No one has ever seen the like before in modern times. Britain’s storied Parliament has made plenty of history over the centuries — from the rhetorical clashes between the great Victorian rivals William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli to William Wilberforce’s campaign to prohibit British ships trafficking in slaves to the Americas.
The chamber of the House of Commons echoed with Winston Churchill’s resounding wartime speeches galvanizing the British to stay the course in the fight of the nation’s life against Adolf Hitler.
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail,” he told the Commons on June 4, 1940, days after the British forces were plucked from the beaches of Dunkirk.
But the British Parliament’s record book is being re-written as Brexit sinks its teeth into the country’s body politic, tearing apart political parties, ripping up well-established conventions and rules and turning friend against friend. On Thursday, the brother of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Jo, a pro-EU lawmaker, quit as a cabinet minister and MP, saying he was “torn between family loyalty and the national interest.”
Amid the high drama, histrionics and frequent breaches of verbal propriety traditionally demanded in the ‘mother of parliaments,’ this week has seen a series of startling firsts for British politics.
No British prime minister has been rebuffed by the House of Commons in the fashion Boris Johnson suffered when a majority of lawmakers wrestled control of parliamentary business from the government to start passing legislation to delay Britain from leaving the European Union.
For Johnson loyalists and Brexiters this was an exercise in turning the British constitution upside down with parliament grabbing the role reserved for the government, transforming itself from legislature to executive in the process. For pro-EU lawmakers, and others worried about the economic impact on jobs and livelihoods from Brexit, initiating legislation was a necessary act of accountability and oversight and done in the national interest.
Johnson, who has only been prime minister for six weeks, suffered four parliamentary defeats in quick succession — that has never happened before to a British prime minister. “Not a good start,” jeered an opposition lawmaker after one of the rebuffs.
Nor has modern British politics seen such a large purge of lawmakers from a political party.
Twenty-one Conservative lawmakers were expelled from the party by Downing Street for voting alongside the opposition parties to delay Brexit. Among them 79-year-old Ken Clarke, the longest continuously sitting British member of Parliament, and former finance minister Philip Hammond — as well as Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames.
Asked if this was the end of the Conservative party of his grandfather, Soames said: “No. But it’s a bad night.” Clarke’s view is that it might mark the end of the Conservative party in all but name. The Conservatives have become the “Brexit party re-badged,” he lamented.
And never before have opposition parties blocked a bid by a government to hold an early general election. Instead, in a moment of surprising unity, they bandied together to block an early election Johnson tried to trigger and make as their priority passing legislation to thwart a so-called no-deal Brexit.
On Wednesday, Johnson accused opposition parties of running scared. But according to the leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson’s ballot offer was “a bit like an offer of an apple to Snow White from the Wicked Queen… offering the poison of a no-deal [Brexit].”
For all of Johnson’s taunts about opposition parties being afraid of how British voters will judge them, the truth is there isn’t a sitting lawmaker who’s not fearful of what an election may hold.
Despite the opposition parties seeing off Johnson’s bid midweek to hold an election on October 15, a snap poll is only weeks away. Once the legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit has received the queen’s assent, the opposition parties will lift their bar on an election.
Can Johnson win it?
Few pollsters are ready to hazard a firm prediction; many see a hung parliament as the most likely outcome. Johnson’s game plan is to focus on voters who want to leave the EU. His mass expulsion of rebel lawmakers was carried out to kill off the idea that the Conservatives are not fully committed to Brexit.
Speaking in the Commons after his expulsion from the Conservatives, Ken Clarke said it was clear that Johnson would campaign on the basis that he’s been thwarted by “wicked continental politicians and by MPs in the House of Commons who have no sense of the true national interest.” In other words, an election couched in terms of the “people versus parliament” with Johnson casting himself as the hero, the only one ready to act on the will of voters as expressed in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Johnson’s advisers say he has no choice but to take that approach. Their biggest fear is that the newly-minted Brexit party of Nigel Farage, the flamboyant Euroskeptic, will end up depriving Johnson of an electoral victory by splitting the pro-Brexit vote. Farage has urged Johnson to enter into an electoral pact with him. The Brexit party stormed to victory in the European parliamentary elections in May, topping the poll.
Farage says if Johnson doesn’t agree to a pact, pro-EU opposition parties will emerge stronger from a snap election as a result of the fratricidal fight between the Brexit party and the Conservatives. Johnson has rejected calls for a pact with Farage, saying he doesn't believe in doing such election deals.
A pact with the Brexit party may be a step too far for many old-fashioned Conservative voters and constituency parties, some of which have expressed strong disapproval of the expulsion of Soames, Clarke and Hammond along with a bevy of other former ministers, which in effect has been a purge of the moderate wing of the party.
Some local Conservative chairmen compare the mass expulsion to the previous biggest split to hit the party when in 1846 more than 200 Conservatives abandoned Robert Peel and voted against him to maintain tariffs. The Conservatives were in the wilderness of political opposition after that for three decades.
Some pro-Johnson Conservatives say Johnson has done enough already to clip the wings of the Brexit party. Johnson, they say, is deft at connecting with "Middle England" — with the tweed-wearing middle-class Conservative faithful in the rural shires of the country, who are incensed that Britain has not already left the EU.
He will be able, they contend, to match the blustery Farage for campaigning nous.
“He has squeezed the Brexit party vote enough to lock them out of contention from winning any seats themselves,” according to Alex Dawson, a former Downing Street adviser. He says the pro-EU vote looks more endangered, split as it is between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
But writing in The Times newspaper Thursday, Dawson, who worked on the last three general elections, warns “these contests are always easier on paper than they are in practice, and they never go as you expect.” He says tactical voting can upset the best laid plans as it did in elections in 2015 and 2017.
Some pollsters agree with him, saying anti-Brexit and anti-Conservative voters are shrewd enough to decide on who is the most likely candidate between the Labour and Liberal Democrat ones on offer in their districts to defeat the Conservative candidate.
Johnson’s camp says tactical voting won’t be enough to deny Johnson a win. His loyalists say he’s eager to remake the Conservative party much as U.S. President Donald Trump has refashioned the Republican Party, and they are buoyed by opinion polls, which, on average, put him eight points ahead of Labour.
But Britain appears to be moving into a multi-party electoral universe — the duopoly of the Conservatives and Labour may be over. In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party is riding high in the polls and could well claim half a dozen of the seats the Conservatives will be defending north of the border.
And the Liberal Democrats, who’ve been enriched by Conservative and Labour defectors, are in a much stronger position than two years ago and turning themselves into an inclusive rallying point for voters fed up with both Labour and the Conservatives.
Pollster John Curtice believes that unless Johnson scoops up all the pro-Brexit vote then the election engineered by Johnson “might prove to have been too much of a gamble after all.”