Boris Johnson has been backed into a corner over Brexit. Partly through his own missteps, partly from the growing opposition to his “do-or-die” Brexit plan, Johnson is a man for whom the losses are piling up, while the UK is a country running out of time.
All of the remaining Brexit options facing Johnson – and to a larger extent the UK – lead to one place: An early election. The only real question is whether it happens before or after Brexit.
Whenever it happens, the next election will be vicious, nasty and personal.
“For many Conservatives, (opposition leader) Jeremy Corbyn embodies the very politics that they most loathe, while in Corbyn’s Labour Party, Boris embodies the out-of-touch privileged elite,” explains Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. “When there’s so much to play for, it’s impossible to see how it can’t get very personal.”
Here’s where things currently stand. A couple of weeks ago, Johnson asked the Queen to suspend Parliament, ostensibly to restart the parliamentary session and return with a fresh legislative agenda. It was merely a coincidence, of course, that many lawmakers were also agitating to close down the option of a no-deal Brexit on October 31.
But before the suspension took effect, a majority of lawmakers conspired to seize control of parliamentary business and passed legislation that, in theory, forces his government to request a Brexit extension from the European Union if it fails to negotiate a deal.
So even if Johnson’s real intent had been to shut down that effort, it didn’t work. And to make things worse, the UK’s highest court spent this week hearing evidence alleging that Johnson misled the Queen over his motives for suspending the UK’s legislative body.
The outcome of this case comes early next week, but in some respects, it doesn’t matter a huge amount. Whether Parliament is forced to return early or not, the political reality of Brexit will collide with Johnson soon enough. And given the lack of a majority for anything, an election would be the only way to fix it.
Why will it be so vicious? The political atmosphere in the UK is more hostile than it’s been in decades. Corbyn and Johnson are not only miles apart in terms of their politics, their parties also hold one another in open contempt.
Here’s how one Conservative source spells out the likely attack lines the party will run on Corbyn. There’s his past association with alleged anti-Semites; his support for a second Brexit referendum but his decision to remain neutral in any campaign; his record on national security and whether he could be trusted to protect the nation; and as the source puts it, unkindly but revealingly, his “generic weirdness.”
“He’s just an easy target, isn’t he? Anything you say about him being hard left or confused on Brexit or dodgy associations has the added benefit of being true,” the source says. “Like Trump, there’s always a tweet.”
Corbyn’s supporters, meanwhile, point to Johnson’s privileged background, which they believe makes him blind to the effect of his policies on people who don’t come from the same walk of life as him. Early in his bid to lead the country, for example, Johnson boasted that no politician had defended bankers as much as he did. “I defended them day in, day out.”
Corbyn’s aides point to Johnson’s readiness to conclude a quick trade deal with US President Donald Trump. Such a deal, they argue, would require the UK to dilute its standards for food imports, and to open up parts of the National Health Service (NHS) to American commercial interests. While Johnson flatly denies that the NHS would be on the table in trade talks with the US, it’s a powerful line of attack. As the UK’s former Conservative finance minister, Nigel Lawson, once put it: “The NHS is the closest thing the English people have to a religion.”
More urgently, Labour strategists point to Johnson’s willingness to leave the EU without a negotiated deal. Corbyn was instrumental in the parliamentary plan to avoid a chaotic exit that the government’s own research suggests could lead to food and medicine shortages.
If Labour wanted to run an attack along the lines of Johnson being willing to play politics with the health and well-being of British families, it would be very powerful. And it’s a message that Labour aides are privately saying will be a feature of the election campaign.
What’s unique about the current political climate is that the two main political behemoths are being squeezed by smaller parties on the fringes of the Brexit debate. First, the Liberal Democrats, who last week vowed to cancel Brexit altogether if they won a majority at a general election. “There is no Brexit that will be good for our country,” said leader Jo Swinson at the party’s annual conference. She pointed to the economic harm that Brexit will exact on poorer communities and the damage it would do to people in need of urgent healthcare.
Given that the Brexit vote was won on a narrow 52%-48% mandate, a party willing to stop Brexit in its tracks is set up to be successful. Successful enough, as it happens, that the Lib Dems finished in second place at the UK’s most recent national vote – the elections to the European Parliament.
And in first place? The Brexit party. Nigel Farage’s new political movement is campaigning on a ticket to not just leave the EU, but to leave without a deal. The potency of its message presents a terrifying prospect for both Labour and the Conservatives. Many Labour MPs represent areas of the country that voted strongly in favour of leave. The Brexit party says that Brexit has exposed Labour as a party that has disdain for its voters. “It thinks they are thick, old and it doesn’t really want them any more,” says a Brexit party spokesman.
On Johnson and the Conservatives, the party’s job is even easier. “Boris said he would rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than ask for an extension,” the spokesman explains. “He’s dug that ditch himself, and if we’ve not left the EU on October 31, we’ll gladly push him in it.”
So, the election will be horrible, deeply personal and divisive. But where will it all end up?
“There’s no agreement (among pollsters) on how each party is doing, so we don’t really know what the starting point of this election campaign is,” says Will Jennings, professor of politics at Southampton University. While it’s unlikely that the Lib Dems or the Brexit party would ultimately win a general election, Jennings believes that there would be a repeat of the dynamics that played out in the European elections.
Because of the UK’s peculiar electoral system, that points to no single party winning a majority. That will lead each faction to claim that it has the democratic mandate to push ahead with the most extreme version of whatever its election manifesto promised.
So, after an inevitable election, a brutal campaign, a country more divided than ever and a government with little-to-no clear mandate, where, after all this, will Brexit end up? A bigger mess than it is today, is the most likely answer.