The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boris Johnson will do anything for Brexit. Even destroy his own party.

The push to leave Europe is tearing up one of democracy’s most successful institutions.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to journalists last month in Berlin.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to journalists last month in Berlin. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images)
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This past week, in the most brutal internal act in its modern history, the British Conservative Party threw out 21 of its own lawmakers. 

Old, respected, moderate Conservative members of Parliament were summarily ejected from the party — by text message — after they defied Prime Minister Boris Johnson and voted this week to stop Britain from leaving the European Union without a replacement trade deal in place to prevent economic chaos. Johnson’s new regime isn’t concerned with niceties like preventing economic chaos, though; it views politics not as a debate over ideas and policies, but as a form of trench warfare.

The Tory Party — one of the most successful and long-lasting political parties in the Western world — has turned itself into a hard-right organization operated with missionary zeal. That approach led Johnson to eradicate his own majority by expelling perceived apostates. By Wednesday, he was helpless to stop the passage of legislation preventing a no-deal Brexit and couldn’t even call an early election that might help him change the parliamentary math. In discarding everything but the most hardcore dogma, the Tories are slowly dismantling their own government.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Sept. 5 he would not delay Brexit, adding he would rather be "dead in a ditch" than do so. (Video: Reuters)

What the week made clear is that the Conservative Party — like the Republican Party under President Trump — has mutated into the most extreme possible version of itself, one that regularly evokes the revolutionary notion of “the people” to justify outright nationalist policies. The political atmosphere on both sides of the Atlantic is so similar that it’s like one of those British films that’s been adapted in Hollywood for an American audience: The right wing in each country is following the same basic trend, the same dynamic, translated into local flavors.

Here in the United Kingdom, nationalist identity politics manifested itself most sharply during the campaign for Brexit and immediately after the June 2016 referendum. In reality, the vote was a fairly bog-standard rejection of the status quo, as is quite common in referendums of this sort. But the Tories, whose leaders put the question before voters only to quiet a challenge from the even-further-right wing, have interpreted the outcome as if it requires a fundamental reboot of the way the establishment operates and represents itself.

Economic rectitude has been replaced by an obsession with reducing immigration, no matter the cost. The break with the E.U. that would achieve this has been discussed in increasingly absolutist terms. A year before the referendum, just 13 percent  of voters thought the E.U. was the most important issue facing Britain. A year after the referendum, it was 42 percent. A YouGov opinion poll  this summer showed that Conservative Party members would be willing to see the United Kingdom broken up, significant economic damage done to the country and their own party destroyed if it secured Brexit.

The Brexit fight is threatening Britain’s entire system of government

The attempt to leave the E.U. has become the central purpose of all government activity. Other areas of legislation have ground to a halt, and tens of thousands of civil servants have had their usual work redirected toward securing Britain’s exit.

The whole Brexit campaign led to a hazy background hum of conspiracy theory based on the idea of a corrupt urban liberal elite that sought to undermine an imaginary monolithic bloc of voters — implicitly white and working class — designated as “the people.” As former Tory prime minister Theresa May told her party conference three months after the referendum: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

May mostly encouraged this kind of rhetoric, but in the end, she pulled back from the brink. Hard-line Brexiteers in her party wanted her to commit to no-deal, the most economically ruinous version of the project. Instead, she negotiated with European leaders an exit agreement that satisfied hardly anyone in any party. She tried three times to get Parliament to approve it, and she lost every vote, some by record margins. She extended the exit date, twice, in the process. That finally led the Tories to get rid of her.

When Johnson replaced her this summer, he was intent on not making the same mistake: He would deliver no-deal, and nothing would be allowed to stop him. That included Parliament. He brought the victorious “Vote Leave” campaign from the referendum into government pretty much wholesale — most notably by hiring campaign chief Dominic Cummings as his special adviser. The government, and not Parliament, Johnson and his cronies asserted, was entitled to interpret the 17.4 million crosses on ballot papers from three years ago, and they interpreted the narrow result to mean the country wanted out, no matter what. Members of Parliament who stood against them were to be vilified and silenced. When former business secretary Greg Clark called Cummings to warn of Tory rebellions over no-deal, he was reportedly told: “When are you f---ing MPs going to realize we are leaving on October 31? We are going to purge you.” 

