By the time you read this, there is an excellent chance that Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson has resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. At the time of writing, there is much speculation about which specific constitutional mechanic he will use to do so, but it doesn’t really matter. Being Prime Minister is literally the only thing that Johnson has ever wanted in his entire life, it is the thing that he has schemed and betrayed and lied to get, and now that he has it, he’s discovered to his dismay that he’s as predictably bad at it as he is at everything else he’s ever attempted. Despite his short period in power, Johnson has already set several new records: he is the only Prime Minister to never have won a vote in Parliament, the Prime Minister who holds the longest uninterrupted streak of Parliamentary defeats, and (this is my personal favourite) the only Prime Minister who has lost his Parliamentary majority while he was in the midst of a speech. There is a nonzero chance that he will, by the time you read this, have called a motion of no confidence in himself. Johnson is a buffoon, and Brexit has made a farce of his career.
Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was not a buffoon, but Brexit made a farce of her career likewise. Her predecessor, David Cameron, was the last leader of the Conservative party to win an election, and was a fairly shrewd operator. Brexit made a farce of him, too, ending not only his career but also any chance of him maintaining influence as a party elder. Brexit is the great devourer of the British political Right. It has ended many careers. It has split families, ended friendships and, tragically, resulted in the assassination of an MP.
How did we get here? It’s an interesting story.
A Short Summary of British Party Politics
Although some of them would deny it, the British are European; and like all Europeans their politics is that of numerous smaller parties which must form coalitions if they want power. Unlike most Europeans, however, their elections use First Past the Post rather than Proportional Representation, which means that the two largest parties are clumsily large. They are large enough, in fact, to have their own internal factional disputes:
To simplify, the Conservative party can be divided between xenophobic and capitalist wings. The xenophobes support capitalism to the extent that it rewards the wealthy, who are often British, and harms the poor, who are often foreigners. The capitalists support xenophobia to the extent that it gives them convenient laws robbing migrant workers (upon whom Britain depends) of rights, and gives them a convenient excuse to lobby against international financial-transparency and anti-tax-evasion legislation. However, these two wings disagree on a great deal, and of late this disagreement has become far more vicious than anything involving outsiders.
Likewise, the Labour party can be simplified as being divided between socialist and social democrat wings. The socialists (with whom I identify) believe in bringing down capitalism and creating a state in which the workers own the means of production, the unachievable nature of which is apparent to everyone except them. The social democrats believe in keeping capitalism, but making it slightly nicer and slightly more under control, so that it doesn’t need to be brought down. This is equally unachievable, but less widely understood as such. These two wings have traditionally ignored one another, each trying to pretend that the party is theirs and theirs alone.
Each of these parties is unelectable unless both wings are in alignment. Conservative capitalists and Labour social democrats are traditionally in charge of their respective parties; indeed, they are often surprised to remember that the other wing exists at all, and offended when that wing expects its concerns to be listened to.
Some other parties exist. Three of those should be taken seriously:
Firstly, there is the Brexit party, or the UKIP. These are technically two separate parties, but are largely identical. Both are far-Right groups which have formed from disillusioned Conservative xenophobes and which have been run as cults of personality by a millionaire called Nigel Farage. When Farage left the UKIP and founded the Brexit party, he took most of their voter base with him. The Brexit party is not important in terms of number of votes, as they have comparatively few. They are, however, important inasmuch as they threaten to create a new home for the xenophobic wing of the Conservative party and therefore to split the votes of the Right.
In recent years, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has more or less completely run Scotland. They are enthusiastically pro Scottish independence; their other policies include a welfare state, transphobia, and whatever else they think Scottish people want to hear at any given moment. The SNP is a bit player but has enough votes to be a useful ally of convenience. They hate the Conservatives like poison, which puzzles the Conservatives. Labour hates them like poison, which puzzles the SNP.
