If Boris Johnson gets into No 10 in two weeks’ time, he’ll be facing exactly the same problems as Theresa May
Have you tried turning it off and on again? The technique that IT engineers always advise for reviving an unresponsive computer might soon be applied to the problem of impasse in Westminster.
In constitutional terms, that means an election. Few MPs like the idea, and none are sure what the trigger might be. But most struggle to imagine things carrying on much longer in the current deadlocked parliament. The next Tory leader (let’s roll with the polling and presume it is Boris Johnson) will not have a reliable majority on any matter of substance. If he tries to pursue a no-deal Brexit, he could lose a confidence vote.
The awkward parliamentary arithmetic expresses a deeper constitutional malfunction. Since June 2016, Britain has been trying to process a mandate from direct democracy through the machinery of representative democracy. The EU referendum gave a one-word instruction, “leave”, but the task could not be performed so simply – not by the normal political operating system.
The fault does not lie exclusively in remainer recalcitrance. The Commons majority for initiating article 50 negotiations was 384. When the negotiations were complete, most pro-European Tories voted for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. The orderly route out was obstructed by Brexiteers who could not cope when presented with a technical treaty describing as a dull grind something they had imagined as a romantic adventure.
Brexit is an inexecutable file, and British politics is exhibiting a fatal system error message commonly known in tech circles as “blue screen of death”. One solution offered by anti-EU hardliners is bypassing parliament altogether, via prorogation. That is a fig leaf of arcane terminology to conceal what would otherwise sound nakedly putschist – dismissing the elected assembly when it won’t yield to the revolutionary vanguard. Johnson refuses to rule that measure out because he has needed anti-Brussels zealots to cheer his procession towards No 10, and he dare not disappoint them before the destination is reached.
Johnson is already making the mistake that Theresa May and David Cameron made before him. He thinks he can borrow short-term political capital from Eurosceptic ultras and defer thinking about the terms of repayment. He will discover, as his predecessors did, that they are loan sharks who extract exorbitant favours on exponential interest rates. Johnson will soon look more like a hostage to the radical Brexit movement than its leader.
The leak of confidential memos from Britain’s ambassador in Washington, critical of Donald Trump’s administration, is a straw in the wind here. It appears to be a hyper-partisan hit job arranged high up in the Westminster apparat, designed to discredit an individual, Kim Darroch, deemed ideologically unsound. In the Brexit context, that means overly interested in telling the truth. Trump has responded to the leak with Twitter outbursts savagely belittling May’s Brexit strategy and casting Darroch into the diplomatic wilderness. The president’s message to the UK is clear: send me only sycophants. That is surely the original leaker’s intended outcome too – ousting an awkward emissary in expectation of a more compliant replacement.
Total strategic rupture from European allies and economic submission to Trumpism was never the advertised Brexit mission. Trump was not even president in June 2016, but obsession with a US trade deal soon compelled even moderate Tory leavers to bury anxiety about the maverick White House incumbent, while the hardliners were energised by him. British Euroscepticism, which once made parliamentary sovereignty its totemic cause, has been consumed by a spirit of constitutional vandalism. Civil servants, with their professional obligation to uphold institutional continuity, are its natural target. But any organisation can be undermined, every convention shredded, all protocols breached to complete the revolution. The Conservative party itself is disposable to this doctrine that is uninterested in conserving things. The leadership election has effected a Tory mind-meld with Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. There is resistance to a formal electoral alliance, but mostly because it is hoped that Johnson can render such a pact unnecessary through cultural appropriation of Faragism.
The race has provided a summer holiday from thinking about Brexit realities that will reassert themselves in the autumn. It is a personality-driven, presidential affair. That has allowed pro-Johnson Tories to imagine a future in which their candidate has sweeping executive powers. He will “deliver Brexit”, as if there is a button in No 10 for that purpose that May mysteriously chose not to press. But away from the Boris circus, dissident Tory MPs are devising ways to banish the prospect of a disorderly EU withdrawal. Any honeymoon Johnson enjoys basking in the affection of the Tory grassroots will end on contact with a Commons that doesn’t love him.
The conflict of mandates will then have three components: a prime minister installed by direct ballot of a tiny Conservative caucus trying to enact the result of a referendum through a parliament where no party has a majority. Meanwhile, Johnson’s support base is an uneasy coalition of revolutionaries and pragmatists, with each side thinking the other is being used. The radicals intend to manipulate the leader into lighting the Trumpian fire for scorching swaths of Westminster terrain. The moderates hope Johnson will bamboozle the hardliners into voting for a cosmetically adjusted version of May’s deal. Neither camp engages with Brexit as an agenda for government, because it doesn’t provide one. It has only ever been a campaigning device. Attempts to run it as a policy programme crash the machine.
Remainer ambitions for a second referendum to cancel the first one still need a sustainable, cooperative Commons majority to pass the necessary legislation. That is why it feels as if Britain is on the brink of a general election, even if the route there is obscure. It could be the calculated choice of a new prime minister enjoying a temporary poll surge. It could come from parliamentary ambush or accident. There are too many variables and cowardly calculations involved to allow for reliable predictions. But it seems likely that Johnson will soon be at a desk in No 10, jabbing at unresponsive keys, staring at a blue screen of death. And in that scenario, British politics is heading for a hard reboot.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist