The Breaking of Britain Johnson Goes Full Speed Ahead into Chaos

The fight over Brexit is becoming increasingly absurd. In this week's epic clash between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the House of Commons, parliament appears to have won round one. But Johnson is going for broke.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Foto: Will Oliver/ EPA-EFE/ Rex/ Montage: DER SPIEGEL

Whatever Brexit might ultimately bring, there are a number of images from this week that will stick in our memories for a long time. We won't forget, for example, that Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, was expelled from the Conservative Party after 36 years of service, giving a passionate speech describing the injustices visited upon his grandfather before the latter's rise to the top.

That a pale Philip Hammond, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and the very definition of a loyal party soldier, threatened Johnson with the "fight of a lifetime" should the prime minister attempt to block his re-election if new elections are called.

That Phillip Lee, a former parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, crossed the aisle in parliament and defected to the Liberal Democrats as Johnson looked on.

And then there is Jacob Rees-Mogg , the member of Johnson's cabinet responsible for parliamentary affairs, who stretched out for a siesta on the government front bench in his ill-fitting double-breasted suit. He even closed his eyes, no doubt to express his disdain for the endless jawing and inconvenient democratic blah blah. Even as his party was disintegrating, Rees-Mogg took a nap.

The image of Rees-Mogg lying there on the green bench on Tuesday evening quickly became symbolic of the drama playing out in London. Just a few hours later, Prime Minister Boris Johnson threw almost two dozen of the most respected and distinguished Tories out of the party because they had dared to remind him of the rules of democracy. And here was his most loyal lackey Rees-Mogg, the 50-year-old multi-millionaire and leading EU-hater, mocking not just his erstwhile party allies, but the institution of parliament itself.

Johnson and his acolytes had decided that parliament wasn't particularly necessary for the time being. The new prime minister figured that his determination, combined with the passion of his followers, would be sufficient  to make the country "the greatest place on earth." Outside of Westminster, Johnson's cheerleaders held up signs with slogans like "Parliament Traitors." Such are the sentiments Johnson has invoked, and they are omens of what may lie ahead.

Hour by hour, Britain's politicians are digging themselves deeper and deeper into a trench that now crisscrosses almost all the country's political parties. And it has become almost impossible to predict who will be left standing once this nasty battle has come to an end. It is a fight that will likely result in the most hate-filled campaign and shoddiest election the country has seen in a long, long time.

The situation has become so dramatic that it is easy to forget what it is all about -- whether UK dares to leave the European Union on October 31 without a deal, as Boris Johnson apparently wants. British lawmakers did manage to put on the emergency brakes this week in a parliamentary show of force. The British lower house has also made the chaotic divorce from the EU a bit less likely. What, though, happens next?

A Group of Zealots

With his ruthless onslaught, Boris Johnson -- the United Kingdom's 77th prime minister -- has deeply divided one of Europe's oldest and most honorable political parties. So deeply, in fact, that it is completely unclear when and how it might be able to recover.

The internal party battle over the country's relationship to Europe has almost completely destroyed the Tories. The party of Margaret Thatcher, of Harold Macmillans, of Winston Churchill -- who Boris Johnson seeks to emulate, at least on the surface -- no longer really exists in its traditional form. Some of the biggest Tory names who have shaped the party for decades were unceremoniously thrown out of the party -- people like Kenneth Clarke, who served in several Conservative cabinets, as well as 13 additional ex-ministers and former state secretaries.

A group of zealots remains, led by Boris Johnson. And their language and behavior are astonishingly similar to those of other authoritative populists, such as those in the U.S., Italy, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere. This time, though, it is the self-proclaimed homeland of modern democracy that is being dismantled by skeptics of democracy who simultaneously claim to be the only true democrats. They want to disable parliament so they can push through the results of a referendum that was so vaguely worded nobody really knows what kind of Brexit the British actually want. A no-deal Brexit, at least, was not one of the options.

