The British Parliament has been back in business for less than a day and already the Brexit debate has reached a new and dizzying level of bizarreness.
On Wednesday evening amid ugly scenes in the House of Commons, a combative Boris Johnson took the extraordinary step of daring Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the official opposition, to call a vote of no confidence in the government he leads. Parliament was “paralyzed,” the Prime Minister argued. “This Parliament must either stand aside and let this government get Brexit done, or bring a vote of confidence and finally face the day of reckoning with the voters,” he said.
Corbyn declined Johnson’s kind offer. “I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement,” he told lawmakers. “Unfortunately, it was like his illegal shutting down of Parliament – null, of no effect, and should be quashed, in the words of the Supreme Court.”
To people looking on from the UK and around the world, it all must have looked completely topsy-turvy. Johnson says he wants an election, but can’t make it happen. The opposition claims it wants an election, but won’t make it happen. British politics is in a deeply weird place. The government and the opposition each hold the keys to giving the other what they want, but neither wants to be the one to release the lock.
Johnson is leading a minority government and wants an early general election as soon as possible. In order to get one, he needs the country to believe he is fighting tooth and nail to get Brexit over the line, once and for all. Corbyn and the rest of the opposition are frustrating his efforts at every turn. That’s the message he is hammering home, over and over.
If the polls are to be believed, it’s a narrative that’s working in his favor.
Labour and the rest of Johnson’s opponents, however, only want an election after they can be absolutely sure that the looming October 31 Brexit deadline has been neutered. Only a delay, they argue, would prevent a no-deal Brexit which they believe would cause economic havoc, and even put lives at risk.
Doubtless, they are sincere in this argument. However, it’s hard to ignore the idea floated in some corners that if Brexit is delayed, Johnson would have failed to deliver his central promise and his poll numbers would collapse. A clearer path to power, therefore, would emerge for Labour and the other UK opposition parties.
That’s why Corbyn may not bring forward a confidence vote now, but instead continue to pile political pressure on the Prime Minister to resign. If the Labour leader can force that scenario, someone else would be forced to ask Brussels for a Brexit extension and Johnson would be cast as an abject failure who quit when the going got tough. All of which would presumably work to the electoral advantage of one Jeremy Corbyn.
Johnson and Corbyn, it seems, are trying to trick the other into acting against their own interest. The politics of the UK have seldom been this baffling.
It’s hard to see that this will lead to anything other than a monumental grudge match. We got a taste of it on Wednesday – the exchanges in the Commons were among the angriest and most bitter in years.
Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, said Parliament was “dead” and “no moral right” to sit. Johnson, later, peppered his remarks with the people-versus-parliament rhetoric of “surrender” and “betrayal” that has become his trademark.
In response to calls from Labour MPs to moderate his tone and reflect on the politically motivated murder three years ago of lawmaker Jo Cox, Johnson said: “The best way to honor Jo Cox’s memory is to get Brexit done.” Even some Conservative MPs were aghast that the Prime Minister would use the horror to make a political point.
But don’t expect him to back down. Johnson thinks it will work, and there will be more to come.
Parliament is back – and angrier than ever. The next few weeks will get even uglier.