Today is a new day, but for Boris Johnson it’s bound to seem no different to the one before. Indeed, that’s how it was all last week. This is because the British Prime Minister has got himself into a pretty pickle and large sections of the opposition Labour Party are inclined to let him stew in it. He not only could end up as Britain’s shortest serving Prime Minister but also it’s weakest. And all he can do is rue the mess he’s got himself into.
Last week, the House of Commons voted to stop Johnson from taking Britain out of the European Union without a deal. Even though he’s repeatedly claimed he wants one, it’s no secret he’s willing to crash out without it. That has now been stopped. In the process 21 of his MPs voted against him.
This left Johnson in power but without a majority. He attempted to get around this conundrum by seeking the Parliament’s permission to set aside the Fixed Term Parliament Act and agree to an election on October 15. It required a two-thirds majority but Johnson fell 133 votes short. He’s going to try again today, but it’s very unlikely that he can get the House of Commons to change its mind. In fact, the Labour and the Scottish Nationalists have crafted a joint strategy to ensure there isn’t an election before the October 31 Brexit deadline has passed. This also rules out opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn moving a vote of confidence, something he had earlier said he would.
There is, however, one other way an early election can be called. Johnson could himself call for a vote of confidence knowing he would lose. The problem is that would not lead to an immediate election. Under Britain’s Fixed Term Parliament Act the opposition would have two weeks to try and form an alternate government.
Not so long ago, Corbyn spoke of cobbling together such an administration on a purely interim basis to ensure the Brexit deadline of October 31 is extended. The idea appealed to other opposition parties, but none was keen on Corbyn being prime minister. If he agrees to someone else taking the job, a coalition of opposition parties could come to power. That would mean that Johnson would have to step down as prime minister without an election following.
There’s been an interesting twist in the last few days. Corbyn, is no longer pressing for an opposition government, but has said he’s willing to accept an election once the Queen gives her assent to the Parliament’s law extending Brexit. However, large sections of his Labour party, as well as other smaller ones like the Scottish Nationalists, the Liberals and Plaid Cymru, are implacably opposed to an election before October 31. They want to avoid any possibility of an election on the 15th which gives Johnson a majority and the ability to take Britain out of the EU without a deal on the 31st. So Corbyn’s altered position is of little help to the embattled Prime Minister.
Now, look at the situation Johnson finds himself in. He’s in office, but without power, and he can’t even be certain that losing a vote of confidence would lead to the election he wants. Meanwhile, the “do or die” commitment he made to ensure Britain leaves the European Union by 31 October is not going to be fulfilled.
This also means that whenever an election is held, Johnson will have to face the British electorate having failed to live up to his Brexit pledge. Had the election happened either with success in the bag or in the offing he could have been confident of a majority. Now that’s far from certain.
Of course, Johnson does have a few tricks up his sleeve. First, he can try for a new deal with Brussels thus permitting Britain to leave the EU before October 31. He said his “powers of persuasion” would achieve this. Unfortunately, very few people share his confidence. Certainly, the EU does not.
A second possibility is that he could ignore Parliament’s decision to ask for a Brexit extension and crash out without a deal. This would, of course, amount to defying the law. But as a senior Whitehall source said to The Times: “What are they going to do, get the Supreme Court to send the Cabinet Secretary to Brussels to sign off the extension?” Perhaps that’s what Johnson was hinting at when he said on Thursday that he would rather “die in a ditch” then let Britain remain in the EU.
A third possibility is that Johnson could quit rather than be forced to ask EU for a Brexit delay. This would rescue him from the predicament of having to do what he’s sworn he never will, but it will also end his political career abruptly. Many thought his speech on Thursday suggested he hasn’t ruled this out.
Finally, if all this wasn’t bad enough, Johnson has also upset his party. His authoritarian decision to purge the 21 Tory MPs, who rebelled on Tuesday and voted with the opposition to delay Brexit, faces a growing backlash. Johnson is under pressure to reverse it. On top of all this, his brother, Jo, has resigned leading commentators to ask if his siblings don’t trust him why should the country?
Not surprisingly, Johnson’s behaviour is now widely viewed as bumbling. His speeches seem to ramble almost incoherently. Even when he attempts a joke he forgets the punchline. After the calamitous week he’s suffered, this embarrassing performance could be understandable, but the damage it’s done to his image will not easily be forgotten.
Monday might be a very long day in British politics. Unforeseen events could lead to the political situation altering considerably. Johnson must hope that happens. But if it doesn’t he could end up resembling a car crashing into a wall in slow motion with the brake pedal missing.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 9, 2019 under the title “Brexit dreams”. The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi