On Monday morning, the queen put on her crown and reading glasses to deliver an 11-page speech from the throne in the House of Lords. Scenes do not get more British than this: Horse Guards clopping down the avenues; diamonds glinting in the TV lights. Following customs that have been obsolete for decades, if not centuries, the prime minister and his cabinet stood, on foot, shoved into a corner to hear the words they themselves had put into the monarch’s mouth. Everything looked much as everything has looked for as long as anyone can remember. So it’s quite weird to absorb how utterly the British system of government has collapsed.
The basic rule of the British system is that the prime minister commands a majority in the House of Commons. Lose that majority, and you have to stop being prime minister. In the 19th century, that tended to mean handing the job over to somebody else. In the 20th century, it meant calling an election. In the 21st century, it has meant … well, what does it mean?
Boris Johnson became prime minister in July. He met Parliament for the first time in September—and promptly lost his first vote. Over the next five days, he lost five more, each on an essential issue.
Johnson tried to sidestep his loss of control by proroguing Parliament. His opponents challenged him in court and won, forcing Monday’s ceremonial reopening. The queen’s speech is traditionally followed by a vote. As things are going, Johnson looks likely to lose that vote, too. After expelling 21 Conservatives from his own caucus to punish them for prior rebellions, he can count on only 288 votes in the House of Commons, 32 short of a majority.
At any previous moment in British history, Johnson’s government would have fallen by now and an election would have been called. But Britain amended its law in 2011 to fix parliamentary terms at approximately five years, unless two-thirds of Parliament voted for an early election. The idea was to ensure stability. Instead, the fixed-term amendment has created a political ghost land: a government lacking democratic legitimacy, but also unable to put itself out of its own misery. (One of the votes Johnson lost was a vote for early elections.)
Andrew Cooper, the pollster and strategist to former Prime Minister David Cameron, offers one explanation as to why Britain cannot form a stable government.
Twenty years ago, the safest Conservative seats in the country were mostly economically secure and mostly ethnically English. The safest Labour seats in the country were mostly economically distressed and ethnically diverse. The two parties would then battle for the votes of everybody else, but the clash between the economically secure English and the distressed and diverse provided the main battlefront of British politics.
Over the past two decades, this map of politics has lost relevance. Only 9 percent of British people still strongly identify with a political party. Old partisan identities have faded before a sharp new bifurcation, Leave versus Remain. Almost 90 percent of British voters identify with these new ideological categories; 44 percent do so strongly. This new bifurcation has rotated the old political map. Leave is strongest where voters are distressed and ethnically English. Remain is strongest where voters are economically secure and diverse. The old parties are struggling to find their footing in the new heartlands.
By committing to Leave, the Conservatives have acquired new supporters who want more government protection from the rigors of globalism—even as the party’s own internal justification for Brexit was to rip up EU regulations, shrink the British state, and reposition Britain as more global, not less. With the government determined to Leave, the opposition Labour Party should logically speak for Remain. But under the left-sectarian leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour does not want the voters who would be attracted to a Remain message. This has left Labour with no coherent message at all on the single most important issue facing the country.
The result is a paralytic muddle, in which Labour snubs its most natural voters and Conservatives plot to betray theirs.
The next few days will see a sequence of dramatic events in British politics. The timeline is confusing; the outcomes are unpredictable. But it’s a good guess that Johnson will pull a rabbit out of a hat, procure something that can be sold as a deal, and put himself on the road to the election he wants. Johnson and his advisers hope that once they put Brexit behind them, they can return to the familiar politics of rich versus poor, Thatcherism versus socialism, up versus down. Jeremy Corbyn and his Marxoid advisers hope the same thing. They will all be disappointed. They are talking about yesterday’s issues in tomorrow’s world. Brexit will never be over, not even if Britain quits the European Union, because the discontents who caused Brexit will still seethe the day after Brexit—and probably more than ever.