Skip to main content

In three weeks from now, Canadians will be dressing up as ghosts and princesses, and digesting candy they wish they hadn’t eaten.

In the United Kingdom, if you believe the British government’s worst-case scenario after a no-deal exit from the European Union on Oct. 31, people will be stockpiling food and medicine, the prices of basic necessities will skyrocket, trucks will be lined up for days at customs, protests will erupt at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and social order could collapse.

That’s right. The consequences of an improbable referendum outcome two years and four months ago are once again around the corner. While Canadians spend the next 21 days stocking up on mini chocolate bars, the wise Brit will be laying in precious stores of water and penicillin.

U.K. politicians, meanwhile, will desperately be trying to unscramble the mess they have made of their government’s Brexit negotiations with the EU. They will be doing so from a self-inflicted position of weakness, with little room to manoeuvre, and led by a government that hasn’t done a single thing right since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister three months ago.

Among his more notable setbacks, Mr. Johnson tried to prorogue Parliament for five weeks – a move widely denounced as undemocratic – only to see the U.K. Supreme Court rule that the suspension was illegal.

After that, he pitched a new exit deal that was immediately deemed a non-starter because of its opposition to keeping the Irish border open – the “Irish backstop" negotiated by Mr. Johnson’s much more pragmatic predecessor, Theresa May.

Mr. Johnson is now also bound by the Benn Act, a new law that requires the Prime Minister to seek to postpone the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline to Jan. 31, 2020, if Parliament doesn’t agree to a withdrawal deal by Oct. 19.

Mr. Johnson now plans to try to reach a deal with the EU at a summit on Oct. 17, and then settle the issue at a special session of Parliament two days later.

But his hands are tied by the Benn Act. No one on the EU negotiating team is likely to make concessions to a Prime Minister who lacks the legal authority to walk away from the table, and who has also been politically weakened by a humiliating Supreme Court decision.

It is also inevitable that there will be a general election later this year, which means the EU will be dealing with a new government if the deadline is extended to Jan. 31.

Mr. Johnson has accused the EU of intransigence, and argues that its refusal to negotiate with a self-mutilated lame duck such as himself has made it “essentially impossible” for the U.K. to leave with a deal.

In short, it is difficult to see how Mr. Johnson can reconcile his position that the U.K. should crash out the EU with no deal – the consequences be damned – with the reality of his political situation.

On Thursday, it appeared he was finally beginning to accept that reality when he and Irish leader Leo Varadkar came out of a private lunch saying they had jointly seen a “pathway to a possible deal." In other words, Mr. Johnson might be prepared to relent on the key issue of the Irish backstop.

If that’s true, and he somehow manages to reach a deal acceptable to Parliament by Oct. 19, then Brexit will go ahead with none of the worst-case outcomes foreseen by government experts, and Brits will be able to have fun on Halloween. But that seems unlikely.

The U.K. has been paralyzed for too long by the intransigence of pro-Leave politicians such as Mr. Johnson, who have insisted that the referendum result is not to be compromised, and that the arbitrary Oct. 31 deadline is inviolate.

He and they have falsely claimed that driving off an economic cliff will not so much as dent the country’s standing and well-being. And Mr. Johnson in particular has tried to usurp Parliament in his vain effort to muscle through a calamity that no sensible person would have voted for in 2016 had they known the details of it.

Now, democracy and common sense are back in vogue. The U.K. can’t, by law, pull out of the EU without a deal in place to soften the economic consequences of Brexit, and it is up to Mr. Johnson see that this gets done. He has been cornered by his unwillingness to be reasonable in the past. That irony alone should make for a Happy Halloween.