Under the pretext of enacting the will of the people, the "mother of parliaments" is being abused by some of its own children. And nobody knows who or what else these Conservatives might be willing to destroy to get what they want -- namely the freedom of their country, or whatever might soon remain of it, from the "yoke" of the European Union.

This group represents a form of English nationalism that threatens the unity of the country, strengthening not just the Scottish independence movement but also the Northern Irish Republicans' dreams of reunification. Several weeks ago, Gordon Brown -- a Scot and the last Labour prime minister -- said that Boris Johnson could very well be the United Kingdom's last prime minister.

The most recent and, thus far, most heavy-handed move in the three-years-and-counting Brexit saga was introduced by the 55-year-old Johnson on the last Wednesday in August, when he announced that he was planning to suspend parliament for five weeks. Because the country was set to leave the EU on October 31, Johnson argued, the government needed time to work out its domestic agenda for the period following Brexit.

Not Exactly Truthful

That justification, as has so often been the case in the life of Boris Johnson, was not exactly truthful . Parliamentarians immediately saw through the ruse, recognizing that the prime minister was doing all he could to rob the lower house of any ability to stand in the way of his Brexit plans.

The prime minister's fear of the 650-member parliament is well-founded. Johnson inherited a fragile coalition with the DUP, a Northern Irish unionist party, from his predecessor Theresa May, and his majority when it took office was just a single vote. May herself had presented the Brexit deal she had negotiated with Brussels to parliament on three occasions, and lost all three votes.

Two irreconcilable groups consistently stood in her way, groups that completely disregarded traditional party loyalties. On the one hand were the EU supporters who ultimately wanted to prevent Brexit, and on the other were the radical proponents of free-trade secretly working toward a no-deal departure from the EU.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has been heavily criticized for his nap in parliament this week.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has been heavily criticized for his nap in parliament this week.

Foto: RU / AFP

The greatest sacrilege in the eyes of the Brexit hardliners was the May-approved "backstop" for the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which will become the EU's external border once Brexit is completed. The backstop foresees Northern Ireland remaining in the EU customs union and, to a certain extent, in the European Single Market until the United Kingdom can reach agreement on a free-trade deal with the remaining 27 EU member states. In order not to risk a return to the decades of civil conflict that tore the region apart from the 1960s to the 1990s, London, Dublin and Brussels want to avoid the reintroduction of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland at all costs.

Brexit hardliners, though, primarily see the backstop as a kind of continued vassalage to the EU and an attack on the UK's unity. But many are at least as concerned that such a solution could mean that their dream of unfettered trade with the rest of the world may never come to pass.

Either way, Johnson, who twice voted against and once in favor of May's divorce deal, was fully aware of the parliamentary obstacles that stood in his way. Contrary to May, he thus chose to shun any attempt at compromise and joined the hardliners. He informed the EU that he wouldn't negotiate at all if Brussels continued to insist on the backstop and then tried to shut down his own parliament.


The result has been a political avalanche that could ultimately bury him as well.

Just hours after Johnson's announcement that he intended to suspend -- or prorogue -- parliament for five weeks, the resistance had already formed. A vast coalition that included Labour, almost all other parties in the lower house and several Tory rebels agreed to use the remaining days before prorogation to block Johnson's move with emergency legislation.

The so-called "rebel alliance" figured that if they were able to legally block Johnson from leading the UK out of the EU on October 31 with no deal, he would then have to go begging to Brussels for a three-month delay -- despite his numerous pugnacious claims that he would never do such a thing. The hope, of course, is that he won't be able to recover from such a humiliation.

Indeed, many in London, Brussels and other European capitals suspect that Johnson and his government, which consists almost exclusively of hardliners, actually favor a no-deal scenario. The prime minister may have been insisting for weeks that the Brexit negotiations his team is conducting are going well and that an acceptable deal with Brussels is "within grasp," but Johnson and his cronies are the only ones who share such an assessment. In Brussels, nobody is aware that any progress has been made at all.

