He, the People Johnson Fans Brexit Flames in Wake of Court Ruling

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is abandoning all inhibitions in the battle for Brexit. His hostile and antagonistic rhetoric dismays civil Britons, but provides catnip for those eager to leave the EU. Many fear he has opened a Pandora's box.

Boris Johnson arriving back from New York
Jack Hill / DDP Images

Boris Johnson arriving back from New York

By in London


What does the prime minister of one of the world's leading democracies do if he's found guilty by the Supreme Court of breaking the law and depriving parliament of its rights?

Does he give in? Does he resign? Does he, at the very least, apologize?

Not if his name is Boris Johnson.

It's Wednesday evening during another crazy week of Brexit developments. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is appearing in London in front of 600 parliamentarians. If he had his way, they would all be condemned to doing nothing. But after the country's Supreme Court declared his forced suspension of the House of Commons unlawful, they're all squeezing back onto the much too narrow benches in Westminster Palace. And if anyone were to expect the 55-year-old Johnson to finally come to reason now that he's been chastised by Britain's highest court, they've got another thing coming.

"The court was wrong," Johnson grumbles, raising up to yet another angry attack. This time his vitriol is aimed at politicians who he says are taking British voters "captive" and go running to judges out of sheer "political cowardice" rather than face an honest fight. He also despises those he sees as traitors, the ones who have imposed on him a "surrender bill." And he opposes all of the dark "forces" in Britain who trample the only one, true verdict -- "the judgement of the people," i.e. the Brexit referendum. "Come on, man!" Johnson calls over to Labour Party head Jeremy Corbyn, as if he wanted to step outside and settle this dispute once and for all.

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An Unscrupulous Performance

It's a performance the likes of which even the House of Commons -- no stranger to tirades -- has seldom seen before. Members of parliament shout with dismay. Some fight back tears. Some Conservative members even attempt to constrain the man who seemed to have gone berserk at the lectern down below. But Johnson is not to be constrained.

He wants everyone to see how angry he is. Johnson, the man many Britons still regard as a moderate Conservative, has once and for all elevated himself to the status of Tribune of the Plebs. He willingly burns bridges that could lead to a Brexit compromise. In a country that has long since lost its composure, he uses the highest political office to rail against "those at the top."

He is the people.

And he does all this not in the heat of the moment, not in the heat of battle -- but with cold calculation.

Johnson, who always thought Brexit would be a piece of cake if only it were carried out by the right person -- him -- has backed himself into a desperate corner after only two months in office. He knows that he can only win new elections, which will happen sooner or later, if he can win over frustrated, bitter and displeased voters. More than three years after the Brexit referendum, their numbers are growing. But Johnson must wrest them from the original firebrand Brexit preacher, Nigel Farage. The head of the Brexit Party practically obliterated Johnson's Tories during elections to the European Parliament in May and has threatened to do the same thing again at the soonest opportunity.

Johnson wants to protect himself against any challenge from the right, and he's doing this by becoming more and more similar to Farage. He is pushing "a once liberal-conservative party ... further in a populist direction," says extremism expert Matthew Goodwin of the University of Kent. But no one can know whether this high-risk tactic of his will work. Or whether the genies that Johnson has let out of the bottle can ever be stuffed back in.

The Last Thing Johnson Wants

Johnson began playing with populist fire shortly after being hoisted into office by Conservative Party members. In mid-August, he accused members of parliament, including some fellow Tories, who wanted to prevent a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31 of a "terrible kind of collaboration." With that, he drew a line in the sand between the people and the people's representatives -- and he left no doubt as to where he saw himself.

For a while, he rejected the notion that he was counting on new elections. A general election is the "last thing" he wants, Johnson said in August. But in fact, the strategists at Downing Street have apparently been preparing for another vote right from the start. They assume that their party's precarious majority in parliament leaves practically no room for any kind of Brexit outcome.

In order to entice Labour voters, Johnson made billion-pound promises to the National Health Service (NHS) and disadvantaged communities. He lured supporters of the Brexit Party with the prospect of 20,000 additional police jobs. His central promise, however, was to lead the country out of the EU come what may on Oct. 31, whether that meant a hard Brexit or not.

But it was clear this meant he would soon require new elections. In this, he presented himself as the man who wanted Brexit whatever the cost. With a comfortable majority, he could -- if his plan worked -- either seal a last-minute deal with Brussels and whip it through parliament, or leave the EU unceremoniously.

Under these circumstances, the most promising way to new elections would be if the "collaborators" in parliament overthrew him by a vote of no confidence. Johnson could easily exploit this in a populist election campaign.

'Dead in a Ditch'

In recent weeks, Johnson has increasingly intensified his rhetoric against the elected representatives of the people and anyone else who would try to prevent him from seeing through a true Brexit. In addition to the weekly Prime Minister's Question Time (PMQs) for members of parliament, Johnson has recently begun holding what he calls "People's PMQs" on Facebook, where voters can pose their questions to him directly.

Nearly every day, hecklers show up in front of Westminster Palace to denounce the "traitors" in the House of Commons with huge signs and promises that they will "never surrender." In Theresa May's day, pro-EU demonstrators were always confronted by people who were fighting for some form of Brexit; now that Johnson is prime minister, the street is dominated by Britons calling for a hard break. Their motto: "No deal is ideal."

