Boris Johnson’s Brexit gambit

Brexit and politicians like Johnson and Farage have blown it up in a way the current U.S. president could only dream about in the context of his own country.


This past Tuesday, with a then deadline of October 31for the United Kingdom to pull out of the European Union, deal or no deal, (barring an extension of Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which establishes the rules allowing member states to leave), the new Prime Minister of the U.K., Boris Johnson, prorogued the British parliament until October 15th.

While this has been reported as the longest proroguing, a kind of recess, in decades, and some in the opposition have said it amounts to a non-violent coup, Johnson supporters make the argument it’s only a week or so longer than usual. Regardless, it will not only limit debate on the most pressing (and perplexing) issue to face the country in more than a generation, it could make a ‘No Deal’ Brexit more likely.

As James Butler of the London Review of Books recently explained, Johnson, who attained his position not through a general election but replaced his predecessor Theresa May as P.M. through the votes of members of his own Conservative Party (less than 1% of the country’s population), had another, more democratic recourse, calling for an adjournment that would have allowed for some parts of the government to continue functioning, “Adjournments require the consent of the House, and opposition leaders have discussed delaying or cancelling the conference adjournment in order to deal with Brexit. Prorogation requires no such consent, bouncing the House into abeyance whether it wills it or not. During adjournment, select committees can still meet, scrutinize and call for evidence; while Parliament is prorogued, no such powers exist.”

At the same time, both houses of parliament put through legislation last Friday demanding the government use Article 50 to get another extension to a January 31st deadline, but Johnson, whose full name is often shortened to BoJo by the British press, has claimed he’s willing to risk prison by sticking with the last day of October to either get a deal or go it alone on World Trade Organization terms in the country’s economic dealings with Europe and the world, a negotiating tactic many in the Leave camp have long suggested is a prerequisite for making the E.U. more compliant to their country’s demands.

As reported by the Guardian, Johnson’s public reaction to the legislation was to say, “They just passed a law that would force me to beg Brussels for an extension to the Brexit deadline. This is something I will never do.”

BoJo and his merry band of Brexiteers have already been dealt a setback by a Scottish court, which ruled that the proroguing of parliament was illegal, a ruling that will be tested by the U.K. Supreme Court next week. Seemingly taking a leaf out of the current U.S. president’s playbook, some on the British right have claimed the judges are biased because they are Scottish.

Oddly, Johnson had actually voted for the deal crafted by Theresa May that failed to pass despite being brought before the House of Commons multiple times. Regardless, in typical BoJo fashion, the prime minister seems to be putting his foot on the accelerator toward a no deal exit from the E.U., which could have serious repercussions for the country’s future.

Almost unreported outside the country but one of the most important of these repercussions could be the creation of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which could reignite the hostilities of the past in the latter, whose pro-U.K. far-right DUP party has at times been pivotal to the Conservatives razor-thin voting majority since the last general election in 2017. in fact, in Derry in Northern Ireland, a car bomb exploded outside of a courthouse in the city’s center on September 7th, a troubling sign of what the future might hold.

Still, Johnson this week insisted that, despite the short deadline, he’ll somehow get the E.U., which obviously has its own reasons for wanting to make a U.K. exit as difficult as possible, to go along with his own unspecified and unnegotiated deal, “I want to find a deal. I have looked carefully at no-deal. Yes, we could do it, the U.K. could certainly get through it, but be in no doubt that outcome would be a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible. I would overwhelmingly prefer to find an agreement.”

It’s a rare thing in parliamentary politics for a sitting government to face four defeats in one week as Johnson did last week, not to mention a failed attempt to call a snap election on the last day of parliament this past Monday. Even more unprecedented was the sacking of 21 members of his own party, including the ‘father of the House’, Ken Clarke (so named for his unbroken record in the body) and the grandson of Winston Churchill, Sir Nicholas Soames. He has also faced high profile resignations from his cabinet, including the Work and Pensions minister, Amber Rudd and his own brother, Jo Johnson, who cited a conflict between “family loyalty” and “the national interest” as the reason for leaving his seat.

While most of those reading this would have no time Rudd’s Tory politics, she was one of the last rational seeming high profile people in her party’s ranks. In her resignation letter she wrote, “This short-sighted culling of my colleagues has stripped the party of broad-minded and dedicated Conservative Mps… I cannot support this act of political vandalism.”

To demonstrate the dearth of talent left in Johnson’s government, we need only look at the newly installed Leader of the House, Jacob Rees Mogg, head of the pro-Brexit reactionary European Research Group (ERG), who made a speech on the prorogation during Prime Minister’s questions last Tuesday. If BoJo embodies many of the excesses of the rightwing populism growing in strength throughout Europe and much of the world, Rees Mogg exemplifies everything awful about the U.K.’s weird, traditional, aristocratic conservatism.

After insulting his parliamentary colleagues, Rees Mogg spent most of the rest of the time looking a mixture of bored and petulant while reclining on his seat as we might expect he does on an ottoman in his own drawing room while entertaining an array of titled guests. That this man is so often extolled as some kind of principled politician would be shocking if so many of his peers on the British right weren’t even more craven.

While Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn has faced a great deal of criticism for seeming to shift positions on Brexit over the past 3 years and change, those who have been following his tenure are able to see that it’s in many ways a demonstration of his consistent belief in basic democratic principles. He has promised a second referendum after his party wins a general election, with both remaining in the E.U. and a “credible” leave option on the ballot (as opposed to the last referendum whose lack of clarity on the issue of how the country would leave helped create the current impasse).

With parliament rejecting BoJo’s call for an early general election on October 15th not once but twice in less than a week, it will still likely be Corbyn who will face widespread media criticism for bowing to the will of his party despite his well-known Euro-skepticism (as happened after he campaigned for Remain in 2015 and was then criticized more than former prime Minister David Cameron, who foolishly called the referendum in the first place, for not campaigning hard enough).

Johnson’s current strategy could deeply wound the Conservative party over the longer term if his reckless plan to play chicken with a no deal Brexit fails. Waiting in the wings is perpetual grifter Nigel Farage, a former commodities trader pretending to be a populist ‘man of the people’, who must be excited about what the collapse of a ‘big tent’ Conservative Party might mean for his own political ambitions.

While most of the attention has been focused on what’s happening with the U.K., it’s also important to note that the E.U. itself has its own redlines in terms of Brexit. For their part E.U. leaders probably don’t want to set a precedent with the U.K., which has really always been an outlier in the union, of making it easy to leave. As stated before, it’s likely that some in the EU, which, as many on the left, including Corbyn, have long pointed out, really does suffer from a democracy deficit, want to make a British exit as painful as possible.

Although recent years have revealed that the there are problems with the U.S. Constitution based mainly on its age, an argument can be made that because the British constitution is unwritten, based on precedent and requiring politicians regardless of party to follow established norms, Brexit and politicians like Johnson and Farage have blown it up in a way the current U.S. president could only dream about in the context of his own country.

That they have done so out of vanity and perhaps a delusional belief in an idealized version of the past, makes them even more contemptible.


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