Lastly and most importantly, the Liberal Democrats are a party of refuge for centrists alienated from the two large parties. For many years they have taken in Conservatives when that party veers further to the Right, and Labour members when that party veers further to the Left. For many years it has been received wisdom that the Lib Dems would self-destruct in an instant if they were forced to decide what they actually stood for, rather than merely mouthing milquetoast platitudes about how nice it would be if everyone was nice. However, since Brexit became a political issue, the Lib Dems have discovered that they do have an issue they can unite around: they are fanatically pro-EU.
By 2007, Britain was coming to the end of a long period of Labour rule. The social democrat wing of the Labour party had long been in ascendance, combining friendliness to investors and flaky financiers with a generous welfare state. This was very expensive, which meant that when capitalism ended in the great crash of 2007-08, it was all over. Labour were tired and out of ideas after more than a decade of rule, and had alienated much of their core electorate with the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Inevitably, in the 2010 election, the Conservative party under David Cameron swept Labour aside. However, they did not win a complete majority: a coalition with the Liberal Democrats was necessary. The resulting government cut public spending to the bone to appease investors (it was the early 2010s and many countries were flirting with austerity policies which in hindsight were disastrous), while running a schizophrenic social policy to appease both the Conservative voter base and the Lib Dem one. Predictably, this served only to alienate both of those groups.
In 2011, a referendum was held on whether or not to adopt Proportional Representation as a voting system. In 2014, a referendum was held on whether or not Scotland should become independent. Both of these referendums returned a verdict in favour of the status quo. This led to several assumptions becoming mainstream: that referendums would always return a verdict in favour of the status quo, that promising people a referendum on something was a good alternative to promising them actual policy on that thing, and that referendums were therefore politically “safe.” These assumptions, as we shall see, became disastrous.
Many Scottish people are still furious about the 2014 referendum, because a great many lavish promises were made by the UK government to get them to vote not to leave, and these promises were largely forgotten the day after the election.
Meanwhile, a weird person had appeared on the far Right fringes of British politics, an eccentric called Nigel Farage, whose breathtaking financial dishonesty was matched only by his breathtaking political dishonesty. Farage’s entire operation consisted of pointing at the damage that the 2007 crash had done and saying words to the effect of “foreigners did it, and if we kick out all the foreigners it can’t happen again.” While this was obviously a lie, it became popular because people were desperate to believe that something, anything could prevent the great crash happening again.
The 2015 election was revealing in many ways, most notably because anything that relied upon centrism or moderation collapsed. Seven years of poverty was something that the people of the UK were unaccustomed to, and the trauma of the austerity programme had hurt even more. People were angry; some of that anger manifested in class conflict and led to the Left, some of it manifested in racism and led to the Right, but centrism had no answers for it.
The Lib Dems were virtually wiped out at the ballot box. Labour, led by a genuinely nice person called Ed Milliband from the social democrat wing, didn’t fare much better: Milliband had struggled to keep the socialists away from power and they responded by staying away from the ballot box. The Conservatives were smarter and more ruthless, throwing red meat to their base, and in doing so they won a Parliamentary majority, the last time that this has happened in British politics.
In the 2015 election, Nigel Farage’s UKIP party won a total of one seat. However, their presence in many Conservative areas was significant, and the Conservatives were worried that they were being outflanked on the Right. This led to an increase in red meat on the election manifesto, including setting up a “hostile environment” to alienate foreigners resident in the country (run by a then-obscure figure called Theresa May) and a promise to hold a referendum on leaving the EU.
Meanwhile, Scottish people responded to the broken promises of their independence referendum by voting for the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) in overwhelming numbers. Formerly a fringe party, the SNP captured 56 out of 59 Scottish seats, devastating the traditional Labour-voting lowlands and turning themselves into the third largest party in the UK.
Soon after the election, Milliband resigned as Labour leader. An internal election was held for a new leader, and an obscure socialist figure called Jeremy Corbyn surprised many people by winning over an identikit row of moderates. The social democrat wing, horrified, declared that he was unelectable; the socialist wing responded by coming back to the party in vast numbers, and attracting many young people to the party. Labour’s party membership quickly increased to be the largest-membership party in western Europe, and the grey-haired dishevelled Corbyn became an icon for newly-radicalised youth.
