There’s a rule here in Hollywood – the Brit is the calm one, the character who won’t get flustered, the one with the stiff upper lip, the one who will keep calm and carry on, the one who will, with casual elegance, save the day. That might be James Bond. That might be Mary Poppins. That might be Maggie Smith in anything. It’s the accent. So, put one in every picture. There is stability in this sorry world. Someone will keep calm and carry on, and everyone knows who that is. That person is British, very British.
But there is reality. There is Boris Johnson, Britain’s new Prime Minister – for now. He may not last six months. A few dozen members of his party “crossed the aisle” – that a literal aisle in House of Commons – and joined the opposition. He lost his majority. The issue is Brexit. He has vowed to pull Britain out of the European Union by the end of October, whether there’s a deal to keep both economies from crashing or not. A hard “no deal” Brexit would make imports from the continent – thirty percent of their food and drugs – subject to non-member fees and duties that would make that food and those drugs prohibitively expensive. And anything they export to the continent would suddenly be subject to non-member fees and duties too – making them so expensive on the continent that no one would buy anything from Britain. And all “foreign” workers would have to leave – and so would the international banks and multinational corporations that employ them and that define London – but Boris Johnson is the British Donald Trump. This is a Britain First thing. America won’t play by anyone else’s rules. Britain won’t play by the EU’s rules. This is about freedom and pride. No one will take advantage of either nation now.
Boris Johnson says such things. He insists that this is what the Brits want – the real Brits – not the ones who live in big cities or have fancy degrees, but the rural Brits – the salt of the earth – no one from Eton or Harrow much less any university of any kind. That’s Trump’s base too. Just change the names of a few of those details – and Britain is in chaos. Hollywood never imagined the Brits could be like this.
But this is chaos:
Despite a string of stinging defeats in Parliament, and the painful, public resignation of his own brother, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday continued his passionate push for an early general election he hopes would help him deliver Brexit by Oct. 31.
Johnson cast his quest to bust Britain out of the European Union in defiant and populist terms saying he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than seek any further delays to Brexit.
He said he didn’t want to see “the powers of the British people handed over to Brussels, so we can be kept incarcerated in the EU.” That echoed the populist – and successful – appeal to British voters to “take back control” of Britain that led to the passage of Brexit in a 2016 national referendum.
But he might end up dead in a ditch anyway:
The tumult of the past week appeared to be taking a toll on Johnson, who was unusually halting and uncertain as he spoke before a group of police cadets in Yorkshire. Normally a gifted and confident orator, Johnson squinted awkwardly into the bright sunshine. He stumbled as he tried to recite the British equivalent of the Miranda rights to the cadets, who know the lines well.
That may have been especially understandable on a day he suffered the personal blow of having his younger brother, Jo Johnson, resign as a Member of Parliament and government minister.
Jo Johnson voted against Brexit in the 2016 referendum, and his ideological disagreements with his brother are well known. But his resignation was unexpected and underscored the depth of divisions over Brexit and of the prime minister’s political problems.
That was odd, but the older brother kept calm and carried on:
“Jo doesn’t agree with me about the European Union. It’s an issue that divides families and divides everybody,” Boris Johnson said in Yorkshire, calling his brother a “fantastic guy” and noting he supported the government’s efforts to increase spending on education, hospitals and public safety.
And then someone’s bullshit-detector went off:
Asked by a reporter why people should trust him to act in the national interest when his brother doesn’t, the prime minister said: “People disagree about the EU, but the way to unite the country, I’m afraid, is to get this thing done. That is the reality. The longer this goes on, the more dither and delay we have from Parliament the worse this thing will be.”
Asked if he would be the next Johnson to resign, the prime minister didn’t answer directly but said he was determined to “deliver on the mandate of the people” from the 2016 Brexit referendum.
But doesn’t he know his days are numbered? Well, maybe not:
The embattled Johnson got a supportive assist on Thursday from visiting Vice President Pence, who met with him at 10 Downing Street and suggested a post-Brexit trade deal could “increase trade between our countries by three or four times.”
“The United States is ready, willing and able to immediately negotiate a free-trade agreement with the U.K.,” Pence said.
Cool. Trade with the Yanks and export nothing to and import nothing from the EU at all, ever again, a fine solution but for this:
The United States and Britain can’t actually strike a trade deal until after Brexit. And whether Johnson would be around to negotiate it is unclear.
Parliament has rebelled against his position that Britain should be willing to leave the EU on Oct. 31 without a withdrawal deal to manage the transition. The House of Commons passed legislation on Wednesday designed to avert a chaotic no-deal Brexit next month. That legislation seeks a three-month delay in Brexit if no terms can be reached before the Oct. 31 deadline.
The House of Lords, after debating well into the night Wednesday, cleared the way for the bill to get final approval by Friday.