Boris Johnson did not have a good week in parliament.

Boris Johnson did not have a good week in parliament.

Foto: Jessica Taylor/ dpa

During his visits to Berlin and Paris in late August, Johnson insisted that his people had discovered new technical solutions for the Ireland-Northern Ireland border that would make the backstop superfluous, adding that these solutions were "readily available." In response, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave the British prime minister a tiny opening. If that is the case, she said, then Johnson should present his proposal within 30 days and it could then be discussed. But it appears that London hasn't yet presented its backstop replacement in a single EU capital.

The closest thing to a border plan is an extensive collection of measures that Johnson has recently been raving about. It was developed by the think tank Prosperity UK with the help of Johnson's cronies and includes a border-control system made up of myriad individual elements, none of which have ever been tested at an actual border.

According to the document, "people and traders should be given the maximum possible choice of options." Furthermore, "trusted traders" should be saved in a customized IT system and electronically transfer their customs fees. Checks for food and animal transports are to be carried out by "mobile units" away from the actual border while special rules are to be found for small business traffic, such as plumbers and painters. For all others, "existing administrative techniques" will be used.

A Bureaucratic Nightmare

In short, it is a bureaucratic nightmare that would hardly be manageable or affordable for small entrepreneurs, would leave plenty of room for abuse, would be essentially uncontrollable and, despite all the denials, would make physical border controls the rule rather than the exception.

Even the authors of the study admit that their proposals could not be immediately applied. The system for "trusted traders" alone, they say, would take 12 to 15 months to introduce while other measures "might take longer." All in all, the many-layered program "can be implemented within two to three years." Unfortunately, though, Halloween is in less than two months.

What, then, does Johnson actually want? Does he really want to negotiate with the EU? Or does he just want to act like he does, watching all the while as the Brexit clock he has put on the mantle in Downing Street runs down to zero?

A rather sensational story in the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph newspaper this week offers a clue as to Johnson's true motives. According to the paper, Johnson's chief adviser Dominic Cummings, the mastermind behind the successful Brexit campaign in 2016, admitted internally that the negotiations with the EU were a "sham."

In comments to DER SPIEGEL, Cummings says the story was "100 percent not true." Yet he and his boss have misled the public on Brexit so often that few people would believe him, even if he were telling the truth in this case.

The gamblers in 10 Downing Street don't seem to be particularly concerned about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. On the contrary. Even as British civil servants, the opposition, the Bank of England, the Confederation of British Industry and numerous other organizations predict food shortages, border chaos, civil unrest, billions in losses and a possible recession, the prime minister and his government are deaf to the warnings. Britain, Johnson insists, can "easily cope" with a no-deal exit and he has been wont to compare the first weeks following a departure with a drive down a bumpy road -- perhaps a bit uncomfortable, but nothing too challenging.

Just how broadly the denial of reality has taken hold in the Johnson cabinet was demonstrated this week by none other than Jacob Rees-Mogg. The neurologist David Nicholl called in to Mogg's weekly radio show, "Ring Rees-Mogg." Nicholl had worked on the government's no-deal emergency plan, referred to as "Yellowhammer."

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn declined to accept Johnson's offer of new elections.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn declined to accept Johnson's offer of new elections.

Foto: Jessica Taylor/AFP

Nicholl said that a no-deal exit from the EU could result in massive shortages of medicines leading to fatalities and asked Rees-Mogg how many deaths he felt would be acceptable. "I'm surprised that a doctor in your position would be fearmongering in this way on public radio," Rees-Mogg replied. Referring to the emergency plan, Nicholl responded: "Can I remind you I wrote the plans of mitigation?" To which, Rees-Mogg snapped: "Well, you didn't write very good plans .... It's fortunate they are being written by other people now who are serious about mitigating, rather than remoaners."

