Brexit Vote Goes Against Boris Johnson, and He Calls for an Election

British lawmakers on Tuesday rose up against Prime Minister Boris Johnson, moving to prevent him from taking the country out of the European Union without a formal agreement. The epic showdown has Britain on the verge of a snap general election.

After losing his first-ever vote as prime minister, Mr. Johnson stood up in Parliament and said he intended to present a formal request for an election to lawmakers, who would have to approve it.

A little over a month ago, Mr. Johnson, a brash, blustery politician often compared to President Trump, swept into office with a vow to finally wrest Britain from the European Union by whatever means necessary, even if it meant a disorderly, no-deal departure.

Now, Parliament has pulled the rug out from under him, and Mr. Johnson is at risk of falling into the same Brexit quagmire that dragged down his predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May.

The lawmakers forced his hand by voting by 328 to 301 to take control of Parliament away from the government and vote on legislation as soon as Wednesday that would block the prime minister from making good on his threat of a no-deal Brexit.

That prompted an angry response from the prime minister.

“I don’t want an election, the public don’t want an election, but if the House votes for this bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on Oct. 17 to sort this out and take this country forward,” Mr. Johnson said, referring to the next European Union summit.

Tuesday was a critical moment in Britain’s tortured, three-year effort to extract itself from the European Union. The saga has divided Britons, torn apart the ruling Conservative Party and prompted complaints that Mr. Johnson has trampled the conventions of the country’s unwritten constitution.

A majority of lawmakers are determined to block a withdrawal from the European Union without a deal, which they believe would be disastrous for the country’s economy. Tuesday’s vote suggested they have the numbers to succeed.

Mr. Johnson’s aides had made clear that, in the event of a defeat on Tuesday, he would seek a general election on Oct. 14 — just a little over two weeks before the Brexit deadline of Oct. 31.

Phillip Lee with the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, after defecting from his Conservative Party on Tuesday.
CreditRoger Harris/U.K Parliament

The accelerating pace of events suggests that Britain’s Brexit nightmare may finally be approaching an endgame after years of paralysis.

Tuesday’s vote also marked the moment when Mr. Johnson’s hardball tactics, for once, were met with equal resistance.

On a day of high drama, Mr. Johnson lost his working majority in Parliament even before the vote took place, when one Conservative rebel, Phillip Lee, quit the party to join the Liberal Democrats, who have managed to stage a resurgence by positioning themselves as an unambiguously anti-Brexit party.

The practical effect of Mr. Lee’s defection for Mr. Johnson was limited, however, because the government would fall only if it were defeated in a confidence motion.

But in moment weighty with symbolism, Mr. Lee walked across the floor of the House of Commons and sat beside Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as the prime minister was speaking about the recent Group of 7 summit. Mr. Lee accused Mr. Johnson of pursuing a damaging withdrawal from the European Union in unprincipled ways, and of “putting lives and livelihoods at risk.”

Mr. Lee’s break with the Tories was most likely just the first of many.

On Tuesday, Downing Street said it would press ahead with plans to discipline those rebels who voted against the government by expelling them from the Conservative Party in Parliament. They include two former chancellors of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond and Kenneth Clarke, and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill.

That could threaten Mr. Johnson’s ability to manage day-to-day business in Parliament, underscoring the need for a new election.

The extent of the Tory civil war was on full display as several of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative critics, including the former chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, lobbed hostile questions at him, making it plain that they had not been brought back into line by threats of expulsion from the party.

Opponents of a no-deal Brexit argue that Mr. Johnson’s promise to leave the bloc without a deal, if necessary, would be catastrophic for the British economy. Many experts say it could lead to shortages of food, fuel and medicine, and wreak havoc on parts of the manufacturing sector that rely on the seamless flow of goods across the English Channel. Leaked government reports paint a bleak picture of what it might look like.

Mr. Johnson says he needs to keep the no-deal option on the table to give him leverage in talks in Brussels, because an abrupt exitwould also damage continental economies, if not as much as Britain’s. The prime minister appealed to his own lawmakers not to support what he called “Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill,” a reference to the leader of the opposition Labour Party.

“It means running up the white flag,” he said.

Mr. Johnson also claimed to have made progress in talks with European Union leaders, although his own Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, on Monday gave a much less rosy assessment of the state of negotiations.