That bill is about to pass. Johnson will be required to ask the EU for more time and makes the no-deal Brexit illegal. Johnson says he will NOT ask the EU or more time and he WILL withdraw Britain from the EU no matter what the law says. And he wants to call a quick “snap” national election to prove the people agree with him, because he’ll win that election:
Now the big battle seems to be when – rather than if – to hold a general election for the 650 seats in the House of Commons.
Johnson’s government on Monday plans to introduce new legislation again seeking an early election, despite Parliament’s rejection of such a plan on Wednesday night, officials said.
Johnson needs the vote of two-thirds of the House of Commons for that election, and of course he doesn’t even have a majority anymore, so they have him trapped:
Labour has said it would be eager for an election to unseat Johnson, but only when the party had a guarantee that Britain would not “crash out” of the EU without a deal…
John McDonnell, a top Labour Party lawmaker, said Johnson, whose plans were resoundingly slapped down in Parliament three times in 24 hours, was acting like a toddler.
“Fine, have your tantrum,” McDonnell said Thursday on Sky News. “But we are not going to allow you take this country out on a no-deal Brexit, because you will undermine our economy.”
It seems that everything went wrong, but somehow Johnson made it go wrong:
Beyond the public rationale, Johnson needs an election to have any chance of moving any legislation. He lost his governing majority this week through defections from rebellious party members and his remarkable decision to expel from the party more than 20 lawmakers who voted against him in Parliament. Some of those kicked out were among the most experienced and honored members of the party.
One of those purged was Nicholas Soames, 71, the grandson of Winston Churchill. He told the Guardian Thursday that many Conservative lawmakers agreed with his defiance of Johnson’s no-deal Brexit threat; he said he had received more than 500 emails from people thanking him.
“In a debate in the House in 1938, Chamberlain accused my grandfather of undermining his negotiations with the Germans,” he said, referring to Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister at the time. “I think history will prove my grandpapa to be right under the circumstances. And I think I will prove to be right.”
Many in the Conservative Party on Thursday were calling for the reinstatement of the excommunicated lawmakers.
Johnson is more ruthless than Trump. Here, when a Republican disagrees with Trump, there are Trump’s Tweets of Death and then that Republican will never appear on Fox News ever again. Johnson’s critics get excommunicated. But how Johnson treated the grandson of Winston Churchill is that much different from how Trump treated John McCain. Trump and Johnson are the national heroes, not McCain and Churchill. Just ask Trump. Just ask Johnson.
But this just isn’t working:
In Brussels, frustration with the British drama was running high. Senior negotiators have all but given up on discussions with Johnson’s team for now, seeing little point in making plans with a group that could soon be swept out by elections. And despite Johnson’s claims of “great progress,” British negotiators have not offered any new ideas that could be the subject of negotiations, officials said.
“There have been no concrete proposals yet. It’s all a smokescreen,” said a senior EU diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive – if apparently lacking in substance – talks.
Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost, was in Brussels on Wednesday for more than five hours of discussions. But there was little on the table to discuss, the European diplomat said.
“I don’t know what they talk about,” the diplomat said.
That may be the universal observation about all governments everywhere at the moment, but Dan Balz sees this:
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has eclipsed President Trump as the chaos-maker-in-chief. Just weeks into his tenure at 10 Downing Street, the new leader tried to take a wrecking ball to the political system and ended up hitting himself as well…
In the summer of 2016, British voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union. Nothing has been the same since. Government has been paralyzed, and the public’s dissatisfaction has grown steadily. Two prime ministers were taken down by the turmoil unleashed by that vote. Johnson could be the third.
There’s a reason for that, one that only applies over there:
Like Trump, Johnson is much bluff and bluster – in look and action. At the dispatch box in the House of Commons, he looks slightly out of place, his hair permanently mussed and askew, his head cocked to one side or the other. But if he looks as if he doesn’t quite belong, he also seems to relish the political combat with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and others in the opposition. It hasn’t gone well.
Johnson is the antithesis of his predecessor, Theresa May, the impassive and by-the-book leader whose failed efforts over two-plus years to find a workable deal to take Britain out of the European Union forced her resignation and damaged her reputation. She must hope that Johnson’s initial floundering and flailing will make her look at least a bit better in retrospect.
And there are consequences over there:
Campaigning for the leadership of the Tory Party, Johnson had vowed to take Britain out of the European Union as it was scheduled to do on Oct. 31, deal or no deal. He insisted – based on no evidence – that by drawing that line in the sand, the leaders in Brussels would find it in their interest – as well as in Britain’s – to produce something different and more acceptable than what May’s negotiations have brought forward.
That was the plan. Getting there has not gone according to plan, however. If Johnson had a clear strategy, it has not been evident.
And now it’s all falling apart, but only for Johnson, not Trump:
Trump has been a Johnson champion for a long time. The president undercut May at every opportunity and boosted Johnson whenever he could. Johnson has seemed his kind of politician – reckless, irreverent, disruptive, not a detail person.