Rees-Mogg has since apologized, but the mixture of condescension and feigned insouciance is symptomatic of the Johnson government, and it has triggered panic among many parliamentarians, including some Tories. To prevent the worst before the planned prorogation of parliament, an informal coalition of lawmakers joined forces to take an unusual step. On Tuesday, they voted to take control over the parliamentary agenda as a way of essentially forbidding the no-deal exit from the EU on October 31. "Not the best start for you Boris, is it?" one of the parliamentarians called out exuberantly.

'Fortunes of War'

And it is true that the move put the prime minister in a tough spot. He has repeated over and over again that "under no circumstances" would he ask the EU for an extension and that his country would regain its so-called independence on Halloween no matter what. He threatened to immediately throw Tory rebels out of the party should they join the opposition.

But 21 Conservatives weren't intimidated, leading to a painful defeat for Johnson. A short time later, Johnson made good on his promise and excluded them from the party. "That's fortunes of war," said Churchill's grandson Soames.

Johnson's move eliminated all remaining doubt that he was prepared for a fight. And the very next day, he made an offer that he hoped Jeremy Corbyn, head of the opposition Labour Party, would immediately accept: New elections on October 15, for which he needed a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Corbyn has been calling for new elections for three years, but this time, he didn't accept Johnson's offer.

After all, acceptance would essentially have meant the immediate dissolution of parliament -- and the lawmakers are also fully aware of Johnson's rather loose relationship with the truth. They were concerned that once parliament had dissolved, Johnson could have found an excuse to delay new elections until after October 31, thus allowing him to campaign as the candidate who had successfully led the UK out of the EU. Johnson's spokesman insisted that that was not the prime minister's intention, but nobody believed him.

The UK these days is hopelessly divided.

The UK these days is hopelessly divided.

Foto: Hannah Mckay/ REUTERS

The result was that Wednesday saw yet another defeat in parliament for the increasingly aggressive and agitated head of government. And the lawmakers then forced through the law that would prohibit a no-deal Brexit. The opposition only intends to accept Johnson's offer for new elections once that law has been signed by the queen.

Some opposition politicians, however, have warned against accepting new elections before the EU has indicated that it would be prepared to once again delay the Brexit deadline. The EU vote, after all, must be unanimous, and not a few in London believe that Johnson might be able to convince EU-skeptics such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to block a deadline extension. That would mean that Britain would leave the EU on October 31 as planned and there would be nothing that parliament could do about it.

Still, it seems that Boris Johnson, just a few weeks after taking office, has backed himself into a corner. He could, of course, now make a serious effort to negotiate a new deal with the EU by the middle of October. But nobody is clear how his new chief negotiator, David Frost, might be able to perform such a miracle. Furthermore, after the defection of Philip Lee and the expulsion of 21 Conservatives, Johnson now finds himself the leader of a minority government. And Labour leaders have already said they are going to make things hard for the prime minister.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 37/2019 (September 7th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

It could be, of course, that Johnson was expecting the hurdles he is now facing and that, should new elections be held in October, he will do all he can -- even a bit of mudslinging, if necessary -- to win them and, with his new majority, revoke the anti-no-deal law passed this week. Johnson has promised an end to the decade of austerity measures in the country in addition to 20,000 new police officers and billions in investment across the country. Indeed, he already held his first campaign speech on Thursday evening in West Yorkshire, where he spoke against a backdrop of dozens of police recruits. In his speech, he repeated his pledge that he'd "rather be dead in a ditch" than ask for a Brexit extension.

Making a Hero

The Conservative Party is currently in the lead in public opinion surveys, but in order to avoid losing numerous constituencies to the Brexit Party, under the leadership of Nigel Farage, he has no choice but to promise a no-deal Brexit. That is the price of a "non-aggression pact," as Farage has said. A final, hard break with the EU, Farage said, is Johnson's chance to go down in British history as a champion. And, he said: "We can make Boris a hero in that situation."

