President Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson have a lot in common. Unfortunately, their commonalities are political facts they wish weren’t true.
Both have, at various times, been stymied by politicized court decisions. They are continuously derided by much of the media and are hated by their political rivals with an unbridled fervor.
In the president’s case, he is beleaguered and preoccupied by Nancy Pelosi’s and Adam Schiff’s impeachment campaign against him and a Republican Party populated by too many people like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins.
The PM is hobbled by a House of Commons that refuses to deal with Brexit, the UK’s divorce from the European Union, in any responsible manner. Johnson’s party no longer holds a majority in Commons (yet it refuses his demands for a general election), his “Conservative Party” is nearly bereft of conservatives, and he is continually frustrated by a large multi-party “remainer” group that will do anything to forestall Brexit.
In forestalling Brexit, and in nothing else, the UK Parliament is doing a superb job. By fiddling and diddling with Brexit — instead of doing what a UK-wide referendum instructed it to do in 2016 — Parliament has produced the worst political mess in UK politics since the United Kingdom was united in 1707.
A couple of weeks ago, Johnson said he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask the European Union for another Brexit delay. (Under hapless Theresa May, the March 29 Brexit date was delayed until October 31.) Parliament had set an October 18 deadline by which either a deal with the EU had to be agreed on or Johnson had to request another delay. When that deadline passed Johnson did what the law required. In literal terms, at least.
Johnson sent three letters. The first letter, unsigned by Johnson, asked the EU for another delay. A second letter — this one signed — told the EU to ignore the first letter. (The third letter probably instructed the UK ambassador to the EU to lobby against a delay.)
Before the October 18 deadline, Johnson had made a deal with the EU that is not much better than the awful deal Theresa May had made. Johnson’s deal leaves Northern Ireland in the EU customs union while the rest of the UK exits and leaves it to the Northern Irish parliament — the Stormont – to decide on an exit later.
(The Stormont collapsed in acrimony in January 2017 and hasn’t met since. Hard as it is to believe, the Stormont is even more dysfunctional than our House of Representatives.)
On Monday, Johnson’s deal was voted down in Parliament. On Tuesday, he managed to get it through the first of three approval stages, but his plan to have an expedited three-day process for passage of it failed. The bill — and Brexit — are now in a state of suspended animation.
Meanwhile the EU first approved the deal and is now trying to agree on what sort of a Brexit delay it will agree on. EU President Donald Tusk is pushing for a delay until January 31. French President Emmanuel Macron may only agree to a short delay, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will agree to some new delay, and — as usual — Macron and Merkel will make a decision and expect the rest to follow. All EU decisions have to be unanimous.
Johnson had threatened to pull the withdrawal agreement bill and demand a general election if Parliament refused to pass it. Instead he met with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday, trying and failing to get an expedited schedule agreed on to pass the withdrawal agreement bill.
Corbyn has repeatedly dodged the question of whether he supports Brexit or not, but his Labour Party is determined to prevent Brexit. Corbyn has rejected Johnson’s call for an election before Christmas.
Johnson could force an election by resigning, but that option has too many risks, including the horrific possibility that the quasi-communist Corbyn could take the PM’s job for even a short time.
The EU clearly wants to delay Brexit as long as it can in hope that the UK will cancel the Brexit process. (A new prime minister could withdraw May’s letter invoking the EU treaty article that allows a member to withdraw.) It may believe that its best bet is that, in the next UK general election, Johnson will be tossed out and a new PM elected to cancel Brexit altogether.
Johnson’s options, then, come down to holding on until he can win a general election or to successfully lobby at least one EU leader to vote against another delay. The latter will be most difficult, but not impossible.
For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is regularly bashed by his fellow EU leaders for what they call his authoritarianism. Orbán could be persuadable, and Johnson should do everything he can to bring him around. If Orbán can be persuaded to vote against a delay, then Johnson could still take the UK out of the EU without a deal on October 31, his often-stated desire.
If none of the EU leaders prove strong enough to go against Macron and Merkel and vote against a delay, Johnson will — probably in late winter or early spring — be able to force a general election. His campaign will be based entirely on Brexit and Parliament’s failure to deal with it responsibly.
UK voters are, to say the least, not united on Brexit. Scotland, for example, voted against it in 2016. The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland is very uncomfortable with the deal Johnson has negotiated.
The Labour Party’s members will vote against Johnson no matter what he says or does. And there are bitter-enders, devoutly against Brexit, among Johnson’s normal constituency as well as indecisive “moderates.”
Johnson, like Trump, is not popular among the media and throughout liberal and quasi-liberal circles. His campaign, strong as it will be, is not by any means certain to win.
The most powerful reason for Johnson to win is that UK voters must be fed up with the continued parliamentary game-playing over Brexit. Literally nothing else is getting done, and Johnson’s campaign against Parliament’s inaction will include the promise of action on a host of issues (strengthening and adding police to fight the surge in violent crime, urgently needed improvements in the UK’s socialized medicine system, and more). That should garner support from those who are at all inclined to vote against Corbyn.
The most powerful reason for Johnson to lose is the performance of the Conservative Party since 2016. Conservative PM David Cameron first promised a Brexit referendum, then held it and campaigned against Brexit. He resigned. Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, made every mistake possible in negotiating a Brexit deal with the EU. Her deal was rejected three times by Parliament because it effectively left the UK in the EU indefinitely.
So far, Johnson hasn’t been able to do much more. A new election, and finally making good on Brexit, may be the Conservative Party’s last chance.
Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, is the most interesting person in English-language politics. He gave a fiery speech to the EU parliament earlier this week, condemning Johnson’s deal with the EU as no better than May’s. Johnson could promise not to oppose Brexit Party candidates in several key constituencies where the Conservative Party is weakest. It’s entirely possible that, if Farage makes a parallel agreement to help Johnson in other constituencies, the two could carry the election handily. But both have staked out positions that their egos won’t compromise.
If Johnson can win a pro-Brexit majority in Parliament, Brexit will come quickly. If he loses — or if the majority he gains is too slim — the idea of Brexit will die with a whimper.