2016: The Referendum
On 23 June 2016, the referendum on leaving the EU was held. A wit in a newspaper referred to this as “Brexit”, a contraction of “British” and “Exit”, and the term stuck. Nobody expected the electorate to vote for anything other than the status quo, and nobody thought that the government would pay any attention to the result. They were wrong on both counts.
Why did it go the way it did? Largely for two reasons. Firstly, turnout was low. After the previous two referendums, moderates weren’t taking referendums seriously. Secondly, massive electoral finance violations and dark money spending on the part of the Leave campaign. Nobody really denies this any more; the Brexiteer response to accusations of cheating is not “we didn’t cheat” but “tough shit, we won, now stop crying about it.”
In the runup to the referendum, the Right-wing press had been screaming slogans, accusing anyone who supported Remain of being a traitor. Perhaps predictably, this led to tragedy. On 16 June, a week before the referendum, a far-Right thug murdered Jo Cox, a prominent pro-Remain politician, on the streets of her own constituency. When asked his name in court, he replied “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
David Cameron, his authority within the party already dented after the 2015 election and some revelations about his own financial impropriety, resigned the day that the referendum result came out. In Britain, when the prime minister resigns, there is not an election: rather, a new leader from within their party becomes prime minister. A brief power struggle occurred within the Conservative party, during which a timid accountant called Theresa May (who had voted Remain) won out over a swaggering aristocrat called Boris Johnson (who had voted Leave.) The smart people within the Conservative party stayed well away this contest.
The Labour party was split by Brexit, with a significant chunk of the socialists supporting Leave, including Corbyn himself. This was yet another thing that horrified the social democrats, who made several unsuccessful attempts to topple him. However, his support within the party continued to grow. Corbyn is a genuinely honest man with rigid principles, which makes him an admirable person and a disaster as a politician, and therefore a very polarising figure as a leader.
Nigel Farage came out of this contest as the hero of the day, or possibly the villain. He was everywhere, taking credit for the referendum result. It was still the first half of 2016 so most people didn’t know what Breitbart or Russia Today meant, but he was on both of them. The initiative, at least, was his.
The Lib Dems, wiped out at the 2015 election, had reinvented themselves as the party of unapologetic Remain, and in the chaos following the referendum they became revanchists. This strong, consistent message helped them rebuild and led to moderates from across the political spectrum joining them.
Theresa May, the new Conservative prime minister, was smarter and more pragmatic than people realised. She understood immediately that Brexit would be an ongoing disaster, and that the person seen as responsible for it would forfeit their political career. She also understood that not delivering it would result in the extinction of the Conservative party. Faced with the choice of being the ruler of a blasted wasteland or the not-ruler of a not-blasted wasteland, May opted for the former.
The fact that May had come to power without winning an election made her seem illegitimate in the eyes of many. To overcome this, in 2017 she called a snap election. (In Britain, the prime minister may call a new election at any time, as long as two-thirds of MPs agree. Normally, all opposition parties will agree: after all, it will give them a chance to become the government.) At the time it seemed like the smart move: Labour were in disarray, and May could punish her enemies within her own party.
2017-18: The Reign of the Maybot
When a new organisation is incorporated, it’s normal to put in some boilerplate rules about what happens if someone chooses to leave, even if you don’t think this will happen. In the EU, these rules are known as Article 50. Under Article 50, a state wishing to leave has a two-year grace period during which they are still a member, which they can use to negotiate the terms of the future relationship. In the hypothetical case that this period expires without an agreement being reached, it could be extended by mutual consent; in the even more hypothetical case that it is not extended, the state leaves with no negotiated terms at all, and must deal with the EU like any other external state. But why bother writing rules for such absurd cases that will never come up?
Shortly before the 2017 election, Theresa May started the clock on Article 50.
