Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Donate
Topics

The U.K. is showing us that even the most venerable democracy is fragile

Bored by the endless drama across the pond? An awful lot of Brits are, too.

Protestors
Protestors, with one of them dressed as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, demonstrating outside the Houses of the Parliament in London on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Just what Britain needs. Another election.

There is a good chance, however, that at the end of the tumultuous week ahead, that’s where the United Kingdom will be heading. There also is a decent chance that despite the mess they’ve made of Brexit, the Conservative Party will come out on top.

If that happens, next year at this time Boris Johnson will be prime minister of a country no longer in the European Union. The opposition Labor Party will have dumped Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, and will be engaged in some deep soul-searching. Scotland will be rushing toward exits. 

Bored by the endless drama across the pond? An awful lot of Brits are, too. But this train wreck-cum-dumpster fire is a cautionary lesson in how badly even the most venerable democracy can screw up. And remember that, at a time when we’re all wondering when the next recession will hit, Brexit-induced troubles in Britain won’t be confined to Britain. London may not run the world anymore, but it’s still the center of a Top 10 economy. The U.K. economy is slowing down, and Germany’s giant export market, for instance, already is feeling the effects

Article continues after advertisement

Of all the results of the Brexit mess, a no-deal departure would be the most disruptive. For months, businesses have been stockpiling food, medicine and many other goods. In late July, the International Monetary Fund listed a chaotic Brexit among the chief dangers to the world economy.

Because Johnson curtailed the amount of time Parliament will be in session this fall, the next few days have a crisis feel to them. The Brexit date, now Oct. 31, already has been delayed twice, and Johnson insists that Britain will leave this time – deal or no deal. Parliament has previously rejected leaving without a deal, but after a few days of work in early September, it will be adjourned until mid-October. That leaves precious little time to act, particularly for a body that tied itself securely in knots over Brexit earlier this year.

Johnson says the adjournment is a normal breather to give his government a chance to shape its agenda  for Parliament’s next session. Opponents say he is abusing the procedure for political reasons. 

So opponents of a no-deal Brexit plan to try to stop it by introducing legislation today [Tuesday] forcing another delay until early next year. Corbyn is leading the effort, but it also includes smaller pro-EU parties and some Conservative Party members – including several prominent enough to have been Cabinet members. Johnson argues that such maneuvering weakens his last-minute bid for a better deal (which the EU, so far, has shown no indication of offering). If that doesn’t persuade wavering Conservative Party MPs, perhaps the threat that they won’t be able to run for re-election as party members will do the trick. 

Still, there is a good chance Johnson loses in Parliament. If that seems likely, his Plan B appears to be turning conventional wisdom on its head and seeking a general election in mid-October

For months, it has been Corbyn who has tried to tiptoe around Brexit as he maneuvers for a general election. Conservatives have assumed that facing voters with Brexit still hanging would be political suicide. But a few things have changed.

It’s best to be cautious with polls, but it’s also pretty clear that Corbyn is deeply unpopular. A YouGov poll released in mid-August showed that far more people would prefer to have no Brexit deal than have Corbyn become prime minister in order to oversee a second Brexit referendum. Corbyn was popular with young people in Britain’s 2017 election. Overall, however, many voters consider him to be too far left. Months of equivocating on Brexit have left serious disagreements within Labor, and the party also has been unable to extricate itself from an anti-Semitism scandal. 

Meanwhile, Johnson has presided over a bump in popularity for the Conservatives. In the words of the Economist: “People who have worked with Boris Johnson rarely praise him for his efficiency or integrity. His editors during his career as a journalist have variously described him as a “cavorting charlatan” and “epically unreliable.” Johnson’s decision to shut down Parliament isn’t popular, and Britain would be no less divided after an election. But six polls conducted in late July showed the Conservatives with a lead of between 1 and 10 percentage points over Labor, and more over smaller parties. 

Former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair warned Monday about the “elephant trap” of contesting an election before Brexit is decided. Blair predicted that voters who favor remaining in the EU would split among several parties, giving the Conservatives a comfortable majority. If he’s right, there is no way Corbyn survives after blowing such a golden opportunity. 

Article continues after advertisement

The United Kingdom might not survive, either, at least in its current form. Johnson comes across north of the border as the kind of entitled Englishman the Scots detest. His willingness to leave the EU without a deal is totally at odds with the view of most Scots – who now appear to want another independence referendum by 2021.

After Scotland’s first referendum in 2014, the vote to leave the EU in 2016, and one — probably two — votes for Parliament, it’s just what Britain needs. Another election.