Boris Johnson became the British prime minister on July 24. Six weeks later the British Parliament voted to block Johnson from leaving the EU on October 31 without an agreement that was approved by Parliament. That vote, in which 21 members of Johnson’s Conservative Party voted with the opposition to prevent a no-deal Brexit, signaled that the nation’s old line establishment of professional politicians and capitalists was unwilling to tolerate the disaster of a sudden Brexit that Johnson was rushing toward in an effort to satisfy the popular forces that Johnson had so skillfully mobilized to attain power.
Both the Conservatives and Labour had altered their process for choosing a leader in the past decade. Previously, all parties had followed the centuries-old practice of allowing their members of Parliament to select the party’s leader, who then became Prime Minister when that party commanded a majority in Parliament. However in an effort to build enthusiasm among its strongest supporters, both parties changed their process. Now dues-paying members of each party have the final choice for the Conservatives between two finalists selected by the party’s members of Parliament and for Labour from among however many candidates win the support of 15% of that party’s members of Parliament. In both parties this process has led to the selection of more ideologically focused leaders. For Labour, it is the committed socialist Jeremy Corbin. For the Conservatives, it is Boris Johnson who over his career has held a range of views but at least in recent years has decided that being associated with a hard line anti-EU and pro-Brexit viewpoint is most politically advantageous for him.
The pro-Brexit forces, led by Johnson and Nigel Farage, won the June 2016 referendum with a narrow 52% majority after a campaign based on a set of enticing lies. The biggest lie was that Britain would be able to keep £300 million a week that previously went to the EU and instead use it for the National Health Service. That number, which Johnson and Farage pulled out of thin air, ignored the almost equally large amount that the EU gave to Britain for a range of services and projects. The second lie was that Britain would remain in the EU until it would be able to negotiate an exit that preserved borderless trade and travel and protected he lack of border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Brexit advocates admitted immediately after the referendum, some with glee at the slickness of their deception, that the £300 million promise had been a false piece of campaign propaganda. The second lie was exposed when Prime Minister Theresa May invoked the EU charter’s Article 50 to set a firm deadline for withdrawal regardless of what deal, if any, was negotiated. The agreement Theresa May came up with did not meet the conditions Brexit advocates had promised during the referendum campaign, which is why it was voted down repeatedly by Parliament.
What will happen next? It appears that Parliament has successfully blocked Johnson from leaving the EU. Johnson will call for a new election. He is hoping that the British ‘first past the post system,’ in which the candidate with the most votes in each constituency takes the seat even if that is a minority, will give the Conservatives a majority of seats as multiple candidates from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and Greens split the opposition vote. Johnson very well may win that bet, gain a majority that allows him to withdraw from the EU and then serve a full term as Prime Minister. Conversely, the opposition parties could strike a strategic alliance in which weaker candidates in each district drop their candidacies and allow a single person to face the Conservative. British voters could (as happened in Canada in their last election) look at the poll results in the days before the election and cast most of their votes for whichever opposition party (most likely Labour) is strongest.
Business now has to weigh the relative costs of a new Johnson-led Conservative majority that pulls Britain out of the EU versus a Corbin-led Labour that will try to raise taxes on the rich, expand social benefits, and perhaps renationalize some industries.
Brexit is a symptom not a cause of the political cynicism and paralysis that is afflicting so many Western democracies. The catastrophic consequences of a hard Brexit could discredit Johnson and the Conservatives, although perhaps only after the next election. Unless and until the left gains the courage and political power to offer a real alternative to neoliberalism, we can expect that after a time out of power the right will be back in power in both Britain and the US in perhaps an even more vicious and destructive version. Certainly the regression from Bush to Trump and Cameron to Johnson does not give us hope.