Watching Britain’s prime minister wage a vicious war with Parliament this week over Brexit is like catching a preview of a grim movie coming to a political theater near you.
The leading role is played by new Conservative Prime Minister and Trump clone, Boris Johnson, who wants to pull Britain out of the European Union by Oct. 31, with, or more likely without, a deal with Brussels. In an expansion of executive power, Johnson ordered Parliament shut down for several weeks prior to that date in order to block it from stopping his plans.
A majority in Parliament fought back, including 21 rebels from the Conservative Party who believed a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for Britain. On Wednesday, the House of Commons passed legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Johnson, who has lost his majority in Parliament, then tried to get MPs to back a snap election on Oct. 15, but failed. He will no doubt try to get there by another parliamentary route.
But the back story goes much deeper than these battles. It concerns the demise of the center in British politics, which is why the political system has been unable to resolve how to Brexit since a referendum narrowly approved the idea in 2016.
The Conservative Party has been taken over by the radical right, which wants to smash things. Meantime, the Labour Party is undermined by the far-left politics of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Unless the center can reemerge, and unify, Johnson may still take Britain over a cliff.
Given the Trump takeover of the Republican Party, it’s fascinating to compare the rightward shift of their British counterpart. This week Johnson expelled the 21 rebels who wouldn’t back him, including longtime luminaries such as Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames.
“The Conservatives are being shorn of all who are not prepared to sign up to Mr. Johnson’s world view,” wrote Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley. “He is overseeing a radical right takeover of his party. The consequences go beyond Brexit. The Tories will soon have more than a touch of Trump about them.”
On a trip to England last month, I spoke with Nick Boles, a longtime Conservative member of Parliament and cabinet minister; he resigned from the party in April over its unwillingness to compromise on a Brexit deal. “It became clear towards the end of last year that the Conservative Party membership was radicalizing,’ he told me, “and a no-deal Brexit was becoming something people were enthusiastic about.”
Boles believes no-deal would gradually sap Britain’s economy. “It would impoverish us in comparison to what we could have been and would be very damaging strategically.” By suddenly separating Britain from the continent, “It would count for Vladimir Putin as a big win.”
Soaring Conservative enthusiasm for no-deal was due in large part to pressure on the Conservative party from its right flank, namely the Brexit Party, whose leader Nigel Farage has been praised by President Trump and worked as a commentator for Fox News. Farage and Johnson (also a White House favorite) promoted false claims that Brexit would be economically cost-free for Britons, and would be quickly followed by new, lucrative trade deals with the EU — and Trump.
Sheep farmers, for example, were lulled with stories that they’d be freed from EU regulations, but would retain their European markets that buy 70% of British lamb. During my London stay, however, TV news was filled with speculation about the possible need to slaughter herds in the event of a no-deal Brexit, since that would trigger an immediate 40% European tariff on British lamb exports to the EU.
The second reason Boles cites for the Conservative swing is “an aging party membership” (party members, a tiny fraction of Britons, choose the party’s candidate for prime minister).
“The membership is not being renewed,” Boles says, “and relatively few are in touch with the modern world or modern business. They see Brexit as inspiring the (World War II) blitz spirit.
“They are not analyzing this rationally. People are caught up with their feelings about identity and the nature of the modern world.”
Given the splintering of the Conservative Party, one might expect Johnson could lose a snap election. But the prospect that Corbyn could become prime minister will scare off many potential swing voters. Like Johnson, Corbyn was chosen by a party membership more radical than his party’s wider base.
So the outcome of a snap election is unpredictable. Much will depend on the growing success of third parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, who oppose Brexit. Yet, unless the Liberal Democrats do spectacularly well enough to get asked to form a government — which is unlikely — voters are faced with the unpalatable choice of Corbyn or Johnson. Because Johnson is a great campaigner, he could win.
When I asked Boles about the comparison between Britain’s political drama and ours, he responded: “If we leave the EU in dramatic fashion, that is irreversible. “At least with your guy it’s not forever. At least you can vote him out in four or five years.”
Neither is a very cheery thought.