Brexit, the longest-running soap opera in British politics, is heading into its fourth season, with former chief bomb-thrower Boris Johnson now elevated to the title role of prime minister. The hybrid series – part comedy, part tragedy, all drama – is built around the quest for a MacGuffin called Brexit. In pursuit of it, the Conservative Party has been tearing apart itself, and the United Kingdom, since 2016.
And it’s not over yet. This year’s final episode is scheduled for Oct. 31, which is the latest deadline for Britain to break with the European Union. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, cometh the chaos.
The previous prime minister, Theresa May, laboured under four handicaps: profound personal unpopularity; deep divisions over Brexit within her own party; a slim working majority propped up by a Northern Irish fringe party; and – the worst sin of all – her retention of vestigial links to the reality-based community, including concerns about the actual details of how Brexit would work.
Mr. Johnson is also personally unpopular. He is distrusted by many of his own MPs; some will not serve in a cabinet he leads. He has inherited a slim working majority that threatens to get slimmer still. But the new helmsman has the advantage of not being burdened by much interest in the mechanics of Brexit, or its consequences. He is obsessed with the symbol and uninterested in the details.
That is the new PM’s secret power.
It is also the United Kingdom’s Achilles heel. Ever since a previous Conservative prime minister “won” a 2016 referendum on Brexit that he’d only called so as to lose it, Britain has been on a collision course with painful reality.
With careful planning, the pain can be managed and reduced. But if Britain exits the EU, there will be economic downsides, and they cannot be avoided.
The British government, of course, has spent the past three years refusing to make plans to lessen the blow. Doing otherwise would involve acknowledging that Brexit is a bane, not a boon.
The Leave campaign, of which Mr. Johnson was a leader, promised that exiting the EU would deliver an endless stream of happy returns. Britain would be better off, and richer, with far more money for important things such as health care.
Unfortunately, this was all just marketing. Leaving the EU will lower British trade and economic potential, and make the country and its people a bit poorer.
There is no way that this will be anything but a negative for the British economy. It is possible for the U.K. to turn it into a small negative rather than a large one, by making arrangements for as thin as possible a border with Ireland and the countries across the channel. But that would involve acknowledging Brexit’s downsides.
The House of Commons repeatedly rejected the Brexit deal Ms. May negotiated, with some MPs wanting a harder break, others wanting a better deal – which is not on offer – and many wanting to remain inside the EU.
Mr. Johnson leads the faction favouring a hard Brexit, with a preference for leaving the EU with no deal and no provisions made for managing the day after. It’s basically the equivalent of a taxi driver smilingly promising his passengers that, if they just put their trust in him, and all goes well, their evening will end with a head-on collision.
What Mr. Johnson has been pushing since 2016 is the fantasy of having one’s cake and eating it, too. What he is likely to deliver is a chain reaction of catastrophes. The U.K. economy will survive Brexit, albeit poorer. But the United Kingdom itself may not survive. Tensions will rise in a divided Northern Ireland. And Scotland is likely to exit the U.K. in order to stay in the EU.
Mr. Johnson should call a new referendum prior to Oct. 31, in order to ratify whatever deal he has on offer. Or he should call an election.
Instead there are fears, which he has done much to feed, that he will prorogue Parliament and force a no-deal Brexit. That would involve doing nothing, watching the clock run down and dropping out of the EU at the end of October, with Parliament given no chance to vote.
Democracy bypassed, in the name of democracy. The Mother of Parliaments ignored, in the name of returning power to Britain’s traditional institutions. Mr. Johnson cannot be allowed to go there.