Demonstrators protesting Mr. Johnson and Brexit marched outside Parliament on Tuesday.
CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

Britain’s main demand is for the European Union to ditch the so-called Irish backstop, a guarantee that the bloc insists it needs to ensure that goods flow smoothly across the Irish border whatever happens in trade negotiations with Britain. Mr. Johnson said he planned to visit Dublin next week for talks with his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar.

Conservative rebels believe Mr. Johnson is more interested in uniting Brexit supporters behind him ahead of a general election than in securing an agreement in Brussels.

One former chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, accused Mr. Johnson of setting impossible conditions for the negotiations, attaching as much blame as possible to the European Union for the failure to get a deal and then seeking to hold a “flag-waving election” before the disadvantages of leaving without an agreement become apparent.

The bitter dispute has taken Britain into new political territory.

Last week, Mr. Johnson provoked outrage by curtailing Parliament’s sessions in September and October, compacting the amount of time lawmakers would have to deal with the most crucial decision the country has faced in decades.

Mr. Johnson’s allies argue that it is the rebels who are subverting the principles of Britain’s unwritten constitution by seizing control of the proceedings of Parliament that are normally the preserve of the government.

The European Commission said on Tuesday that while the frequency of meetings between its Brexit team and the British negotiator, David Frost, had increased, little headway had been made toward avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Asked whether the British government was using reports of its talks with the commission for political purposes at home, the commission’s spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, said that the body was “an honest broker, as always.” She said she could not “report any concrete proposals having being made that we have seen.”

Mr. Hammond, a senior member of the cabinet two months ago, told the BBC on Tuesday that Mr. Johnson’s claim of progress on the negotiations was “disingenuous.”

To add to the turmoil and confusion, the opposition Labour Party suggested it might thwart Mr. Johnson’s attempt to push for a general election, should it come to that. Under a 2011 law, the prime minister needs a two-thirds majority to secure a snap election, although it is possible that the government might try to legislate to set that provision aside, a move that would mean it needs only a simply majority.

There is so little trust in British politics that Mr. Johnson’s opponents fear that he might request an election for Oct. 14 but then switch the date until after Oct. 31 as part of a move to lock in a no-deal withdrawal.

Labour has said that its priority is to stop Britain leaving the European Union without a deal, because of concerns about what such a departure would mean for the economy.

But Labour’s stance underscores that the backdrop to everything in British politics is a sense that a general election is looming, with key players maneuvering for the most advantageous moment.

The Catastrophic Performance of Bill Barr

The attorney general misled the public in seven key ways.

was willing to give Bill Barr a chance. Consider me burned.

When Barr was nominated, I wrote a cautious piece for this magazine declining to give him “a character reference” and acknowledging “legitimate reasons to be concerned about [his] nomination,” but nonetheless concluding that “I suspect that he is likely as good as we’re going to get. And he might well be good enough. Because most of all, what the department needs right now is honest leadership that will insulate it from the predations of the president.”

When he wrote his first letter to Congress announcing the principal conclusions of the Mueller report, I wrote another piece saying, “For the next two weeks, let’s give Attorney General William Barr the benefit of the doubt” on the question of releasing the report in a timely and not-too-redacted fashion.

I took a lot of criticism for these pieces—particularly the second one, in which I specifically said we should evaluate Barr’s actual performance in regard to releasing the Mueller report, and thus wait for him to act, rather than denouncing him preemptively.

Barr has now acted, and we can now evaluate his actual, rather than his hypothesized, performance.

It has been catastrophic. Not in my memory has a sitting attorney general more diminished the credibility of his department on any subject. It is a kind of trope of political opposition in every administration that the attorney general—whoever he or she is—is politicizing the Justice Department and acting as a defense lawyer for the president. In this case it is true.

Barr has consistently sought to spin his department’s work in a highly political fashion, and he has done so to cast the president’s conduct in the most favorable possible light. Trump serially complained that Jeff Sessions didn’t act to “protect” him. Matthew Whitaker never had the stature or internal clout to do so effectively. In Barr, Trump has found his man.

How can we be present to what’s happening in the world without giving in to despair and hopelessness?

 Journalism, the way it came down to us from the 20th century, is absolutely focused, utterly and completely, on what is catastrophic, corrupt, and failing. And then, at the same time, there are good people. There are healing initiatives. There is a narrative of healing and of hope and of goodness, and we also just, as a discipline, have to take that in, as well — not instead of, but the both/and of humanity and of our world.