Boris Johnson plays a clown. He’s really just a power-hungry nihilist.

Just before Parliament returned from a summer recess, Johnson announced last month that he would suspend the legislature for most of the final weeks before the exit date, twisting a standard procedural device called “prorogation” to suit his agenda. Protests broke out across the country. Parliamentarians rallied in response: If Johnson insisted on trying to close them down, they would stop no-deal before the shutters fell. That gave them until the end of this past week.

So on Tuesday, MPs used an emergency debate to take control of Parliament’s schedule from Johnson and pass the bill requiring the government to extend E.U. membership past the deadline, thereby avoiding no-deal. Johnson and Cummings countered in the most brutal way imaginable: They threatened any Conservative MP who voted for the rebel legislation with “having the whip withdrawn,” tantamount to exile from the party. They presumed this would be enough to frighten dissenters into obedience; after all, it would effectively end their political careers. For many, it would abruptly sever the party identity they’d had for decades. 

But the threat didn’t work. With a quite astonishing degree of bravery, 21 Tory MPs refused to buckle. The rebel bill was passed by an opposition coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish nationalists and erstwhile Tories. Immediately afterward, those 21 were thrown out of the party — they won’t be able to run as Conservatives whenever the next election occurs. But until then, they can’t be counted on to support the government in Parliament, either.

These were figures from the party’s statesman class: Ken Clarke , a One Nation moderate who has been in ministerial or shadow ministerial positions for the past 40 years. Alistair Burt , the most widely respected minister in the Foreign Office. Rory Stewart , a deputy governor after the invasion of Iraq who was accepting GQ’s Politician of the Year award at the moment he was sacked. Philip Hammond , who was chancellor in the May government just weeks ago. And Nicholas Soames , Winston Churchill’s grandson. It was the passing of a generation. 

What will they be replaced by? We have a good idea, because the new model for Conservative politicians is already in place, as seen in the ministers in Johnson’s government. Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House, spent the week making the case to lawmakers that the narrow 2016 referendum result acted as a veto on any further parliamentary contribution to the Brexit debate. It was, once you stripped away his archaic rhetoric (“We should recognize that the people are our masters and show us to be their lieges and servants, not to place ourselves in the position of their overlords”), a proposal for unfettered executive power. Dominic Raab, who is in charge of foreign affairs, previously tried to dismantle British membership in the European Convention on Human Rights. Priti Patel, in charge of home affairs, insisted recently that free-movement immigration rules would end at the moment the country left the E.U., sending thousands of Europeans — many of whom have lived in Britain for decades — into a state of panic about their status. Michael Gove, in charge of no-deal preparation, suggested in a TV interview last weekend that officials were free to ignore the law forcing the government to avoid no-deal.

That was extraordinary: a senior Conservative politician, who had once served as justice secretary, suggesting that the government was above the law. You could not ask for a more complete break with the normal Conservative values of respecting British institutions and the rule of law — the principles the 21 Tory rebels continued to promote.

In its drive for Brexit purity, the Conservative Party is reinventing itself: Its former cornerstones of fiscal restraint, monarchism and national security are now barely mentioned. All three values are imperiled by Brexit. No-deal is expected to reduce British gross domestic product by 8 percent , according to the International Monetary Fund . Johnson’s appeal to Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue Parliament, a request she had to go along with, threatened to politicize her position — arguably the greatest taboo in British political life. And security experts have issued grave warnings about the effect on cooperation following a sudden rupture between Britain and Europe.

Tradition, the supposedly sacrosanct notion behind the party’s political ideology, has given way to the overarching mission of leaving Europe. Instead of fighting a battle of ideas, the Conservative Party has created a world where anything done in the name of the people is right and anyone who disagrees is a traitor.

Twitter: @iandunt

Read more from Outlook:

Why Boris Johnson is so desperate to lock Parliament out

Britain’s Brexit crisis was entirely self-inflicted

The real problem with Brexit: Britain can’t decide what kind of country it is

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