There is a phrase among television critics in the US, “jumping the shark”, that refers to a TV show becoming boring for audiences as it drags on, long after the fundamental conflict that moves the plot forward has become stale. By the time Britain’s Conservative prime minister, Boris Johnson, tried to force through parliament a hurriedly negotiated deal with the European Union, the Brexit drama had long since jumped the shark for many.
But UK’s legislators did not buckle under pressure of the looming October 31 deadline and the prospect of an economically-catastrophic “no-deal Brexit”. Instead, a section of MPs cutting across party lines passed an amendment withholding support for Johnson’s deal. The amendment is also a tactic to force the PM to request another extension from the EU. For his part, Johnson has said he will not request an extension and will push for a vote on his deal.
At the core of Johnson’s bravado lies the belief — not unfounded — that he is fulfilling the will of the British people. The referendum in 2016 was a vote for Brexit and it is armed with this expression of the will of the people that pro-exit leaders make their stand. Yet, it is becoming increasingly clear that other, equally salient aspects of the Westminster system are fighting back. Issues like the Irish back-stop, as well as the stand taken by Scottish MPs and parties, have brought to the fore the challenges of balancing the claims of the UK’s federal units vis a vis the commitment to Brexit.
Second, the 48 per cent of Britons who chose to stay with the EU have stood against the referendum. Finally, the British Parliament, it has become clear over the last few weeks, will not sacrifice the economic future of the country at the alter of political expediency without a fight.
What the nearly four-year-long tussle over Brexit has really made clear is that the referendum is not an adequate tool for the determination of complex issues. A “yes/no” binary cannot form the backbone of a decision with as many facets as this.
Yet, once such an opinion is sought, it is only through a second referendum that the mandate can be comprehensively overturned. Johnson, for example, has kept to the letter of the law by acquiescing to parliament and asking the EU for an extension. He has also kept to his commitment to the “yes” vote by writing a second letter saying he does not favour an extension. The Brexit drama may seem interminable. But its central contradiction remains.