By many measures, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson just had his worst week: A couple of Cabinet members including his own brother resigned; the House of Commons rejected Johnson’s request to hold an election on Oct. 15; the House of Lords approved a bill that passed the House of Commons, supported by some senior Tories, that would block Johnson’s attempt to leave the European Union without a deal and force Johnson to ask the EU for a Brexit extension.
The bill also makes it clear that any extension the EU is willing to offer and any costs associated with the extension the EU demands will be accepted. Once the queen gives her royal assent, this bill will become law, and Johnson may face jail time if he chooses not to comply.
Johnson vowed he would rather “be dead in a ditch” than ask the EU for another Brexit extension. Believe it or not, in the midst of all of the chaos and defeats, Johnson in fact had some good news last week. According to Dominic Lawson, a renowned columnist for The Times of London, Johnson’s unwavering determination to make Brexit happen on Oct. 31 has “energized” Britain’s civil service and “despite the strains it imposes, represented a blessed relief after the opaqueness and immobilism of his predecessor (former PM Theresa May).”
Lawson also regards Parliament’s recent vote for another extension as helping prove Johnson’s point to the British people that “Parliament would do anything it could to block Brexit.” Or, in former PM Tony Blair’s words, “I personally believe so strongly in Brexit that I would do virtually anything to stop it.”
Jeremy Corbyn and Parliament Lack Support
British people see what Parliament is up to, and they don’t like it. A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times also found that “35% of voters say they want ‘important issues’ to be decided by the public in referendums, compared to 33% who are content for decisions to be made by the Parliament.”
The poll also shows that while people’s support of the Tories remains at 35 percent, support for the Labour Party has dropped 4 percent to 21 percent. Thus, the Tories have a 14 percent lead over the Labour Party. If an election were to be held today, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party and a self-declared socialist, would have no chance to become the next prime minister.
Another piece of good news came from the Brexit Party’s leader, Nigel Farage. Johnson may not consider Farage a friend, but Farage extended Johnson an olive branch last week, saying, “If Boris decides the only way forward, to get Brexit delivered, is through a general election offering people a clean break, in those circumstances, I’m 100% behind him wanting to win the election, there would be a non-aggression pact.” Farage promised not to stand candidates against the Tories in the general election, and by working together, Johnson could lead a 100-seat majority.
As if to give Johnson a political boost (albeit unwillingly), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the EU is losing patience and his government would veto any Brexit extension request. “We are not going to do this [extend the deadline] every three months.” That’s a big blow for the British Parliament.
What’s Next for Johnson and Brexit?
The Times of London reports that Johnson and his brain trust, Dominic Cummings, seem set to decide on a “go big or go home” approach: Johnson will try to negotiate a deal with the EU at the EU summit on Oct. 17. If both sides fail to reach a deal, Johnson will not ask for another extension.
His action will break the “law” both houses of Parliament passed demanding he seek an extension, thus forcing Parliament to take him and his government to court for an emergency judicial review by the Supreme Court the week of Oct. 21. Johnson and Cummings’ bet is that since the Supreme Court won’t have enough time (between Oct. 21 and Oct. 31, the official Brexit deadline) to make a decision, the government can still go ahead with its “no deal” Brexit plan.
What if Parliament passes a no-confidence vote? Johnson will resign, and Corbyn of the Labour Party will take over and form a caretaker government until the general election. Believe it or not, in the midst of all this chaos, one thing uniting Brexiteers and the “remainers” in the Parliament and the general public is that very few want to see Corbyn become the next PM, even on a temporary basis. In the U.K., Corbyn is less popular than a “no deal” Brexit.
What if Parliament passes a bill between Oct. 21 and Oct. 31 to revoke Brexit completely? Cummings believes such an action will only strengthen the Tories’ position and even hand Tories an election victory because, in his words, “Most MPs do not understand how much the country hates Parliament and wants someone to sort out this mess.”
Johnson Is Trying To Avoid an Intraparty Civil War
Of course, the bolder the move, the bigger the risk. Johnson may face jail time if the court determines he broke the law for refusing to ask the EU for another Brexit extension. The “do or die” moment is fast approaching for Johnson and Great Britain.
While Johnson should remain firm and committed to his promise of delivering Brexit on Oct. 31, he can’t afford to lose allies. Yet he made a poor decision to expel 21 senior Tories who voted with the “remainers” in Parliament. A good leader shouldn’t surround himself with only “yes” men anyway.
The main reason for these Tories’ defection, according to Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary who resigned last weekend, is that Johnson has been accused of focusing exclusively on preparing for a “no deal” Brexit but has done little to seek a new deal with the EU despite his repeated claims. If the accusation is true, Johnson needs to rebalance his administration’s priorities and demonstrate a good-faith effort in seeking a new deal with the EU while still preparing for a “no deal” Brexit. Even if there is little chance the EU will agree to any new deal offer, such a rebalance is necessary to win back those defected Tories and prevent more of them from defecting.
Given the challenges of Brexit, Johnson can’t afford a civil war with his own party members. As Jeremy Hunt, former foreign secretary, tweeted, “Divided parties don’t win elections and we’ll never be forgiven if Corbyn gets in.”
Despite a bad week, Johnson still has a fighting chance. He has to make necessary changes quickly to unite his party, because the “do or die” moment for him and his country is fast approaching.