Brexit, Boris, and British Parliament Come to a Head After 3 Years

September 4, 2019

Nation Editor DD Guttenplan unpacks the politics behind Brexit and the revolt against Boris Johnson by forces not normally aligned. What could lie ahead and why

Nation Editor DD Guttenplan unpacks the politics behind Brexit and the revolt against Boris Johnson by forces not normally aligned. What could lie ahead and why


Brexit, Boris, and British Parliament Come to a Head After 3 Years

Story Transcript

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: This government will take this country out of the European Union on October the 31st and there is only one thing that stands in our way. It is the Surrender Bill currently being proposed by the leader of the opposition.

MP JEREMY CORBYN: Mr. Speaker, I really fail to see how I can be accused of undermining negotiations because no negotiations have taken place.

SPEAKER:  The Ayes to the right, 329. The Noes to the left, 300.

SPEAKER JOHN BERCOW: So the Ayes have it. The Ayes have it. Unlock. [crosstalk] Order.

MARC STEINER:  Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us. Imagine if our Congress was like that. Britain has been roiling and paralyzed since the Brexit vote three years ago. Now it’s come to a point of boiling over, but still in paralysis. A constitutional crisis for a government with no Constitution.

It began when Boris Johnson prorogued the Parliament, so it could not debate or stop his no-deal Brexit deadline of October 31st. But the rebels within his own party voted against that and threatened to derail the process. Johnson has threatened to call for new elections, but he can’t do that legally, but can Parliament find the two-thirds majority to do it? And the Labour Party is conflicted. It seems to be they’re considering which way to go, and nobody is talking about the disastrous effect of Brexit itself. And with a no-deal Brexit being bullied through, will it be stopped? Will there be new elections? Another Brexit referendum? Will the pound sterling continue to plummet? Not to mention the Boris-Donald connection and the growth of right-wing populism.

Once again, The Nation Editor Don Guttenplan joins us, who spent 25 years in Britain covering their political life. Don, welcome back. Good to have you with us once again.

DON GUTTENPLAN: Great to be with you, Marc.

MARC STEINER: It is a little bit like watching a circus, but it’s a very serious circus.

DON GUTTENPLAN: If you look over my shoulder, you’ll see a picture of IF Stone.

MARC STEINER: Yes.

DON GUTTENPLAN: Whose biography I once wrote a long time ago. Izzy said something very important about journalism. He said, “The thing is, you have so much fun and it’s like being a little kid at the circus, covering a fire, you know. It’s exciting. There is the smell. There is the noise. There is the firemen and their colorful uniforms. There is the truck.” He says, “but you have to remember it’s really burning.” So yes, you could think it would be fun to have a Congress that acted like the British Parliament acted yesterday, but not if you have to live in the country. Then it’s not fun at all. Then it’s a disaster.

MARC STEINER: The question is, why is there so much confusion around this? I mean, if the emergency law is passed, he could ignore it. Then it’s obvious that he would be able to call the—If there was a no-confidence vote in Parliament, that would mean the Conservative MPs would have to vote to bring down their own party. And then Johnson himself said he would call a snap election. Is that even legal to do? Labour seems to be totally confused of whether to support or not support an election depending on how the no Brexit deal is cut. On top of that, the pound sterling is spiraling down, so there is a lot of confusion here for people watching from the outside.

DON GUTTENPLAN: If Britain really wanted to leave the European Union, somebody ought to say to them what they say to people in Maine and Vermont, which is, “I wouldn’t start from here because this is a mess.” How did we get here? We got here because David Cameron, the previous Conservative Prime Minister, had a problem with his own party, which is that there was a wing of his party, very durable, had been there for a long time, represented by people like Jacob Rees-Mogg who was on YouTube all over yesterday looking like a caricature of an English aristocrat, which is what he is, who wanted to leave the European Union. They represented a minority of the Conservative Party, but they were a noisy, stubborn minority, and what they demanded was a referendum. Cameron figured, “I’ll just get rid of them by having a referendum, it will fail, and then I won’t have to deal with them again.”

But he didn’t consider how much people were pissed off at the way things were happening in Britain. The chance to vote on the referendum seemed to offer a lot of people a chance to register their disgust with the status quo without really thinking about the consequences. And of course, they were lied to principally by Boris Johnson, who basically promised that if Britain left the European Union, there’d be 300 million pounds for the NHS every week or every day. I don’t know, some incredible figure that it was never going to happen. Also, they set the rules so that this incredibly wrenching momentous change, which is going to being like a car crash for the British economy, could happen even if only – even on a majority of one vote.

In other words, instead of setting up like, okay, you’re going to have a referendum, but to make this change you’re going to need two thirds, or 60%, or some large majority. They just said simple majority and it passed. It passed by simple majority people voted to the leave. That’s true. But there was no clarity about how that would happen, what the process would be. And there was not just not clarity, but a lot of lying about what the cost and the effects would be.

