minister, and the person responsible for making sure that Britain exited the European Union.
For almost three years May tried to untie the knot. Her government initiated Article 50, the previously unused mechanism by which member states are supposed to be able to leave the EU. That set the Brexit clock ticking, for the departing country is meant to leave the EU two years after the Article 50 process is initiated.
As we survey the resulting problem it is worth remembering that all of this was done with the approval of Parliament. Now that the opposition parties are resisting efforts to leave, they and some segments of the governing Conservatives like to pretend that Parliament is representing the people against the government’s injudicious wishes. But this is to assume that the British public has no memory as well as no voice.
For all the major parties in the British Parliament voted to approve the holding of a referendum on the EU. Some — such as the Liberal Democrats — had made it party policy to hold such an in/out referendum before David Cameron’s Conservative party promised the same. Parliament also oversaw the initiating of the Article 50 process, a process that Cameron and other “remain” campaigners in the 2016 referendum had described many times and very plainly. If after two years the U.K. and the EU could not agree on the terms of the separation, then the U.K. would leave the EU without a deal. Which would mean, among other things, trading on World Trade Organization rules.
Yet sharp-eyed observers will have noticed that the two-year deadline came and went (in March) and then again (in June) after extensions were requested and granted. And so Britain remains in the European Union. And it was here that Prime Minister May came across the most intransigent portion of the national knot.
For Parliament had always been of a different view than the people. Though the public had voted by a majority to leave, around two-thirds of members of Parliament had been in favor of Britain’s remaining in the EU. And so as the deadlines came and went, MPs came up with ever more objections to the deadlines that were hurtling towards them. Most popular among them was their decision that “no deal” Brexit would be a disaster and that the public had “never voted for ‘no deal.’” And while it is true that the public had not been asked any such specifics in the simple in-or-out question, it had voted “out,” and the potential consequences of this had been explained. Yet a Parliament that wanted “in” attempted to persuade itself and the public that the Brexit knot was just too complex for any mortal to undo. Meaning — reluctantly or otherwise — that it really made much better sense to remain “in.”
In some ways this constitutional mess is a legacy of a much older problem, a problem not wholly settled in the aftermath of the English Civil War. Where does power actually reside? In Parliament or the people? And if Parliament decides that the people have come up with the wrong answer, can Parliament ignore them?
These and many other questions have hovered over the U.K. for three years now. And the list of people whose names ought to live in British infamy has grown very long. There are those, for instance, who used to insist that if a British MP switched parties he should immediately put himself up for reelection so that the public could decide to vote him out or not. People such as Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston — the former of whom has been one of the most demented and rage-filled voices in recent years — used to be very much in favor of this system of accountability. But when they abandoned the Conservative party for a new pro-EU party (Change UK) earlier this year, neither put herself back before the public. Ms. Wollaston has refused to do this despite now having moved parties a second time in one year (this time to the now-pro-Remain Liberal Democrats). As a result, many thousands of British voters are now “represented” by MPs who are members of parties that didn’t even exist when they last had a chance to vote.
There have also been the Tory grandees — Ken Clarke, Nicholas Soames, and others — who have been spending the last three years assiduously trying to keep Britain in the EU. A couple dozen of these were expelled from the party over the summer. But they remain in Parliament at present, loosed from any party or other loyalty. The average Conservative voter might have expected that these men would be willing (even reluctantly) to lead Britain out of the EU rather than risk Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party coming to power. But over the summer they demonstrated that they were perfectly happy to risk collapsing a Conservative government and allowing Corbyn into power rather than risk a no-deal Brexit.
Then there is the question of Her Majesty’s Opposition: the only force really able to keep the Conservative party in power. Jeremy Corbyn’s party has so many policies on Brexit that some serious effort is needed to keep them in one head, never mind on one page. Having initially accepted the result of the referendum, the parliamentary Labour party ended up turning on the whole thing. It claimed to be opposed only to “no deal” but in fact seemed intent on stopping any deal arrived at by a Conservative government.
To date the Labour party has been in favor of leaving, in favor of staying, in favor of a second referendum, and in favor of no more referendums. The party’s current policies include that it wants the prime minister to call an election, yet it keeps preventing any such election from being called. Nevertheless Labour claims that if an election were called and it were to get into power, it would immediately negotiate a much better deal with the EU than the Conservative government has been able to get. It would then come back to the country with that deal, initiate a second referendum, and, in that referendum, campaign against the deal that it had just negotiated. That this is a relatively straightforward policy compared with others that have been in the mix is a mark of the time.
For we are now in the middle of a great constitutional as well as political crisis. And while there was a time when the British boasted to their American friends that of course we do not have a constitution, it is likely that all such boasts will go underground for some generations to come. Today the British public might eye up any and all constitutions with a positively lascivious eye. There is not only the problem of Parliament against itself and Parliament against the people, but also the problem of judicial intrusion — a problem that countries with a constitution also have, but that in Britain is an evolving area of governance as well as law.
Many Americans may have done a double take in recent weeks as talk of the “supreme court” in London was relayed on the news. And many British people will have done the same thing. The supreme court indeed does not sound like a British thing. Because until 2005 it wasn’t a British thing. In one of the great ironies of recent British history, the supreme court in London was set up in order to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. This September the court ruled that Boris Johnson had acted illegally in proroguing (temporarily suspending) Parliament and that Parliament must re-sit. So a court set up to satisfy European rules played its own part in preventing the U.K. from leaving the jurisdiction of European rules.
Which brings me back to Alexander and his knot. For the plan of Boris Johnson is not just the bold one. It is the only answer that can stop the courts, MPs, and others from doing for the rest of our natural lives what they would very happily do. Which is to continue to stand before the 2016 result and insist either that it cannot be acted upon or that it should not be acted upon. The media version of this is to pretend that it is not clear what the British people meant when they voted to leave the EU. Somehow it would have been completely plain if we had asked to remain.
So Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson stands like his namesake in front of the knot: his sword ready. His sword is to use Parliament to leave the European Union on October 31 (the latest extension deadline) whether Parliament wants to or not, possibly even leaving in the middle of an election campaign. Parliament for its part is trying to force him to stay in power and oversee yet another extension of the departure date — thus forcing this prime minister too to let down the people and break his own promises.
At present MPs from his own party, MPs from the opposition parties, the supreme court, millionaire activists, and much of the media are using this device and every other to pull on his sword-arm and stop or blunt his swing. Maybe this will work, or maybe it will not. But it is a mark of the man that Johnson realizes the one essential thing in all this. Which is that the knot has been deliberately made too complex to untie. And that the only solution is to cut it.
How? Simply to leave. To leave the European Union, come what may. To accept that when the British people voted Leave they knew what they were doing and that in the end you either have a democracy or you don’t. The disgrace of an entire political class has been their effort to prevent this reality. The triumph or tragedy of Boris Johnson will lie in whether the swing he takes cuts him off from the position he has spent a lifetime hoping to hold, cleaves the British nation irreparably, or finally makes a clean cut from a political institution that the British people very plainly asked to be removed from.