Also on the daily podcast: where America’s longest war went wrong and the economics of unreadably long terms and conditions
BORIS JOHNSON has lost his parliamentary majority. Conservative party rebels will now help push for a bill precluding a no-deal Brexit, making an early election look even more likely. Violence in Afghanistan continues, even as America’s negotiations with the Taliban wrap up; we ask where America’s longest war went wrong. And, unreadably long terms and conditions lead to more than consumer confusion—they break some basic economic principles. Runtime: 20 min
The prime minister is effectively at war with the Parliament for which he once promised to “take back control.”
LONDON — Boris Johnson has begun with defeat.
Legislators voted last night to seize control of Parliament, alarmed by the prime minister’s insistence that he will take Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31, even if no deal with the bloc has been reached. On Wednesday, opposition legislators and rebels from Mr. Johnson’s own party will try to pass a law mandating the prime minister to ask for an extension to the deadline if he still has no deal.
It promises to be a week of high political drama in Westminster — and the culmination of over two years of intricate tactical maneuvers and procedural minutiae that have marked British politics.
Time is so short because Mr. Johnson last Wednesday “prorogued” parliament, mothballing it for five weeks from next week: If the bill fails to become law by that point, it automatically falls. The unusual length of the suspension has already occasioned protests across Britain. Demonstrators called it a “coup,” and the speaker of the House of Commons called it a “constitutional outrage.”
Yet on Tuesday night, with Parliament having again flexed its long dormant democratic muscle, it was Mr. Johnson who looked isolated. Furious, he vowed to seek new elections, and stripped the whip from all his rebels — including prominent party grandees — effectively barring them from running again as Conservative candidates.
The conflict has laid bare deep tensions in Britain’s democracy — between the prime minister and Parliament, and between the people and the politics that claims to represent them.
Britain’s Parliament is anomalous. Having failed to sustain its 17th-century deposition of the monarchy, and having been the imperial power rather than the colonized one, Britain has never had a founding constitutional moment. Instead its democracy has evolved within an accreted mass of archaic institutions, including an unelected upper chamber that was until the late 20th century composed of hereditary aristocrats. This grandeur itself has sometimes been thought to be a powerful conservative influence: The Labour politician Nye Bevan once wrote it “lies like an Alp” on the mind of a new member of Parliament.
Under its ritual pomp, Parliament’s curious evolution has made it unusually powerful. A prime minister with a substantial majority has broad latitude to remake the country, as Margaret Thatcher and to a lesser extent Tony Blair did. But without a solid majority, Parliament has great power to resist even the most ambitious leader.
Legislators’ tactics this week are not entirely new: A similar procedure was used to take control and force Theresa May, Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, to seek an extension in April. But the complexity of the new bill — which intends to prescribe Mr. Johnson’s approach to the European Union in exacting detail — reflects the total breakdown in trust between executive and legislature.
April’s version of the bill passed partly because Mrs. May recognized she had lost; Mr. Johnson will use every means at his disposal to frustrate the new bill, including attempts to filibuster its progress in the unelected upper house. Promising a scorched earth, the prime minister is effectively at war with the Parliament for which he once promised to “take back control.”
Despite the throng of demonstrators outside Parliament — roared slogans and vast European Union flags are a daily backdrop to news broadcasts — the political progress of Brexit has been a markedly institutional affair, conducted through arcane procedural instruments and prominent court battles. The alien language of parliamentary procedure — “prorogation,” “humble addresses,” “paving motions” — is parsed for an unfamiliar public by constitutional experts who have rarely been in such demand.
The interviews with members of the public that dot the news vary from bafflement to outright loathing of politics; enthusiasm is a rare beast. According to Hansard Society research, civic trust is threadbare: Only a third of people trust politicians to act in the public interest, and just under half feel they have no influence at all on decision-making.
Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union was always likely to be a vastly complex technical matter, and the bloc’s tendency to conduct politics through intricate sequencing lends itself to squabbles over procedural minutiae. But the cause of the proliferating conflict in British politics has always been domestic: Despite losing her majority in 2017, Mrs. May’s conduct of Brexit was distinguished by her autocratic instincts and determination to avoid parliamentary consultation.