.. the attention I pay to language and I see how we have lapsed into calling the people on ships that are floating perilously around oceans, or children and parents in detention on our border, how we call them migrants. And what difference it would be, both for the journalists reporting this and the politicians legislating it and for us, consuming it and figuring out what to do, as fellow citizens. I think we have to call ourselves, always, to call them people. So that’s something I pay attention to that’s in my mind. How can I insert my understanding of the power of language in the places I’m working? And I don’t think that’s enough, but I think that’s what I can do today.

.. There’s a sensibility behind that stance that says that joy is a privilege. And I don’t think joy is a privilege. I think freedom can be a privilege; I think luxury and comfort can be a privilege. But joy is a piece of basic human resilience. It’s a human birthright. And in fact, one of the paradoxical and amazing things about our species is how people are able to get through the worst, also, with their joy muscle intact.

Philip Roth, seminal author of comical and simmering discontents, dies at 85

Roth, whose sexually scandalous comic novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” brought him literary celebrity after its publication in 1969 and who was eventually hailed as one of America’s greatest living authors for the blunt force and controlled fury of his dozens of later works

.. His lifelong themes included sex and desire, health and mortality, and Jewishness and its obligations — arguably his most definitive subject

.. He could write about these international issues because he was truly cosmopolitan, a global citizen who was grounded by American culture.”

.. A 2006 survey by the New York Times Book Review of the best books since 1981 found an astonishing six of Mr. Roth’s novels among the top 22.

..  “Going wild in public is the last thing in the world that a Jew is expected to do.”

.. In 1962, Mr. Roth shared a panel with “Invisible Man” author Ralph Ellison and Italian novelist Pietro di Donato during a symposium at Yeshiva University. Again he was denounced by questioners who thought he was undermining Jews. Mr. Roth later recycled the incident in “The Ghost Writer,”

.. it also won praise from prominent reviewers for being playful and moving, a masterpiece on guilt.

.. “Nathan Zuckerman is an act. Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade.”

.. In her book, Bloom draws herself as caged by an often wrathful Mr. Roth, describing his emotional gamesmanship as “Machiavellian.”

“Philip’s novels provided all one needed to know about his relationships with women,” Bloom wrote, “most of which had been just short of catastrophic.”

.. Mr. Roth’s powerful, probing, mocking literary voice largely failed to translate in Hollywood

.. “He goes on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” Callil said. “It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

.. Yet when Mr. Roth announced his retirement in 2012, it was soon revealed that the author was cooperating with biographer Blake Bailey.

 

Fears of Missiles, and Words

But Mr. Trump is president of the United States, and if prudent, disciplined leadership was ever required, it is now. Rhetorically stomping his feet, as he did on Tuesday, is not just irresponsible; it is dangerous. He is no longer a businessman trying to browbeat someone into a deal. He commands the most powerful nuclear and conventional arsenal in the world, and any miscalculation could be catastrophic.

.. This is a president with no prior government or military experience who has shown no clear grasp of complex strategic issues.

.. his inflammatory words were entirely improvised and took his closest associates by surprise. Intentionally or not, they echoed President Harry Truman’s 1945 pledgeto inflict a “rain of ruin from the air” if Japan did not surrender after the first atomic bomb was dropped at Hiroshima, which made them seem even more ominous.

It is hard to believe that they would condone Mr. Trump’s risky approach, and on Wednesday, the damage control began.

  • While Mr. Mattis reinforced his boss’s belligerent tone and expressed confidence that North Korea would “lose any arms race or conflict it initiates,” he more prudently focused on the North’s concrete “actions” rather than on vague threats and voiced support for a diplomatic solution.
  • Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he saw no reason to believe that war was imminent.
  • Meanwhile, some White House aides reportedly urged reporters not to read too much into the president’s remarks.

.. Since Truman, presidents have largely avoided the kind of militaristic threats issued by Mr. Trump because they feared such language could escalate a crisis.

.. Mr. Trump has again made himself the focus of attention, when it should be Kim Jong-un, the ruthless North Korean leader, and his accelerating nuclear

.. Engaging in a war of words with North Korea only makes it harder for both sides to de-escalate.