After just 43 days in office, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has gotten himself into a dire fix. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way out — for him or for the country he nominally leads.
Thanks to a series of miscalculations, Johnson’s party is cracking up, his government is collapsing, and his political strategy is backfiring. This week, he ejected 21 rebels from the parliamentary Conservative Party after they joined the opposition to stop him from forcing the country out of the European Union without an exit agreement. To restore his authority and a workable majority, the prime minister then called for a prompt general election — and lost that vote as well, failing to muster the necessary two-thirds support.
All politicians have bad weeks. But the first part of this one has set some kind of record. Its consequences will extend far beyond the operatic disarray in Westminster.
Most immediately, Johnson has made resolving Brexit — the gravest challenge the country has faced in decades — far harder. Britain is still scheduled to leave the EU on Oct. 31. Holding a general election in the meantime, as Johnson presumably still hopes to do, could conceivably ease that process by securing a clearer majority for the prime minister’s plans. The problem is that no one can say what those are.
By nearly all accounts, negotiations with the EU on a revised deal have gone nowhere. Johnson can’t even identify what he hopes to achieve in these talks. He wants to ditch the “backstop” arrangement intended to prevent a hard border with Ireland, but can’t specify what should take its place. Meanwhile, in purging his party of no-deal opponents, he’s ousted the very lawmakers who would’ve been most likely to support any new compromise.
In proceeding so heedlessly, Johnson is not only shooting himself in the foot, but also maximizing the long-term damage Brexit is doing to Britain’s constitutional order and political norms. Unelected and lacking a mandate, he has nonetheless pressed the executive’s power to its limits. He seems to view Parliament as an irritant; his ministers seem to regard the rule of law as one option among many. They should all try to imagine what the opposition might do with such an expansive interpretation of the prime minister’s authority.
Perhaps most damaging, though, is the cost of this endless misadventure. Britain is on the verge of a recession. Business investment — the most obvious victim of Brexit uncertainty — has been in a severe funk. Services growth is stalling while manufacturing and construction are most likely in contraction. Johnson is meanwhile spending millions on an advertising campaign to convince businesses to prepare for no-deal even while assuring everyone that it’s highly unlikely — a strategy that has not exactly alleviated the uncertainty.
Is there any way out of this?
A general election would offer one potential escape route. Yet it will also present voters with a dismal choice. On one hand, there’s Johnson, and the renewed threat of his delivering a chaotic exit. On the other, there’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose modest agenda includes nationalizing much of the economy, eviscerating property rights, and otherwise expunging the counterrevolution. In any event, another hung Parliament seems all too likely.
The unfortunate fact is that the machinery of British politics has become stuck on Brexit. As the process grinds on — chewing through two prime ministers and counting — it is doing worsening damage without producing any forward momentum. More of the same will hardly help. Even at this late date, the best and most democratic way out of this morass is to let the public decide the matter in a second referendum. The alternatives look bleaker by the day.
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