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Why Boris Johnson is in no man's land on Brexit

It's unlikely that an election can precede the Brexit deadline, meaning the British Prime Minister must now secure a deal or seek another extension from the EU.

Moderate MPs using their legal voting rights in Parliament to save their country from a possible recession should be the sign of a democracy in good health. However, in the UK, where the recession – if it happened – would be a by-product of implementing the people’s will in a referendum, it is now regarded by many as holding the country to ransom.

The UK’s chronic impasse over its plans – or lack of them – to leave the European Union has intensified, and not even an election will necessarily pave a way forward.

A majority of MPs have refused to let Prime Minister Boris Johnson achieve Brexit without first negotiating a deal to ensure the transition has an orderly framework. Johnson is at war with the caucus he has led for less than two months.

Twenty-one Conservative MPs have effectively been expelled and more are resigning, all characterised as traitors for joining the Opposition to prevent either a Brexit crash-out or a snap election to try to resolve the impasse.

Further legal manoeuvres are possible, but it is unlikely an election can precede the Brexit deadline of October 31, meaning Johnson must now secure a deal or seek another extension from the EU.

He says Parliament is thwarting the will of the people, who three years ago voted to leave the EU. MPs’ refusal to pass any exit deal so far put before them has created a suspicion in the electorate that they might even kill off Brexit.

The MPs argue that in marshalling a bloc to prevent a no-deal exit, they are protecting Britons from the sharp and lingering recession that most experts predict would be the result of crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Johnson declares he’d “rather be dead in a ditch” than delay and gives every sign of actually preferring to crash out. He rejects doomsday no-deal trajectories such as the Treasury’s Operation Yellowhammer report, which plans for mass food shortages and deaths through lack of drugs. Johnson says such planning is merely fearmongering and, like his predecessor, refused to release the full report, until Parliament voted to force him to publish it.

However, the Irish Republic, on the front line of Brexit because of uncertainty about how a Northern Ireland border would work, is openly expecting comparable upheaval.

Still, brute realism may be on Johnson’s side for now. The EU shows no sign of improving the exit offers made so far. Johnson understandably fears the present Parliament might reject future deals indefinitely. A fresh election is inevitable, but not possible until late November at the earliest.

Johnson may be banking, meanwhile, on the Dunkirk spirit, with Britons stirring to the challenge of feeling under attack from hostile foreigners. His Plan B entails lining up trade deals with non-EU countries, including the US and South Korea. Trade being a two-way street, some EU countries would suffer as badly or worse than the UK if mutual trade were left to atrophy. Johnson believes he has grounds to gamble that any recessionary effects of a no deal would be transitory.

Parliament, having repeatedly strong-armed him, might strengthen his electoral appeal as an underdog battling the elites.

But an election would be a roulette wheel. The Conservative and Labour parties’ votes have collapsed, and it is possible the new Brexit Party, which would leave the EU immediately, or the moderate Liberal Democrats, which would halt Brexit altogether, could lead the next government, causing further division.

Labour’s pledge of a second referendum would solve little. It rightly argues that voters were misled before the first vote, including being wrongly told Brexit would free the UK from EU and European Court of Justice rules and allow restriction or reversal of EU migration.

However, after three years of being pelted with fact checking, a majority still want out. Polling suggests a second referendum would pass, and by a similar slender percentage majority to the original 52-48 vote.

Like many other countries, New Zealand can only look on in bewilderment as the saga drags on. And on.

The ditch in which Johnson has offered to die is already well stocked with the corpses of those who have failed to find a safe way to lead the UK out of the EU. The vagaries of the first-past-the-post voting system ensure the ditch can always accommodate one more.

This editorial was first published in the September 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.