I mean, if the Tories had gone and said, “Look, this is going to cost your pocket. It’s going to cost your wallet. But for patriotic national reasons, we want to be able to set our own destiny, so you should vote for it,” and they’d won on those grounds, there’d be very little arguing back. Then you could say, “Well, we don’t like it, but people voted for it.” But instead, they lied to people. People voted for it. And then when people found out what it was going to cost, it turned out a lot of them don’t like it. Of course a lot of them still want to exit, and that’s the problem. The problem is that there is a hard nugget of people who want to leave and who are going to believe if they don’t leave, that they were gypped by the government. That it was some kind of elitist plot to flaunt the will of the people. That’s the kind of populous note that Boris Johnson keeps playing.

But basically, what happened yesterday was simply a vote to take the initiative and the command of the legislative agenda away from the government, which is Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, and hand it back to Parliament. In Parliament, at the moment, there is no single majority party. Boris Johnson had a majority of one yesterday, and one of the most vivid pieces of television yesterday was watching one person cross the aisle to join with Democrats and walk away from the Tories, so that Boris Johnson no longer has a majority.

But that doesn’t mean that the government falls because of something else that David Cameron did. He passed something called the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which was supposed to make Britain more like the US. Instead of having the prime minister having the ability to call an election whenever he felt he might win, and thus extend his term by five years, or her term in the case of Theresa May or Margaret Thatcher, the Fixed Term Parliament Act said, you have to have the agreement of two-thirds of Parliament to call an early election. Otherwise, Parliament has a fixed term of five years, so that’s why Boris Johnson needs a two-thirds majority in order to call an election.

MARC STEINER: Let me go through a couple of brief things here so we can all understand what’s going on. There is also this man named Dominic Cummings who is the former Director of Vote Leave and now Boris Johnson’s righthand and a right-wing populist much in the same ways as Steve Miller is at the right hand of Donald Trump, who is pushing a lot in our country, the immigration agenda and more. So I mean, this also seems to me to be part of a worldwide phenomenon we’re watching, but in Britain it’s taking on this horrendous battle in Parliament between right-wing populism and the rest of the world. Isn’t that part of what’s playing into all this?

DON GUTTENPLAN: Well it is, but I’ll tell you, I mean I’ve met Dominic Cummings. I’ve sat down with him. He’s an interesting person. I’ll tell you something that’s interesting, which is when I met him, I was on the board of a charity that was trying to find government jobs for cultural workers. In other words, to spend government funds during the 2008 crash on putting people to work, doing art or music or culture. Dominic Cummings was then the righthand man of Michael Gove, and Michael Gove was then the Shadow Culture Minister. I thought it’s good to reach out across party lines and talk to these people, and so I sat down with Cummings.

And of course Michael Gove was the person who was Boris Johnson’s ally in campaigning for Brexit and then knifed him in the back when Boris Johnson was going to be the frontrunner for prime minister, which is what enabled Theresa May to become prime minister. Gove is now again in harness with Johnson, and he has loaned Dominic Cummings, his political lieutenant, to Johnson for this period of getting through a no-deal Brexit, which is something that Cummings has always been in favor of. I don’t know whether it’s fair to compare him to Trump’s guy because I think he’s a lot smarter than Trump’s guy.

MARC STEINER: That’s interesting. Okay. That’s really interesting. I mean, I had no idea who this man was, but it felt like that when you read the press reports. But now, if you look at what’s going on at this moment, let’s parse this out fairly quickly. So if this emergency bill is passed, Johnson said he could ignore it. The obvious response would be a vote of no-confidence for the government. But that would mean the Conservative MPs would have to vote down to bring their own party down. And then Johnson said he’s going to seek an election, but he can’t do that without the House of Commons passing a bill saying so. And Labour seems to be completely and totally conflicted about what to do about this process.

DON GUTTENPLAN: I don’t think so. I mean, Johnson was baiting Jeremy Corbyn yesterday repeatedly. Part of it is baiting, you know, saying, “The way to do this is to call an election, but you’re afraid to call an election.” What he was basically suggesting is that Corbyn’s own MPs were afraid to call an election because the Labour MPs don’t support Corbyn, which to a certain extent is true. But it’s also true that Corbyn has been quite clear that he will – he wants an election. He will call an election. He will agree to an election, but only after a no-deal Brexit has been taken off the table. In other words, Corbyn’s position is this is too dangerous to play politics with. We have a cross party majority in favor of barring a no-deal Brexit, so let’s make that law. Let’s make sure that that can’t happen, and then we can go back to politics as normal, have an election, and see who is the person who is going to be running the negotiations— whether it’s going to be me or Boris Johnson.

But part of Johnson’s calculus is that he thinks that if he can goad Corbyn into calling an election before this becomes law and he can win that election, then he will come back with a majority. In which case, he can do what he wants in Parliament, including a no-deal Brexit. And he can either go for a no-deal Brexit, or at least have the credible threat of a no-deal Brexit because, remember the last time we talked, I said to you that part of this, the Brexit game, is a game of chicken and it’s true.

By taking no-deal Brexit off the table, it’s kind of like having your mother standing there when you’re playing chicken and saying, “You’re going to have to be in for dinner in a minute, so get your game over with.” It’s true that that removes a certain amount of negotiating room from Johnson. But it’s also true that that negotiating room was purely notional because, as Corbyn pointed out, Johnson didn’t actually negotiate.

