BRACKNELL, England — When Phillip Lee walked across the carpeted green aisle in the House of Commons on Tuesday, the lawmaker instantly erased British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s majority.
When Lee strolled through an upscale shopping center in his home district days later, voters showed why Johnson thinks an election just might win it back.
“Traitor,” hissed a woman in a blue sweater.
“I’m absolutely disgusted with you,” snapped another in a yellow raincoat.
Lee’s dramatic defection from the Conservative Party was one of several indignities in the past week that have left Britain’s once-swaggering prime minister staggering. Not only did Johnson lose his governing majority, he also fell short in a string of critical votes that could have cleared a path to the E.U. exit he has promised by Oct. 31. Even his brother abandoned him, quitting as a Conservative lawmaker and minister.
Yet if Johnson has any hope of righting his young premiership — and of delivering on his Brexit vows — analysts say he will need an election victory to stock Parliament with enough Conservatives willing to follow him over the cliff-edge of a no-deal departure.
And for that, he and his party will be targeting districts like Lee’s to eliminate a contradiction that hard-line Brexiteers see at the heart of the United Kingdom’s gridlock: A majority of Britons voted in 2016 to leave the European Union. But a majority of lawmakers, elected a year later, favored staying in.
Lee is among those who wanted Britain to remain, even though his constituents in this Tory-dominated region 30-some miles west of London leaned toward leaving. If he runs again, his old party will seek to capitalize on voter frustration with the interminable exit and challenge him with a candidate committed to “getting this done, even if it means no deal,” said Gerry Barber, the local Conservative leader. “No more delays. No more shenanigans.”
Just getting to an election may require shenanigans aplenty. Johnson is expected to lose on Monday when he asks Parliament to support a vote, his second such defeat in as many weeks. With the opposition dismissing election calls as “a trap,” the prime minister may end up needing to resign before the voters can have their say.
Whether it’s weeks or months off, analysts say a new election is all but inevitable given Johnson’s lack of a majority. And in Bracknell, all sides are already preparing for it.
Yet here, as is the case in districts nationwide, the calculus will be exceptionally tricky. The country remains polarized along the binary lines of leave or remain, with polls showing a nearly even divide three years after the referendum.
But an election would offer voters a full spectrum of options that will ensure that neither the pro- nor the anti-Brexit camp is fully united.
Since Johnson became prime minister in late July, his Conservatives have opened up a significant lead over the opposition Labour Party. He’s done that, analysts say, by winning back some of the disenchanted leave voters who had spurned the Tories for the nascent Brexit Party.
“Given how volatile politics is at the moment, it won’t take much for the Brexit Party to be a real problem for Boris,” said Adam McDonnell, an analyst with the polling firm YouGov. “So his strategy is to really appeal to those leave voters, and especially those leave-at-any-cost voters.”
The approach has come at the expense of a full-scale rupture among the Conservatives. The most successful party in British political history has been divided for decades over the country’s membership in the E.U., with room both for fervent supporters and opponents.
But Johnson appears bent on a fundamental realignment, one that leaves little room for those who want to keep Britain in the world’s largest trading bloc.
“It feels like plate tectonics,” said Lee, the pro-E.U. Tory who defected to the opposition Liberal Democrats on Tuesday. “And I was straddling the divide.”
Had Lee not jumped, he would have been pushed. When, later on Tuesday, 21 other Conservative lawmakers defied the prime minister and voted with opposition parties to stave off a potential no-deal Brexit, Johnson purged them from the party. Those forced into exile included former top ministers, rising stars and Winston Churchill’s grandson.
Lee, a 48-year-old medical doctor who was first elected to Parliament in 2010, chose to leave the Conservatives on his own terms — and in the most humiliating possible way for the prime minister, who in that instant lost his single-seat majority.
Johnson was mid-speech when Lee crossed the aisle, provoking hoots of approval from the opposition benches and a perhaps not entirely sincere “I wish my honorable friend all the best” from the prime minister.
In a withering letter to Johnson, Lee wrote that the “broad political church” he had joined as a young man had been transformed by Brexit into “something more akin to a narrow faction, where an individual’s ‘conservatism’ is measured by how recklessly one wishes to leave the European Union.”
Days later, as Lee walked the stone-paved central shopping district in the town of Bracknell, some of his constituents congratulated him.
“Well done, sir,” offered a street sweeper as he worked his rounds. “You did the right thing.”
“He’s a man of integrity,” said Chris Lovejoy, who stopped shopping long enough to shake Lee’s hand. “He’s working in the interests of the British people.”
Others confronted him, irate that he had not fallen into line with Johnson — or with his constituents.
“The right thing to do was to support your prime minister, support your party,” Amanda Casbon, 50, angrily told her representative. “We voted to leave. We all need to get on board.”
Casbon told Lee she had voted for Brexit because she assumed that politicians, particularly Conservative ones, had a plan to get out. The Conservatives had called the referendum. Johnson and other top Tories had led the exit campaign. Weren’t the Conservatives responsible for seeing it through?
“It was your party!” she shouted.
“And I’ve left it,” he told her. “They don’t have a plan.”
Lee was opposed to calling the referendum. But now he supports a second one to help undo what he sees as the grievous harm done to British democracy by the first. Above all, he wants to avoid what he regards as the “catastrophic” damage that would befall the British economy if Britain exits without a deal.
Bracknell, a relatively prosperous area that is home to several major British companies, could be hit especially hard if economists’ dire predictions about the consequences of a crash-out prove true.
But there is also strong local sentiment for an exit, and Lee acknowledges that his defection to the pro-E.U. Liberal Democrats could cost him his seat whenever there’s an election. “This was not the move of a careerist,” he said.
Both the Conservatives and the Brexit Party say they will run on a pledge to get Brexit done, come what may.
“This has to stop,” said David Winsper, an Army veteran who is running as the Brexit Party candidate here. “It’s a complete omni-shambles in the House of Commons.”
Winsper, 47, long supported the Conservatives and said he voted for Lee in 2017. But, like Lee, he has defected — although for opposite reasons. He blames the Tories for dithering over Britain’s departure.
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has offered to strike an election pact with the Conservatives that could help to maximize the impact of the pro-leave vote. Winsper said such a deal “would deliver Boris Johnson and the Conservatives a thumping victory,” and some analysts agree.
For now, Tories are cool to the idea. In an area that has voted Conservative for decades, they are confident they can flip the seat from a Brexit critic to a booster without help from a polarizing figure such as Farage.
But they also acknowledge that a lot of damage has been done along the way. In an office complex on the edge of town, the local Conservative Party and Lee continue to share a building. In the last election, they campaigned together. This time, they’ll be on opposite sides of Britain’s great divide.
“Brexit has torn relationships — friends, family,” said Barber, the local Conservative leader.
“It’s all been torn asunder.”