WASHINGTON — Tuesday, Sept. 3, marked the 80th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany. That country’s brave stand against Adolf Hitler is still rightly regarded as what Prime Minister Winston Churchill called Britain’s “finest hour.” Now, eight decades later, Britain is mired in its stupidest hour — thanks in no small part to the current Conservative prime minister, Boris Johnson.
Though they share a title and a political party, Johnson is no Churchill. But then, the moment doesn’t call for a Churchill. It calls for someone equal to Brexit — which is to say, theatrical, unpredictable and not well thought through. No doubt about it, Johnson is that man.
It is, to be clear, not Johnson’s fault that Britain voted to exit the European Union. The blame for that (or credit, if you prefer) accrues to another Johnson predecessor as Tory prime minister, David Cameron, who decided that the best way to quiet anti-EU sentiment within the Conservative Party was a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU.
The idea was that the benefits of EU membership were so obvious — Polish plumbers! Cheap Spanish holidays! Thirty percent of all food consumed within the United Kingdom! — that “Remain” would win handily, and the Brexiteers, properly rebuked, would slink back to their collections of commemorative Victoriana. Whoops.
Johnson, the former London mayor, was the best-known face of the “Leave” campaign, but even if he had never brandished a single spear of stalwart British asparagus at the forces of Europe, Britain might well have left. All over the Western world, the past few years have seen the emergence of what you might call “the burn it all down” coalition in democratic politics, and long before Johnson came upon the scene, Britain’s local arsonists had already chosen the European Parliament as the focus for their incendiary ambitions. Johnson was certainly playing with matches, but that doesn’t mean he started the fire.
However, he can be blamed for having supported Brexit without, apparently, having given much thought to little technical details such as, “Whatever shall we do about the Irish border?” Nor has he come up with any very good answers during the ensuing years, as it became clear that those details were making it impossible for Britain’s government to devise any course of action that both the EU and a majority of the British Parliament could accept. Johnson was not notably helpful during the three years that his immediate predecessor, Theresa May, tried fruitlessly to come up with some sort of compromise that could muster a majority vote. Now that the power has passed to him, he is trying to dispense with Parliament entirely, and heedlessly, haplessly, hammer Brexit through.
Johnson has asked the queen to “prorogue” Parliament for five weeks, effectively closing out the current session and making it extremely difficult for his opponents to stop Britain’s otherwise-automatic exit from the EU, without any sort of deal, on Oct. 31. And so, as if to commemorate the anniversary of Britain’s finest hour, the House of Commons came together on Tuesday to vote on a last-ditch effort to stop Johnson from bum-rushing them through a European exit for which the nation is unprepared. Shortly after 10 p.m. in London, the “ayes” carried the motion to advance a bill that would effectively block a no-deal exit.
There is nothing less dramatic than the high-stakes tedium of parliamentary procedure; these sorts of battles have all the panache, verve and appeal of day-old fish and chips. Yet there is drama, of a sort, because resorting to these kinds of tactics for a major policy matter signals a profound breakdown somewhere else in the political system.
But then, it’s hard to find a reasonable solution when your voters seem set on the impossible. A majority of Britons may oppose a no-deal Brexit, but one can find the same poll also showing majorities opposing a second referendum — and earlier polls showed that they weren’t any fonder of the only real alternative to those two options, the “soft Brexit” deal May negotiated with the EU.
Depending on the outcome of Wednesday’s vote, we’re probably in for even more of this technical procedural maneuvering — Johnson threatening to call a snap election, Labour threatening to block it. Everyone searching for a loophole that will obscure the choice unreasoning voters have left them: between indefinite years of economically and politically corrosive indecision, or an immediate separation that will at least be definite, but also definitely very painful for everyone involved.