The election was not what she had hoped. Rather than coming out with renewed legitimacy, the Conservatives lost enough votes to lose their Parliamentary majority. They were forced to go into coalition with an obscure and terrifying Protestant Fundamentalist party from Northern Ireland called the DUP, giving May just enough support to pass legislation as long as all her people worked together.
Labour, meanwhile, picked up significant numbers of votes. They were still smaller than the Conservatives but it was close. Corbyn came out validated, his own internal enemies stunned by the result. They had said he was unelectable, and here he was doing fairly well. To his fans, he became a messiah figure, the “Absolute Boy” who would lead them to the inevitable triumph of the proletariat and the downfall of capitalism. This was perhaps a strange thing to say of a fairly poor public speaker with bad political instincts, especially one who had just lost an election, but socialists are by nature optimistic folk.
On the Right, Farage had virtually disappeared. After the referendum his support almost evaporated. Some explained this as his supporters having been stolen by the Conservatives as they moved further Right, others explained this as a single-issue party having achieved their single issue and thus being able to disband.
Before explaining what happens next, it is worth talking about the EU. To many people in wealthy countries, the EU is seen as either a glacially-paced farce, or a harmless club for European nations in genteel decline. It is neither. The EU is best understood as the logical continuation of the great European empires that burned the world to ashes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Like those empires, it is motivated fundamentally by trade. Like all empires, the EU is inescapably schizophrenic: it ensures wealth and stability at home by imposing poverty and instability abroad. The unofficial motto of the EU may as well be “outside our walls, they starve.” The British were accustomed to being on the inside of those walls. As a result, what happened next surprised them.
May’s plan for negotiations was fairly simple: she would make it the responsibility of those within her party who had been the loudest Leavers, including Boris Johnson. They would get the dirt on their own hands, she could then blame them for the inevitable disaster, and she could get on with what she really cared about, which was disassembling the welfare state.
There was much speculation at the time about what type of deal would be made about the EU’s future relationship with Britain. The EU was straightforward: in exchange for trading and infrastructure links, Britain would need to accept the authority of EU legal frameworks over those things. To Leavers, this was unacceptable: they had not opted to leave the EU in order to keep obeying its rules. They insisted that they be allowed to pick and choose which parts of EU membership Britain kept, a position which came to be known in Europe by the English word “cake.” The Leaver demand for cake was laughed off.
This left two possibilities: Britain could leave the EU but remain integrated economically and legally, obeying rules it had no say in making; or it could cut all ties, devastating its economy and society, and be treated as a vulnerable outsider by every world power. These became known as a “soft Brexit” and “hard Brexit” respectively. Generally, those who had supported Remain during the referendum now supported a soft Brexit, and those who had supported Leave now supported a hard Brexit.
The first problem May ran into was that her own party was split on this matter. Diehard groups of hard-Brexit and soft-Brexit supporters formed within the Conservative party, calling themselves the European Research Group (ERG) and One-Nation Conservatives respectively. Due to May’s razor-thin majority, if either group opposed her she could not pass legislation, and as the demands of the two groups were opposing one another, this was virtually guaranteed.
The second problem was less predictable. Due to the way that Article 50 works, if nothing happened and there was no extension, then a hard Brexit would happen by default. This meant that the hard-Brexit faction could simply sit on their hands and run out the clock. Since May had put that same hard-Brexit faction in charge of negotiating the deal, this is exactly what happened. Britain’s negotiating team postured and bluffed to waste time and delight their hardline voter base, and the clock ticked down.
What was the opposition doing during this period?
Labour was quiet. This is partially due to an intelligent decision to fight their own ongoing internal battles quietly, rather than in front of the entire world like the Conservatives; and partially because Corbyn is a terrible public speaker. Quietly, he attempted simultaneously to reach out to both the hardline socialist and defeated social democrats in the party. The social democrats were angry, horrified by the prospect of being run by socialists; and the socialists were unruly, believing that their hour of triumph was near. Many people distrusted him; some because he had supported Leave, and some because distrusting Corbyn had by then become the norm in Labour moderate circles.