At the end of August, Johnson announced his next escalation: He planned to suspend parliament in mid-September to give himself time to draw up a new government program for his time in office. The procedure, known as prorogation, is in fact quite common. Normally, however, it lasts a mere four to six days -- and not five weeks, as Johnson had planned.

This left parliamentarians livid. They suspected Johnson hoped to instigate a vote of no confidence against him. If such a vote had been successful and no party had been able to form a majority in the lower house, it would automatically trigger new elections -- but Johnson would be able to decide when they would take place. And no one would be able to keep him from letting Oct. 31 simply go by without doing anything. He would then go into an election campaign as a de facto winner of a no-deal Brexit.

Instead of falling into that trap, parliamentarians used the few days until the forced break to quickly pass a law that hit Johnson hard. He must now either negotiate an exit treaty with Brussels by the next EU summit in mid-October or request an extension of the Brexit deadline beyond Halloween. Johnson has ruled this out categorically, saying he would "rather be dead in a ditch."

A Cynical Game

Meanwhile, dozens of parliamentarians had lodged legal complaints against the forced suspension. On Tuesday, the 11 judges on Britain's Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the five-week prorogation was unlawful, ruling that it had "extreme" implications for British democracy and that the government had failed to provide any justification. Therefore, the forced suspension was "unlawful, void and of no effect."

The court's verdict could have hardly been firmer or more clear. Yet Johnson's vassals would not be humbled or even made to feel guilty. Instead, they only widened their strategy of condemning anyone who stood in their way of achieving a pure Brexit. Cabinet member Jacob Rees-Mogg is said to have tossed around the words "constitutional coup" during an internal meeting, while other Tories threatened to abolish the Supreme Court. In the eyes of the Brexiteers, the highest judges in the country are now what the opposition, moderate Tories, the Bank of England, business associations and millions of pro-EU Britons have been for some time: enemies of the people.

In the destructive logic of Downing Street's chief strategist Dominic Cummings, the Supreme Court's verdict could even benefit his boss, Johnson. According to the British press, Cummings is said to have recently boasted about just how little pro-EU Britons understood the game he was playing: Every blow to Johnson actually strengthens his position with the electorate. The other side simply does not grasp just how much the country hates this parliament.

To make this cynical game work, Johnson needs elections to happen quickly. But this is precisely what parliament has been able to deny him since it returned to business on Wednesday. Only when it is certain that Johnson will not be able to steer the country out of the EU with a no-deal Brexit will he call for a vote of no confidence, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says.

For now, Johnson has no way out. Essentially, he has two options: He could still negotiate a treaty with the EU, but that would look an awful lot like the withdrawal agreement that his detested predecessor, Theresa May, came up with. Or he could break every promise he's made and ask for an extension of the deadline beyond Oct. 31. In either case, the Brexit Party will be ready and waiting to attack Johnson and the Tories. This would make them the "traitors." He is "vulnerable," says Anand Menon, a political scientist and EU expert at King's College London. "I am not sure if this strategy to form a pact with the people will be successful."

No Plans to Moderate His Language

Johnson made it abundantly clear on Wednesday that he absolutely intends to finish what he started. Like a schoolyard bully, he reserved his most vitriolic rhetoric for his Labour colleagues, as if that alone could provoke an ad hoc vote of no confidence. Almost manically, he repeated the words "surrender" and "betrayal" while condemning what he called the "cowardice" of his opponents for their refusal to face new elections.

When members of parliament made emotional appeals for him to use less caustic language, he mocked them. Parliamentarians from all parties repeatedly reminded Johnson of the fate of the Labour member of parliament Jo Cox, who was stabbed to death by a far-right extremist in 2016, a week before the Brexit referendum. During his appearance in court, the killer gave his name as, "Death to traitors, freedom for Britain."

"We must moderate our language, and it has to come from the prime minister first," Labour member of parliament Paula Sherriff said on Wednesday, speaking directly to Johnson. She and others like her have been incessantly attacked by people in the pro-Brexit camp, and "they often quote his words." Johnson responded, unaffected: "I've never heard such humbug in all my life."

It is indisputable that in today's Britain, anti-Brexit parliamentarians are increasingly insulted, threatened and attacked. The Metropolitan Police sounded the alarm in summer after they had registered more than 750 attacks in the first five months of the year. Such figures were "unprecedented." Panic buttons have since been installed in the homes of many members of parliament. Meanwhile, the presidium of the House of Commons has advised parliamentarians not to leave parliament alone, especially late in the evening.

The morning after Johnson's tirade, another Labour parliamentarian, Jess Phillips, published the text of a recent threat she had received. The author wrote that Johnson's phrasing "dead in a ditch" had been prophetic: "That is what will happen to those who do not deliver Brexit."

Johnson naturally steered clear of the debate over inflammatory speech that Phillips had initiated. He told his fellow party members that he had nothing to take back. And why should he, Phillips asked: "It has clearly been tested and workshopped and worked up and entirely designed to inflame hatred and division," she said. "It is completely and utterly a strategy designed by somebody to harm and cause hatred in our country."

She also tweeted: "I'm not scared of an election, I am scared I might be hurt or killed."

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