But if the elections were to take place later -- in November for example, or even after that -- then Johnson would have broken his promise. Farage and his followers would be furious and would brand the Tories as traitors to their fatherland.

Johnson has already prepared himself for this eventuality. He has repeatedly blasted the opposition and pro-EU lawmakers from his own party as "collaborators" and said their approach amounted to "surrender." He has also repeatedly accused the European Union of stubbornness. In other words, he has already identified the enemies he intends to campaign against. Me and patriotic Britons against the rest: That will be his central message.

There is a surprising number of people in the country who support Johnson's aggressive political style. According to surveys, a significant chunk of the population is in favor of a "strong leader willing to break the rules." And it seems safe to say that Johnson will seek to inflame that sentiment and the widespread anger in the country to a greater degree than almost any of his predecessors. And he will no doubt seek to emulate his new friend in Washington in doing so, a U.S. president who has already honored Johnson with the appellation "Britain Trump."

The biggest question, though, will be who Boris Johnson plans to go into battle with in an attempt to avoid becoming the shortest-serving prime minister in British history. Even before he unceremoniously chucked out 21 Conservatives on Tuesday, he had already lost a number of prominent Tories.

A group of MPs led by former Industry Minister Anna Soubry joined with former Labour politicians months ago to create their own faction in parliament. Even Johnson's own brother Jo stepped down on Thursday, saying he was "torn between family loyalty and the national interest." Up north, meanwhile, Ruth Davidson -- head of the Scottish Tories and a leading moderate voice -- bowed out. She was considered to be something of a bulwark against the rejuvenated Scottish National Party, the leadership of which can hardly wait to take advantage of Johnson's divisive rhetoric by holding yet another independence referendum.

Flight to the Fringe

It is impossible to ignore the increasingly voluminous grumbling in Johnson's party. More than 100 Tory MPs signed a letter condemning the expulsion of the "valued and principled" Conservative Party members as "wrong in principle" in addition to asking Johnson if he still accepted the full breadth of conservative views represented in the party. The fractures, they wrote, have spread across the country.

In London, though, the Tories are dominated by politicians for whom no price is too steep for Brexit. The speed with which the remnants of the Conservative Party have moved to the right-wing populist fringe is astonishing. The party's anti-EU wing, a minority not all that long ago, is now mainstream. Kenneth Clarke, widely considered to be the best prime minister the UK has never had, said the Tories have become "the Brexit Party rebadged." A party led by Johnson, who promised to unite his country and his party.

He only made the pledge a couple of weeks ago.

One of those who isn't planning on supporting Johnson for the time being was having breakfast just a stone's throw away from the House of Commons on Thursday morning. Dominic Grieve explains that, as of yet, he hadn't been kicked out. But his online access to the Conservative network, he says, has been blocked since Wednesday and he assumes that Johnson's people no longer see him as a Tory member.

Grieve once served as attorney general and has been an MP for 22 years -- and he is the most unlikely rebel you'll ever find. A master of British understatement, he has spent three years politely reminding the country that the best deal that the UK could ever have with the European Union is EU membership. That view is the reason he and 20 of his like-minded party allies have now been shut out.

Grieve says his party has become dominated by ideologues and has a leader has "no belief but self-belief." He says he has thought about quitting, but adds that it was against his nature to simply leave right in the middle of what he saw as the greatest political crisis in British history."

He says that in the upcoming elections, he may campaign as an independent Conservative. It is a scenario that would have been unimaginable just a short time ago. But, Grieve adds, he and the other rebels no longer have anything to lose.

He also has no idea how this will all end. But he does say that new elections "would stir up the pot quite radically." He doesn't know, though, whether that will be enough to break through the current Brexit impasse.

Grieve has to head off to continue organizing the resistance. There is only time for one last question. How do you feel. He thinks about it for a moment. Tired, he says.

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