The same highhanded conduct saw her first dragged to the Supreme Court to assert Parliament’s right of a “meaningful vote,” and then locked in a battle with Parliament over the disclosure of the attorney general’s legal advice. That battle saw her censured for “contempt of Parliament.” The phrase epitomizes her successor’s entire attitude.
One consequence of the prominence of procedural conflicts since the Brexit referendum has been to transfer the political questions which drove it into arguments about legal permissibility. Questions about
- the kind of state the Britain wishes to be,
- relations among its constituent nations, its
- draconian attitudes to migrants, its
- vexed history in Ireland,
- how it makes domestic political choices and
- how far it wishes economic integration with other European states —
all are folded into, and sometimes disappear in, conflicts over parliamentary rights and legal obligations.
It is then no wonder that apparently arid matters suddenly take on intense but displaced political energy — the kind that saw High Court judges branded “enemies of the people” on the front pages of the tabloid press and that turned usually pacific sections of society into ardent protesters.
The institutional confinement of the Brexit process has been seized on by Dominic Cummings, the former director of Vote Leave, now Mr. Johnson’s chief adviser and architect of his hard-line strategy. Mr. Cummings recognizes a fault line in Britain’s democratic structure: between an exercise conducted by plebiscite — the Brexit referendum — and the conventional, deliberative methods used to interpret and deliver the consequences of that vote.
By painting the referendum as the sole truly democratic exercise, with all subsequent debates and concerns over rights a matter of cynical pettifogging and anti-Brexit trickery, he believes he can deliver a reconfigured political landscape, straddled by Mr. Johnson as a flaxen-haired avatar of the popular will.
Perhaps Mr. Cummings has in mind that half the people surveyed by Hansard claimed they longed for a strong leader to “break the rules” of politics. Yet the strongman has feet of clay. If suspending Parliament was intended to demonstrate Mr. Johnson’s credentials as a champion of the people, it managed to unite only 27 percent of them. Further overreach as the prime minister attempts to break Parliament to his will is unlikely to improve that number.
Nobody doubts new elections are on the horizon, the central issues of which will be shaped in the next weeks. It will be an election that Mr. Johnson intends to fight on a narrow Brexit question. To beat him, the Labour Party, which has been as troubled by division between the two Brexit camps as the country as a whole, will not only need a clear message on Brexit but also some means of bridging its divide. Democracy could be a powerful theme: not just its defense in Parliament but its extension beyond Parliament’s feudal residues and monarchical hangovers, into Britain’s regions and its antiquated electoral system.
It is widely known that Mr. Johnson wants a “people versus politicians” election. Perhaps it is time for the opposition to push for “the country versus Boris Johnson.”
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.
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.
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.
It’s charitable to first assume our fellow humans are acting in good faith, so let’s first assume that Robert Foster genuinely believes he is the hero of this story. Let’s assume that when the Mississippi gubernatorial candidate denied a female journalist access to his campaign because she is female, he truly saw himself as a bulwark against moral decay. This doesn’t make him right, of course, but it does give context to the problem — albeit a context that should terrify us all.
Larrison Campbell, a female reporter with Mississippi Today, revealed this week that she had asked to shadow Foster for a day on the campaign trail. Two of her colleagues were already following other contenders, but Foster turned down Campbell’s request — unless, that is, she brought along a male colleague. The reason? He obeys the “Billy Graham rule,” refusing to be alone with any woman other than his wife, or, as he put it, “avoid any decision that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage.”
Criticism followed, and Foster bristled at it: “The liberal left . . . can’t believe, that even in 2019, someone still values their relationship with their wife and upholds their Christian Faith,” he tweeted.
But unfortunately, there’s not a single inch of moral high ground achieved via the Billy Graham rule, which purports to honor marriage vows. In similar fashion, Vice President Pence once said he would not dine alone with a woman to whom he wasn’t married. But rules like these don’t honor your wife. They just presume that your marriage vows are so flimsy that you can’t be trusted to uphold them unless a babysitter monitors you. It’s rather like a thief sanctimoniously announcing that he brings a parole officer every time he goes to the bank to make sure he doesn’t rob it. Good for you, dude, for knowing your own limitations — but it doesn’t make you better than the rest of us, who manage to regularly not steal things even when we’re completely alone.