True to the Trump script, Johnson said he would smash the obstructive elite with one blow of his mighty fist. I can see why his supporters cheered. Right-wing Britons, and many others, are frustrated to the point of raging exhaustion by the failure to resolve a Brexit crisis that has consumed this country since it voted to leave the European Union in June 2016.
In December 2015, just before then-prime minister David Cameron demonstrated the entitled overconfidence that afflicts the English upper class by calling a referendum he was sure would endorse remaining in the E.U., just 1 percent of respondents to opinion pollsters cited Europe as their most urgent concern.
Now it is everyone’s concern and is all Britain can think about. We are a land of obsessives trapped in an endless nervous breakdown.
“For the love of god get on with it” — that was the cry Johnson’s Justice Secretary Robert Buckland claimed to be hearing from Britons “across the country.” Johnson had earlier adopted the pose of a heroic warrior, declaring that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than agree to extending Britain’s E.U. membership for one day beyond Oct. 31.
But Britain can’t get on with it, and Johnson will not die in a ditch. Despite his tough-guy talk, we will almost certainly not leave on the last day of October. In a maneuver familiar to Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Johnson will instead invite his supporters to blame “the elite” for the failure to redeem his promise than accept responsibility for his own clear and present shortcomings.
Johnson won parliamentary approval in principle for his plan to leave the E.U. this week. But his attempt to rush the deal through, like a con artist trying to hassle a mark, failed. His deal may well fall apart when MPs scrutinize it. Brexit to date has been an impossible endeavor because as soon as the real costs of any plausible exit become apparent, politicians withhold their consent.
No one can assume anything about Britain. But given the Labour Party is led by Jeremy Corbyn, the most unpopular leader of the opposition in 45 years, and a politician without a coherent position on Brexit, it is possible Johnson could win a commanding parliamentary majority with a minority of the vote. (We don’t have proportional representation, and 40 percent or less would do it for him.)
Even then, Johnson’s strategy would be riddled with risks. Johnson won his agreement with the E.U. on the terms of departure by breaking his promises to the Protestant politicians from the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Britain’s shared membership of a borderless E.U. had allowed largely Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland to feel Irish and largely protestant Unionists to feel British. The E.U. would not let Johnson build a border in the island of Ireland and thus alienate the nationalists.
So he welched on a solemn pledge he had made only last year and supported a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain instead. Businesses in Northern Ireland (one part of Britain) will need export forms to send their goods to England, Scotland and Wales. It will be as if Maryland and Pennsylvania were in separate countries. Anyone with the smallest knowledge of Irish history will see the potential for strife.
Elsewhere, support for independence in Scotland may not be overwhelming. But Brexit has given Scottish separatists an impressive argument: Scots voted to stay in the E.U., and the English are taking them out.
An extraordinary level of public ignorance prevails about the consequences for the rest of the country. Most people don’t know that, even if Britain agreed to leave the E.U. tomorrow, there would be years of bitter negotiations and a repeated danger of Britain crashing out without a deal with its largest trading partner. Pollsters speak of a “crucial misunderstanding among many voters.” When they tell their focus groups the hard reality that we will need to make multiple compromises in trade talks stretching to the mid-2020s, the response is often “horrified silence.”
Perhaps, as I and millions of others hope, Britain can yet reverse the most needlessly self-harming decision it has taken since 1945. But Johnson’s opponents should fear that chaos of Brexit suits the radical right rather than the center-left. The greater the chaos, the louder the right can claim that it, and it alone, is the true defender of the country against elitist enemies. It can rouse its base by saying that the Brexit “the people” voted for is being betrayed by foreigners abroad and quislings at home. Johnson will continue to pose as the strongman who can enact the people’s desires, even as he fails. The British right is going to give its stab-in-the-back myth its best shot. For as all the promised benefits of leaving the E.U. vanish, that is the only shot it has.