There is no act of treachery or meanness of which a political party is not capable;
for in politics there is no honour.
— Benjamin Disraeli
Barely two weeks since Brexiteers celebrated Britain’s exit from the European Union, already alarms are being raised that Britons’ ultimate independence is still under siege. Not from Brussels, but from Westminster. Oh, say it isn’t so. Still, few are unsurprised, if nevertheless saddened, that Boris Johnson fails to live up to expectations.
Brexiteers were always skeptically optimistic about the prime minister’s prospects. As European correspondent for the London Telegraph, Johnson was solidly dismissive of the burgeoning EU superstate. Yet as London mayor, his record was unremarkable for its adherence to conservative principles — a record unchanged as prime minister. Some men “count it a bondage to fix a belief,” Francis Bacon believed; while James Delingpole surmises that “Boris’ problem (one of several) is that he is a man of no certain political principle who likes to be liked.”
The Brexit brief is no less blemished. While a member of Theresa May’s cabinet, Johnson resigned as Foreign Secretary when Theresa May’s Chequers Agreement (July 2018) alluded that UK–EU negotiations would achieve a Brexit in name only.
Then, when the prime minister’s Withdrawal Agreement came before the House of Commons in the early months of 2019, Johnson voted no against the agreement twice, only to acquiesce on the third attempt to pass the bill. He rationalized his reversal on the justification that worse was to come if Remainers prevailed.
In the face of overwhelming opposition from all sides in the Commons, May resigned the premiership in June. Boris Johnson was the presumptive favorite. Other challengers for the Conservative leadership were as strong (if not more so) proponents of Britain’s independence from the EU, but none shared his charisma or popular appeal — both vital if Brexit was to make it over the finish line. So “up to the top of the greasy pole” Boris went and into Number 10.
The new prime minister enjoyed no more respite from Parliament than his predecessor. Even his prorogation to bring in a fresh parliamentary session was overturned by a suspect UK Supreme Court — an affront to prerogative that ensnared Elizabeth II along with Johnson. Finally, in October, he reached a deal with Brussels to the angst of Brexiteers — an agreement many argued was even worse than that which May had achieved.
Regardless, the die was cast. Looking for solace where they would, Brexiteers reasoned that as bad as Boris’s deal might be, there was wiggle room moving forward. Only Brexit had to be won first or else all was in vain. And the prime minister was still their ace card against the range of Remainers rising up to revoke Brexit.
Fortune, too, broke in the Tories’ favor when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, beguiled by his party’s rhetorical bluster, judged that a dissolved Parliament was just what the country needed to remove the Conservatives from power and install his salivating socialists instead. Opposition parties agreed with the Government to sidestep the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and the writs were dropped. Election day (December 12) saw Boris Johnson returned to power with a majority and Mr. Corbyn’s political career relegated to the dustbin of history.
The prime minister duly got his withdrawal legislation passed by Parliament, and, come January 31, the United Kingdom exited the European Union. Huzzahs were soon halted, however, as the fortnight unfolded.
For along with Brexit comes a host of pledges from the Conservative government: White-elephant infrastructure projects. Tax grabs to fund ever-greater government interventions. Restrictions on the use of fossil fuels. Cutting carbon-dioxide emissions by 2050. More concessions to climate change hysteria. Huawei to become a player in Britain’s telecom industry, despite warnings from America and other allies about China’s espionage threat. Meanwhile, Brexiteers are very far from sanguine about the shape of a future UK–EU trade agreement, upon which hinge bilateral deals with America, Asia, and Commonwealth members.
“Vote Boris, get Jeremy Corbyn,” James Delingpole decries at Breitbart London, surveying the reversals for individual independence. “Clearly, Britain has no great post-Brexit future at all.”
Brexiteers must be cheerful and resolute to the cause of British independence, from Brussels and Westminster. Disraeli deemed despair “the conclusion of fools.” Boris Johnson, in the face of great adversity, did fulfill his promise to “get Brexit done.” To break faith with him so soon vitiates valuable political capital accumulated for the Brexit cause.
At best, Boris’s weakness for acceptance makes him vulnerable to the populist demand to “keep Brexit alive.” Is his capriciousness amenable to amendment and change for the better? At worse, is it time to lay the groundwork of Johnson’s successor? There is more than a little wisdom in Lord Bacon’s opinion that “many a man’s strength is in opposition; and when that faileth, he growth out of use.”
“It is often seen, that a few that are stiff, do tire out a great number that are moderate,” Bacon mused. Brexiteers have outlasted more than one prime minister that stood in the way of British independence. By stiffening their spines once more, they can do so again.
Stephen MacLean, a freelancer based in Nova Scotia, writes the Brexit Diary for the New York Sun.