In a week such as this you can’t help but think that famous cultural theorist Stuart Hall was on to something when he remarked that “the disorderly thrust of political events disturbs the symmetry of political analysis.”
For those unable or unwilling to keep up, Boris Johnson has become the first Prime Minister in UK history to lose his inaugural three votes in the House of Commons. He has also lost his majority, been deserted by his own brother, been widely heckled by members of the public (and the odd fast-food chain) and is now, for all intents and purposes, stuck in Number 10 Downing Street until opposition parties decide it is time to vote for an early general election.
Yet, to a certain extent, this was always part of the plan.
It is important to remember that Boris Johnson is not an ideologue. He is a man who cares, ultimately, about his own reckless pursuit of power. He may now masquerade as the buccaneering strongman that Brexiteers have long desired, but this is the same Boris Johnson who had famously written one newspaper column for Remain, another for Leave, and opted for whichever side he thought would best serve his career. The rest, as they say, is history.
But, back to the present, Johnson’s strategy should not come as a particular surprise. He inherited the exact same Parliament as his predecessor Theresa May and, inevitably, is running into the exact same problems. The simple truth, as it has long stood, is that there is no majority in the House of Commons for any form of Brexit and to remedy this situation, the only way out is an election.
In this light, everything points towards a People vs Parliament election. To frame himself as the voice of the people, however, the Prime Minister needs to undergo quite the transformation. He is Eton and Oxbridge educated, he is on record vociferously defending the bankers that caused the Great Financial Crisis and, without getting too ad hominem, his birth name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. A far cry from the kind of salt-of-the-earth character Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, for one, has spent years cultivating.
The key to this transformation, therefore, is to wholeheartedly and single-mindedly pursue “the will of the people.” While those grounded in reality will be painfully aware that there is no chance of a new Brexit deal, the government needs to spend a couple of months grandstanding about the prospect of securing a new deal in Brussels. Given the commitment to leave by any means necessary on October 31, when the so-called “new talks” with the EU break down, Johnson will be seemingly left with no choice but to pursue No Deal knowing full well that the UK Parliament would prevent him from doing so.
The UK’s growing problem of in-work poverty, crumbling public services, and vast levels of inequality need long-term, strategic thinking. We are stuck in a world of politics.
Thus, here we are, with Johnson claiming that the EU will not give him a new deal and Parliament will not let him leave with No Deal. The only option, therefore, is an election. The problem for Johnson, however, is two-thirds of the House of Commons need to agree to an early election, and opposition parties are quite happy to watch the prime minister stew in a mess of his own making — unable to leave without a deal, unable to negotiate a new deal, unable to call an election, and unwilling to ask for an extension from Brussels.
One of those four options will eventually have to give.
For the prime minister, his electoral success depends on his image as a hard-line Brexiteer. He’s stated he would rather be dead in a ditch than not deliver Brexit on October 31. Thus, asking for an extension is anathema to his chances of re-election. Rumors now abound that his government will break the law and ignore legislation that makes No Deal illegal, while Johnson himself may even step down to avoid the political backlash of going to Brussels and asking for an extension.
Either way, the government shut the doors of Parliament on September 9. All legislation not passed before then is dead in the water. In the middle of the UK’s biggest political crisis since the Second World War, we will have the longest prorogation, or suspension of Parliament, in modern history. The chaos, unfortunately, will no doubt continue.
It’s worth taking a step back from these incessant political shenanigans to highlight three crucial facts.
First, it’s a fair bet that the vast majority of the general public are ill-versed (and arguably rightly so in the current context) about the minutiae of Westminster politics. While the press and political commentators may be up in arms about Johnson removing the whip from Conservative Party grandees such as Nicholas Soames or Dominic Grieve, few outside political inner circles will know or care. The image that Johnson wants to portray is a man who is willing to do anything to get Brexit done, and if recent polls are to be believed, it is a strategy that is having some success.
Second, there is no version of events where we get Brexit done and dusted. All versions of Brexit simultaneously deliver for some and betray others. This is obviously true of options such as revoking Article 50 (effectively canceling Brexit) or leaving without a deal, but is equally pertinent for May’s Hard Brexit or a so-called Soft Brexit. Worryingly, after years of deepening polarization, the mere process of parliamentary democracy (through which the type of Brexit should be decided) is now being framed as a hindrance to democracy itself.
Third, while these developments seemingly move at a million miles an hour, there are problems beyond Brexit. This should hardly need saying. Climate breakdown, the UK’s growing problem of in-work poverty, crumbling public services and vast levels of inequality need long-term, strategic thinking.
We are stuck in a world of politics, fast and slow. Too fast for some issues, too slow for others. It’s not clear if an upcoming election will sort that out.