Boris Johnson’s Werewolf Moment

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For anyone keeping score, this week’s parliamentary battles may look to be going against Boris Johnson. But you would expect that: He’s fighting them in parliament, hallowed ground in British democracy but enemy turf for this prime minister. His goal now is to shift the battleground to constituencies across the country in October and divide his opponents.

Nobody who watched Tuesday’s parliamentary drama could have failed to be transfixed by both the variety of styles on display and the history in the making. Former Prime Minister Theresa May, now on the back benches where non-ministers sit, yielded to the periodic eye roll. Other involuntary displays on those benches – including a deep nasal excavation – were harder to interpret.

It was the political equivalent of a full-moon moment, that point where the Conservative Party werewolved itself into the Brexit Party. Many had seen it coming for a while, of course. Tory MP Phillip Lee, a remain supporter who clearly didn’t want to transform, crossed the floor of the House of Commons Tuesday to take up a seat with the Liberal Democrats. Just as the prime minister was talking about how Britain will “take back control” of its trade policy after Brexit, Lee deprived Johnson of his working majority.

The prime minister was then dramatically defeated on his first parliamentary vote after 21 lawmakers from his own party rebelled, including former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Nicholas Soames, grandson of Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill. Where Theresa May, the daughter of a vicar, sought to keep a broad Conservative church together in the hope of building a coalition for her Brexit deal, Johnson seems to have taken the biblical admonition “if your right hand offend thee, cut it off” literally. Only Johnson has lopped off almost the whole left side of his party, withdrawing the whip from the rebels.

On the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, Johnson portrayed efforts to stop a no-deal Brexit as “surrender,” language echoed by that part of the British media that supports his side. Parliament itself has been cast as collaborators; Johnson and his team the resistance. Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg (part of the resistance) couldn’t hide his disdain for lawmakers as he reclined, almost horizontal, across the front-bench as if draping himself across a chaise longue. It was either entitlement personified or, more charitably, simply a very late night after an exhausting day at the office.

Parliament, historically, is where sovereignty lies in Britain. But this one has proved incapable of resolving Brexit. With no majority, Johnson’s big bet is that his electoral offering – compelling leadership, a clear Brexit strategy, and lashings of public spending – will trump that of an opposition that is disunited, lacks a strong leader and is inextricably linked to a parliament that Johnson has tarred as hopeless. Two-thirds of all Britons say the opposition Labour Party’s Brexit policy is unclear or confusing; not a great statistic going into an election that the prime minister wants to cast as a Leave versus everything-else vote.

Tuesday’s events set up the drama on Wednesday, which will include a historic vote to stop Johnson from taking Britain out of Europe without a  deal. If that passes before parliament is suspended next week, Labour is likely to support the government’s call for a snap election on Oct. 15, two days before a European summit at which Johnson has promised to reach a deal or else to leave without one at the end of the month. Ironically, the opposition plan to stop Johnson doing the latter may make his case for a strong executive that can cauterize the wound stronger. The horribly leading wording aside, a YouGov poll of leave voters suggests most wouldn’t blame Johnson for a delay that is forced upon him.

The risks for Johnson is that having gone all in, he loses. If he cannot get an election, what does he do? A government without a majority at all cannot pass legislation or really govern. Even going to the polls is a huge risk. In Westminster on Tuesday, he spoke repeatedly about seeking a deal with the EU at the summit. Nigel Farage has suggested his Brexit Party would tactically support the Conservatives in an election, but only if Johnson pursued a “clean break” Brexit – that is, no deals allowed. The Conservative Party’s commitment to its new look will be tested.

Those behind Johnson are largely united in supporting his Brexit strategy. They accept that Britain may leave without a deal on Oct. 31. Those against him struggle to agree on what they want other than an extension, which for many Britons will feel like a prolonged tooth extraction. Johnson is promising gin and tonic instead.

Of course, to claim it will all end there – as Johnson tantalizingly offered – is wishful thinking. An election is almost certain to follow this week’s parliamentary excitement. Whoever wins, though, Brexit and its aftermath will plague British politics for many more moons.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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