The Lib Dems were noisy. They had reinvented themselves as the party of fanatical Remain, urging that Britain take back Article 50 and stay within the EU. They also started to gather membership again after their catastrophic defeat in 2015, attracting moderates from other parties.
In January of 2018, it became apparent that May had made a mistake by placing the EU negotiations in the hands of hard-Brexit supporters who had no interest in negotiations. Boris Johnson remained nominally the Foreign Minister until July, but May took control of negotiations personally. This, too, was a mistake. Negotiations continued until November of 2018 when the deal was finalised.
The deal May negotiated was realistically the only one she could get. Britain is economically entirely dependent on the EU, and has relatively little leverage of its own. To make matters worse, the early British insistence on “cake” had sapped what little goodwill remained. As a result, the eventual deal was a laundry list of things that various EU states wanted from the UK. This is not surprising. British political response to it ranged from weary acceptance from soft-Brexit supporter, to pompous outrage from hard-Brexit supporters, to smug I-told-you-so-ism from revanchist Remainers.
The loudest offence was directed at a part of the agreement which is referred to as the “Irish backstop”, put in place following Irish concerns. By itself it was innocuous: a legal mechanism ensuring that Britain keep the Northern Irish border open as it had promised it would in 1998. To the EU this was doubly harmless. Firstly, the backstop was a request by Ireland, one of the EU member states, and the EU was in the business of putting the requests of its member states above those of soon-to-be foreign states. Secondly, the backstop by itself does nothing unless Britain chooses to break an unrelated treaty from 1998.
To hard-Brexit supporters, however, this was doubly an outrage. Firstly, Ireland has always been seen by the UK as a state that can easily be bullied: they were amazed that the EU would stand up for Ireland rather than conveniently drop their concerns. Secondly, the notion of holding Britain to its promises felt insulting, especially to those who envisioned Brexit as a chance to somehow rebuild a mythical Empire. To them, it was a denial of sovereignty.
What followed was absurdity. Much of the opposition to May’s deal came from the ranks of her own party, particularly from a hard-Brexit faction called the ERG. They insisted either that the Irish backstop be dropped from the deal (which the EU refused) or that the deal itself be dropped and a hard Brexit occur. The deal, of course, was voted down in Parliament. May’s only solution was to insist on another vote on the same deal, then another, then another. No other option could really pass either. Parliament was more or less equally divided between soft-Brexit, hard-Brexit and Remain factions, meaning that any given option has two thirds opposition.
This was especially absurd because both May and Corbyn are poor public speakers. May’s stilted, mechanical delivery led to her nickname of “the Maybot.” Corbyn’s poor political instincts meant that he delivered blows instead of knockouts. It continued endlessly.
A popular joke began to circulate, asking that if Parliament could vote on the same deal again and again, perhaps the referendum should also happen again. This soon stopped being a joke. By January, there were enormous crowds in the streets demanding a new referendum. In Scotland, a similar movement began asking whether they could have a similar rerun of the independence referendum.
By March 2019, the two year timeout should have happened. The EU offered May a six month extension to get the deal agreed by Parliament. They knew it was pointless. May, a defeated and absurd figure, resigned on 7 June 2019.
2019: Johnson (End Times)
Boris Johnson was not the only person in Britain so convinced of his own genius that they wanted to be leader at that moment, but he was the only big name. He brushed aside a few no-prestige challengers in the internal Conservative contest and installed himself as Prime Minister.
It is a well known fact that Johnson sees himself as a modern day Churchill, whom he hero-worships. It is equally well known that Johnson is a fool who cannot understand that others can see through his deceptions. When Johnson set about his Churchillian plans, therefore, he succeeded in alienating everyone except the hardest of hard-Brexit supporters.
