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Boris Johnson Goes for Broke

His predecessor, Theresa May, also bet on an election to solve her problems—with disastrous results.

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been a week equal parts hellish and historic in the British Parliament. The Conservatives lost their majority in a dramatic mid-session defection, a “Rebel Alliance” of Conservative members of Parliament blocked their prime minister’s plans for a no-deal Brexit, and a “Remain Alliance” of the opposition parties effectively took control of the House of Commons. In his first votes as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was stripped of both his authority and his majority, losing the power to set parliament’s Brexit agenda and losing 23 rebellious Conservative MPs in the process—including his own brother.

Against every campaign promise of the new prime minister, Britain is now poised to request a third extension from the EU, delaying its departure until January 31, 2020. In order to avoid the same series of crises, delays, and humiliations, Parliament is also now certain to trigger an election before this new date. But by pushing Britain to the polls, as the prime minister has intentionally if haphazardly done, he is risking it all: the future of his premiership, the future of his party, and not least of all, the future of Brexit.

The gamble is a familiar one. In June of 2017, former Prime Minister Theresa May made the same decision to call a snap election, hoping to build her majority and consolidate her authority in order to have an easier time passing a Brexit deal. Her efforts backfired as the Conservatives went on to lose their outright majority and Labour went on to pick up 30 seats. Every difficulty she faced for the following two years—intransigent coalition partners who held up negotiations, rebellious colleagues who tried to oust her, and crucial votes which came up short—could be traced at least in part to the failure of that election.

Two years later, the same fate may now await her eager successor. No matter when or how the election arrives, the terms of the election for Johnson will not be favorable. Either it will come in the middle of October and follow an embarrassing no-confidence vote his opposition is currently considering, or, more humiliatingly, it will come in early November after Johnson has been forced to renege on his campaign promise and extend Brexit—an act of surrender that is unlikely to impress the electorate. Worst of all, one cabinet minister suggested to The Times that Johnson could resign in October, hand over the reins to the Labour Party, and subsequently call for a no-confidence vote in the new Labour government.

Brexit has never been messier, but in the eyes of Johnson’s supporters, all is going according to plan, albeit a reckless and risky plan. For them, the prime minister has pulled off an impressive one-two punch these past few days. First he “deselected”— barred from running for reelection—the 21 Conservative MPs in the “Rebel Alliance” who voted against his no-deal Brexit plans. Then he immediately called for a general election. In doing so, Johnson has set himself up to fill the Conservative Party’s candidate lists with his allies and remake his party in his image. That is, of course, if he can win.

For the moment, to Johnson’s credit, the polling is on his side. The latest YouGov projection shows his Conservatives up 35 percent to 25 percent on the Labour Party. The center-left Liberal Democrats trail not far behind at 16 percent, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to team up to take advantage of those numbers, as many of the latter’s newest members defected from Labour over serious misgivings about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. On the other hand, the insurgent Brexit Party, which is polling at 11 percent, appears willing to strike an alliance with the Conservatives.

There is also some indication that Johnson will be able to capitalize on his country’s continued appetite for Brexit. Although recent polling suggests that 46 percent of Britons would prefer to stay in the EU if given another opportunity, these “remain” voters aren’t a cohesive group, generally splitting their votes between Labour, the Lib Dems, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens. Meanwhile, the 41 percent of U.K. voters who still support Brexit appear to be left with only one home: the Conservative Party.

What’s more, Johnson can always rely on the enduring stigma of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. If given the choice between a no-deal Brexit—an event which experts say could bring about a recession, food shortages, violence at the Irish border, and more—or a prime minister named Jeremy Corbyn, 43 percent of British voters would prefer a no deal while only 35 percent of voters would prefer Corbyn, according to a recent Politico poll. In a direct contest between Johnson and Corbyn, 40 percent of respondents said they would vote for Johnson while only 18 percent said they would support Corbyn.

If Johnson is able to win in all the places he hopes, he may also be able to undo the most damaging effect of Theresa May’s failed 2017 election, the Conservative-DUP coalition. After May lost her party’s majority, she was forced to enter a governing coalition with Northern Ireland’s far-right Democratic Unionist Party in order to reach a parliamentary majority. In the years since, the DUP has had the power to hold up every proposed solution to Brexit’s Irish border dilemma, driving the U.K. closer to a no-deal departure. The DUP, however, are not projected to hold onto their seats in an upcoming race.

As the Tory tabloids tell it, Johnson’s gamble is playing out splendidly. “Boris Bulldozes Rebels,” splashed The Sun, celebrating the unpopular ousting of some of the Conservatives’ most popular, distinguished, and longest-serving MPs, including Winston Churchill’s grandson. “Corbyn, not Boris was the real loser last night,” The Spectator announced, declaring that even though the opposition parties and 21 Conservative defectors voted to block a no-deal Brexit Tuesday night, an election will hurt Labour in the end.

But beyond the Tory bubble, Johnson’s grand plans are beginning to look like a series of botched power grabs. His pledge to unite the party this summer has come undone as he has lost key MPs and, presumably, their constituencies. Thursday, the list of notable defections, expulsions, and resignations grew as the Conservative MP and Cabinet Minister Jo Johnson, Boris Johnson’s younger brother, announced he would be leaving the cabinet and Parliament altogether due to the growing conflict of “family loyalties and the national interest.” The prime minister’s decision to “prorogue” Parliament last week—to call on the Queen to suspend parliamentary activity for the rest of September in order to undermine the opposition—has been met with “Stop the Coup” protests that have rocked the capital and undermined Brexiteers’ narrative that they are more democratic than those who seek to overturn the 2016 referendum. And Johnson now faces not just a well-coordinated, opposition-wide “Remain Alliance,” but also a Conservative Party “Rebel Alliance,” emerging in response to his acceleration toward a no-deal departure.

In the hours and days ahead, the extraordinary scenes in Parliament—the prime minister calling the opposition leader a “chlorinated chicken,” the speaker of the House yelling at the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to “be a good boy,” a Sikh MP powerfully confronting the prime minister over his history of racist remarks, and more—are sure to continue. So will the gradual implosion of the Conservative Party. However, one depressing fact remains: Despite the excitement, nothing has changed. Until this election comes about, be it in the middle of October or early November, this Parliament will have no capacity to resolve Brexit. Now the nation must wait for the opportunity to elect a new Parliament and to weigh in, at long last, on the circus the current one has proven to be.