Boris Johnson had a brilliant university student career. Should any ancient Romans appear, Johnson could address them in perfect Latin. He can probably quote the classics by the hour. But, Boris Johnson must live in the real world, and, as Conservative Prime Minister he is tied hand and foot to a part of the real world that is in crisis. Brilliance at languages will be of little help. His options in that real world are limited.
The truth is that the vote to leave the European Union (EU) created an indigestible mess with the British population and its government bound up in an intricate deadlock. In an age when commerce and technology are so integrated across national boundaries, no population had ever been asked to decide whether a whole economy should instantly revert to an earlier system. The fact that the campaign to leave was based on falsehoods, many happily promoted by Boris Johnson, makes Johnson the target of real anger.
So what options did the brilliant Boris have? He could have gone to Brussels, laid some reasonable options on the table in an effort to gain a withdrawal plan, a plan that he could sell back home. Officials in Brussels certainly know that the economies of the other 27 nations in the EU will be harmed if British markets and financial expertise are suddenly cut off. Doing that would have lost Johnson the support of the leavers in his own party. It would also be a contradiction of the position that he has been taking. To someone with Johnson’s temperament it would have seemed like begging. So, it was not really an option after all.
The alternative he chose was to plant the notion that the breakaway on October 31st was the only option. Then, act to make it difficult for any opposition group to create alternatives. That must have made proroguing (recessing) the parliament during the intervening five weeks seem like a brilliant stratagem. He was, after all, just in. He could count on their giving him the benefit of the doubt. His reputation for brilliance and for strength would slow the divided opposition’s ability to react. He could undercut that opposition further by arguing that the October deadline was really a necessary negotiating tactic.
If that really was the plan, it did not work. The members of parliament know Boris Johnson well. They also know that his approach is being engineered behind the scenes by Dominic Cummings, a Johnson political advisor who is not someone any of them trust (Cummings is something of an analog to Stephen Miller, Trump’s advisor who led Trump to his humane, criticism free border policies). To many in the parliament the chaos that seemed inevitable with a hard Brexit was simply too great a risk. So, with a celerity that Johnson probably did not anticipate, members of his own party joined others in opposition.
The “rebels” met last night (Tuesday, the 3rd) and voted to take control of the parliament’s agenda. That vote, the first for Boris Johnson, was a historic first vote rejection of the new Prime Minister. This afternoon (Wednesday, the 4th) the parliament used that control to vote to extend Johnson’s iron clad date for leaving October 31st .
An embattled and rebuffed Boris Johnson immediately announced his intent to call for a “snap election” on October 15, two weeks before the October 31st leave date (it was to be on the 14th but that turned out to be a Jewish holiday). The assumption was that the PM’s election campaign would be an attempt to align all of the hard Brexit members and then still leave on Oct. 31st. In a tough and probably ill advised move to punish rejecters in his own party some 21 Conservative members that opposed Johnson were decertified. They will find themselves out of politics. They will blame their new Prime Minister.
There is a problem for Boris Johnson with that call for a snap election. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act the Prime Minister can call for a new election only if it is approved by a two thirds vote of the parliament (434 votes). That means that Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party could block it, and they did (the vote was 136 short). Corbyn has frequently said that he would not agree to an election until parliament has passed an act rejecting any breaking from the EU without a withdrawal agreement. He did not agree.
Theresa May struggled along for three years trying to get a withdrawal plan through parliament and failed. Now Boris Johnson’s high pressure approach seems to be failing too. Still, something must be done. Progress is made more difficult because the political parties have fragmented. Johnson must deal not just with Labour, but with the rebounding Social Democrats who want a new referendum and to stay in the EU. His own Conservatives, themselves split, have spun off Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party of fanatic leavers. There is no clear way forward.
Boris Johnson may yet rebound. He is brilliant and determined. He has five weeks to maneuver around a parliament that will not be in session. Or, because he took the bullying approach that he did, he could become one of the shortest serving Prime Ministers in British history (the Duke of Wellington lasted 25 days). The dilemma posed by the vote to withdraw from the EU membership is still there. In the end, somehow, some way, the only answer may be to hold a new vote, to begin all over again. Boris Johnson may not get to decide!