Trump has repeatedly challenged the institutions of the American political system, seeking to weaken or delegitimize any that threaten his power or him personally. In his short time as prime minister, Johnson has gone even further, tearing at the underpinnings of democratic government in what has become an all-out war.
How long this can go on is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the president will offer advice to his friend, the prime minister.
But what would that advice be? This situation is dire. The New Yorker’s man in London, Sam Knight, sees real trouble:
It is hard to assess the change, and the damage, that Johnson is bringing to British politics in his first weeks in office. Among the Tories banished on Tuesday night was Ken Clarke, a seventy-nine-year-old former Chancellor and Home Secretary, who is known as the Father of the House, because he is the country’s longest-serving MP.
“Anybody who comes up to me and tells me I’m not a Conservative is plainly taking an odd political view,” he told the BBC.
The following morning, Clarke took his customary position on the green benches of the House of Commons, a couple of places down from Antoinette Sandbach, another newly independent Tory. In between them, sat Theresa May, smiling warmly. It was Johnson’s first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions, the kind of impromptu parliamentary jousting at which he is supposed to excel.
Instead, his answers were heavy and rehearsed. Johnson called the rebel legislation “the surrender bill” eight times and described Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, as “Caracas” – a play on Corbyn’s supposed sympathies for Venezuelan socialism – a joke that he has been making for two years.
And then it got nastier:
He did not mention the purging of his colleagues or seek a unifying tone. When a Labour MP, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who wears a turban, asked Johnson to use his first appearance at to apologize for having used racist language in the past, he refused. Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, implored Johnson to think again. “He is the Prime Minister of our country,” Swinson said. “His words carry weight, and he has to be more careful with what he says.”
Johnson let it slide. When I was outside the House of Commons a couple of hours later, a Brexit supporter in a yellow hoodie was shouting “Snakes” at some pro-EU protesters across the road. Someone else was holding up a placard that read “Traitor Parliament.”
The politics of Donald Trump have reached Britain. Trump’s racist or sexist or just plain nasty words do not matter at all. His words don’t matter. Neither do Johnson’s. And disagreement with either of them is treason. The only difference is British humor, and Knight reports this:
I’ve been covering Brexit for the past three years. This week has been particularly frantic and exciting – long days and the shallow, emptying feeling of adrenaline. Because it is British politics, there have been jokes, too. The informal coalition that blocked Johnson this week is nicknamed the Rebel Alliance and, on Wednesday evening, as another anti-Brexit protest got going in Parliament Square, the “Star Wars” theme was playing.
But there has also been a sense of things – deep, quiet things that are part of British democracy – being broken that will not necessarily be put back together again. Despite Johnson’s setbacks this week, Parliament will still be suspended for thirty-one of the fifty days remaining until Britain is scheduled to leave the EU. The shutdown is now the subject of three court cases, which are likely to be fast-tracked to the country’s Supreme Court, itself a novel phenomenon in British politics.
In the carnage, both sides are turning to extreme measures without regard for the consequences.
So this will not end well:
There will be more skirmishing, more ransacking of obscure parliamentary procedure in the next few days. The opposition parties won’t be able to resist the next big scrap for long. In the meantime, this week, during the bloodletting, good chaps from both sides have been quietly slipping away. On Thursday, Dame Caroline Spelman, a Conservative MP for the past twenty-two years, announced that she would not stand again, because of abuse and death threats arising from Brexit. That was a few minutes after Jo Johnson, Boris’s younger brother, who is a moderate Tory MP and a transport minister, said that he couldn’t take it anymore, either.
There seems to be a lot of that going around:
The day started with one Republican congressman from Texas announcing he would retire and ended with another, a long-serving former committee chairman from Wisconsin, saying he too was ready to bow out, signaling the House GOP mood as the party tries to find its path back to the majority in 2020.
With the retirement announcements of Reps. Bill Flores, R-Texas, and Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., 15 House Republicans have said they will step aside before next year’s elections. The departures show the limits of serving in the House minority, but also raise questions about the sway of President Donald Trump’s own reelection effort alongside down-ballot candidates.
Or maybe they just couldn’t take it anymore, either:
Flores, who once led the conservative Republican Study Committee, has served five terms and said he’d always committed to serving fewer than six.
More than one-third of the House GOP retirements are from Texas, where a generation of Republican dominance is weakening amid demographic changes and booming suburbs that are trending to Democrats.
The chairwoman of the Democratic campaign committee, Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, said in a statement that she expects the “Texodus” of Republicans will continue.
Trump and Johnson have induced, in their own political parties, widespread political despair, or at least widespread political ennui. It’s that shallow emptying feeling.
And of course Hollywood got it wrong. The Brit is not the calm one, the character who won’t get flustered, the one with the stiff upper lip, the one who will keep calm and carry on, the one who will, with casual elegance, save the day. The Brit is Boris Johnson. And he is Donald Trump. And the rest of us will watch as they burn down the world.