He attempted to bully the EU. This failed. He attempted to threaten the opposition. This failed. He tried to get help from the Americans, who demanded such a high price that he was forced to retreat. However, this litany of failures largely does not matter. Johnson is a hard-Brexit supporter. He has promised that, “come hell or high water,” Britain will leave the EU on 31 October 2019. Due to the ticking clock, this is what will happen if nobody does anything.
To ensure that nobody does anything, Johnson decided to shut down Parliament until mid-October, giving them not enough time to take action. This, called “prorogation” in British lexicon, caused an uproar. Vast numbers of liberals, Remainers, socialists and moderates took to the streets, calling it a “coup.” Finally, Labour made their move, which was a masterstroke.
In early September 2019, Labour members of Parliament proposed a bill that ordered the Prime Minister to seek an extension from the EU if no new deal is agreed. Using arcane mechanisms of Parliamentary procedure and a temporary alliance with the Lib Dems, the bill was pushed through quickly, expected to become law on Monday 9 September. Johnson was furious, and ordered every Conservative to vote against it under penalty of expulsion from the party. People don’t like being threatened: 21 Conservative MPs voted against and were consequently expelled from the party (although they are still MPs until the next election.) Johnson’s majority had been cut to just one, and the vote passed.
The next day, while Johnson was speaking, one of his MPs got up and walked silently across the floor of Parliament to sit among the Lib Dems. Johnson, speechless, had lost his majority.
So What Happens Now?
It is widely understood that Johnson has staked his career on being able to deliver Brexit on 31 October. If this happens then the Right will give him the adulation he craves, and make him a leader for as long as he wants to be. If it does not happen, they will cast him aside.
Johnson has attempted to call an election for 15 October. This would not only allow him to purge his party of the last Remainers and soft-Brexit supporters, but would allow him to position it as “the last chance to save Brexit”, and so unify the Right. Not unimportantly, it would also give him an excuse to do nothing until then, running down the clock until a hard Brexit happens by default. The election was voted down in Parliament, as has every other matter than Johnson’s government has brought before them.
There is a good chance that Johnson may resign, to force an election and prevent himself from being responsible for whatever happens on 31 October. He may also simply break the law, refusing to ask for an election. While this is illegal, he may gamble that a Britain outside the EU will not send him to prison. Johnson is a bully, and like most bullies a coward; but he is also a narcissist, and like most narcissists an optimist. It is not clear what he will do. Johnson’s own words have historically been a very poor guide to his actions.
Nigel Farage has returned to front line politics, starting a new party called, confusingly, the Brexit party. There is a real fear among Conservatives that, should the moderates take back control of the party, the voter base will flee en masse to Farage. There is some evidence of this happening in local elections. Once people have become accustomed to a diet of red meat, they are often reluctant to return to vegetables.
A second referendum is at this point very unlikely. While it would be very popular, and Remain would almost certainly win, it would make it impossible to avoid also holding a second referendum on Scottish independence; and this time the pro-independence forces would almost certainly win. No British leader is willing to save their country’s economy if it means going down in history as the person who caused its breakup.
There is the chance that the opposition may unite and topple Johnson. Corbyn has pushed for this to happen. However, it would require a huge coalition between Labour, Lib Dems, renegade Conservatives and the SNP; all those people may hate Johnson and fear Brexit, but many of them hate and fear Corbyn and socialism more.
Behind all of this, there lurks the unspoken but very real fear. A hard Brexit will be disastrous for Britain. The economy is already weakening as the next recession looms. Brexit will lead to food and fuel shortages, possible electric blackouts, medicine shortages and unrest. There are plans for martial law. The EU has prepared to send emergency aid as if it were a natural disaster. Many hard-Brexit supporters deny this, calling any such information “Project Fear” and claiming it’s simply lies; many more acknowledge that it will happen but claim it’s a price worth paying; and many people across the political spectrum have begun stockpiling canned food and finding excuses to get a foreign passport.
As for myself, I’ve started attending local anarchist meetings. If this is what strong and stable government looks like, perhaps we should go with people who understand how anarchy works.