MARC STEINER: What do you think could be the outcome of this then? I mean, if this vote goes through with Parliament, and Parliament is not in session next week, how do—

DON GUTTENPLAN: Today is the crunch of whether or not they will pass a law saying that a no-deal Brexit is ruled out. If they do that, then Johnson said he will try to call an election. He will fail without Labour’s support and Labour— I think Corbyn will refuse to lend him support for that until the Queen has given her ascent to this bill. There is a certain process that has to happen. It’s not just to go through Parliament. It has to be read three times in the House of Lords. Now, the House of Lords normally moves fairly slowly, as we discussed last time, but they are capable of moving a little quicker and they certainly have an incentive since a large majority of the Lords are against a no-deal Brexit, to do that.

If this becomes law, then there will be an election and there could still be an election by October 15th, which would still give the new government two weeks to go and either ask for an extension from Brussels or say we’ve changed our mind. I mean, partly it depends on what they campaign on. In other words, if this becomes law, there can still be an election. Corbyn could still win a majority. If he wins a majority in favor of a no-deal Brexit, then the next Parliament – because Parliament is sovereign. So if Parliament passes this law, it’s not in the Constitution; it’s just a law. The next Parliament could repeal it. And that will be Corbyn’s campaigning slogan. He will say, “vote for me, vote for the Tories and we will deliver a no-deal Brexit.”

If he wins on those grounds, there will be no-deal Brexit. If Corbyn wins on the grounds of no, no-deal Brexit, then he’ll either have to decide whether he wants to go after this notional, Labour-friendly, left-inclined Brexit that he thinks is possible and a few other people think is possible, but that most observers think is pure pipe dream. Or whether he wants to say vote for Labour and we’ll stay in Europe, which a majority of his – certainly a majority of his members in Parliament would support, probably a majority of his members would support. But the problem is a majority of his members, but not enough of his members, particularly in northern industrial seats, not enough Labour Party voters in the North would support that to guarantee a Labour majority in government. So that’s the underneath – the underlying truth that your viewers need to bear in mind about Brexit, is that it actually divides both parties.

And then along with the Brexit game of chicken, which is, “we’re going to take Britain out. And Europe, your seatbelt is going to be in the passenger seat and you’re going to go off the cliff with us unless you give us a good deal.” That’s one game of chicken. The other game of chicken, which so far Jeremy Corbyn has been playing brilliantly is, “We are both going to destroy our parties over this, but the Tories are going to destroy themselves first.” And that’s what happened yesterday. So Corbyn’s task now is to keep Labour from tearing itself to pieces over Brexit the way we just saw the Tories do yesterday. I think he’s got a reasonably good chance of succeeding at that.

MARC STEINER: This has been really interesting. I mean, you’re really explaining things in ways I’ve not heard before, which I think is important for our viewers to understand. But just finally, talk a bit about how deep this crisis is for the body politic in Britain, and what that means for the future?

DON GUTTENPLAN: Brexit would be a huge self-inflicted wound on the British economy and on British society. Don’t forget, okay, a lot of Britain’s food comes from Europe. A lot of its medicine comes from Europe. You go on to any corner shop anywhere in Britain and you’ll see French cheeses, Dutch cheeses, Italian olive oil, Italian wine, all sorts of things from Europe. Those things will be impossible to get, hard to get. There’ll be backups at Dover and Calais in terms of delivering them. More important, people won’t be able to get medicine and insulin, all sorts of lifesaving drugs people rely on that we don’t make, or they don’t make in Britain, they only make in Europe. That’s going to be huge.

But also the whole Irish backstop, which is the thing that divides the Conservative Party at the moment, which is whether you’d draw a border between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland to have customs posts, or whether that border is in the Irish sea. Meaning that Northern Ireland is treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom. That has big implications for the Good Friday Agreement, for peace in Northern Ireland, and also for the integrity of the United Kingdom. Because if Northern Ireland is going to be taken out of Europe, whether it wants to or not, that’s a good campaigning slogan for Sinn Fein to say, “We need to unite with Ireland who are in Europe and who are going to stay in Europe. So if you see your future in Europe and you live in Ireland, vote for Sinn Fein.” That’s definitely a possibility.

The same in Scotland. The referendum in Scotland, which had a high benchmark to reach, failed for its Scottish independence, but a vast majority of Scots want to remain in Europe. If Boris Johnson takes Britain out of Europe, that makes it much more likely that there will be another Scottish referendum and that the Scots will leave, which will mean the disintegration of the United Kingdom, which has been together since 1707.

MARC STEINER: Well, you’ve just painted a real critical picture of what the future could be, and I appreciate it, Don, so much for you joining us today. And thanks for the work you all are doing at The Nation to cover this for us. Don Guttenplan is Editor-in-chief at The Nation. Good to have you with us, Don, and look forward to talking to you a great deal more.

DON GUTTENPLAN: Great to be with you. And if you want to see great analysis on Brexit, go to wwwthenation.com. Thanks.

MARC STEINER: Good place to be. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.