British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a student of history. That means he is well aware of just how disastrous the start of his term at 10 Downing Street has been. He has lost every major vote before Parliament, and saw his government not only lose its one-seat majority but his own party expelled 21 lawmakers, including some of the most senior and most respected, for voting against the government, which was followed by the resignation of more parliamentarians from the Conservative Party (including his own brother). He is now 43 seats short of a working majority. On Thursday, Scotland’s highest court ruled that Parliament was suspended illegally. The ruling will be reviewed by the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Johnson’s strategy — if there was one — is in tatters and he appears to have two choices: Ignoring a parliamentary mandate (and breaking the law) or asking for an extension from the European Union on the date of Britain’s departure from the EU, an option to which the prime minister had previously said he would rather “be dead in a ditch.” Britain and the world must brace for still more confusion and chaos that will not end Nov. 1, the day after Brexit is presumed to occur.
Johnson believes that success in striking a Brexit deal better than the one negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May, and rejected by Parliament, depends on the credibility of the threat of a “no-deal Brexit” in which the United Kingdom crashes out of the EU without guardrails. To ensure that the opposition to his strategy would not unite to thwart him, he prorogued, or suspended, Parliament for five weeks, a longer than usual period. It would return to session with only a few weeks to debate whatever deal he had managed to wrest from Brussels before the Oct. 31 deadline. To strengthen the spine of his supporters (and the doubters), he also proposed a general election, betting that they would prefer his Brexit gambit to a ballot that could bring the Labour Party to power.
He miscalculated. The opposition did unite — not only to challenge his Brexit policy but also to put off the call for an election. Parliament rejected calls for a ballot and instead passed a bill that forbids Johnson from a no-deal Brexit. That means that the prime minister has lost his biggest negotiating “stick” or will have violated the law and could be sent to jail. It is a sign of the times that some in the prime minister’s camp think Johnson should risk jail; the prime minister himself has refused to say if he will comply.
Johnson has another problem: His credibility with the EU is rapidly shrinking. He was always viewed as a wild card, a disheveled politician and serial fabricator, but there are reports of bewilderment and mounting anger at claims that negotiations are proceeding. European politicians say that the new British government has made no new suggestions or proposals. Neither has the EU offered new terms. As a result, there is a deep and growing skepticism in Brussels about Johnson’s credibility and whether he can be trusted.
This week, Johnson met Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Dublin, and while striking a conciliatory tone he insisted that Britain “will come out on Oct. 31.” He also said that he is still seeking a deal, but Varadkar said that he had not seen a new proposal — and then stuck a knife in Johnson by adding that even a no-deal Brexit would require future negotiations, an argument that would seem to nullify the point of a “hard Brexit.” There are reports that Johnson envisions a deal that only involves Northern Ireland — subjecting it to European agricultural regulations — but that is anathema to the Northern Irish parties that are part of Johnson’s ruling coalition, which see it as separating the province from the rest of the U.K.
The future is increasingly opaque. All that is certain is that Johnson will have to call an election soon. Resignations and expulsions have cost the Conservatives too many seats for them to continue in power under the current Parliament.
While most assessments of these horrific events have focused on Brexit’s economic impact — that has been the overriding concern of the thousands of Japanese businesses that have invested in the U.K. over the years — there is increasing attention to the damage that has been done to British politics and its democracy. While many thought it impossible, Johnson’s tactics have even more deeply divided the British public. While legal, his prorogation decision prompted cries of “authoritarianism” and charges that it was an attack on British democracy. Norms are being bent and may soon be broken.
It is an all too common sight today — not just in Britain but around the world — and one that should sober and dismay Boris Johnson the historian.