Updated at 11:10 a.m. EST on October 22, 2019
The British people have changed their mind about Brexit. Beginning in the summer of 2017, and accelerating in the summer of 2018 by an ever wider margin, British people have told pollsters that they voted wrong in the Brexit referendum of June 2016.
Over that same period, however, Britain’s Conservative Party has become more and more committed to Brexit. Sixty-three percent of Conservative Party supporters would rather see Scotland secede from the United Kingdom than abandon the Brexit project. Sixty-one percent of Conservatives would accept significant damage to the British economy to achieve Brexit. Fifty-nine percent would let Northern Ireland go. Fifty-four percent would rather see the Conservative Party itself destroyed than yield on Brexit.
So there’s the dilemma for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. His party is demanding something that the country does not want. He cannot pass that “something” through Parliament. Johnson has lost his working majority in Parliament; he has not won a single vote on a single major issue there. But despite solid parliamentary opposition to his project, Johnson cannot give up. His party would tear him apart as it tore apart his predecessors Theresa May and David Cameron if he did. He must push, push, push, and suffer defeat after defeat after defeat. In any previous period of British history, the Johnson government would already have fallen. An election would have been called, and—given the unpopularity of the government’s one big idea—the Conservatives would almost certainly have lost.
This time, however, the historic British resolution for political crises is unavailable. New rules lock the Johnson government into office until 2022 unless two-thirds of Parliament approve an earlier election. Even if there were an election, Johnson might not lose, because the main opposition party—Labour—has chosen as its leader an extreme leftist who is widely regarded as pathetically inadequate. Jeremy Corbyn’s own parliamentary party has repeatedly tried to get rid of him, accusing him of anti-Semitism, misogyny, and general cluelessness. By a margin of 13 percentage points, British people would prefer even the most painful possible Brexit to a Corbyn-led government.
What is happening in the British Parliament now is an attempt to find an exit from this dilemma.
The great background fact to all the maneuvering is the deadline of October 31, 2019, the date Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union. (Brexit was originally scheduled for March 29, but the May government requested and received extensions until October 31.)*
Johnson’s hope is to get a withdrawal agreement in place before October 31, exit by that date, and only then force an election. With Brexit then irrevocable, British voters would confront the stark single-issue choice: Johnson or Corbyn? Johnson could expect to win a five-year mandate to repair the damage he himself inflicted by Brexit.
But this plan depends on exquisite timing. Dissident Conservatives led by the former front-bencher Oliver Letwin have joined with Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, and a moderate Labour group led by Hilary Benn to delay and disrupt Johnson’s strategy. Yesterday, Johnson was forced to request a second extension from the EU. If the EU grants the extension, there will be time for more politics before Brexit goes into effect—possibly including a second referendum.
Johnson could try to lead Britain out of the EU despite the extension. Some of his ministers say they are determined to drive forward regardless of public opinion. But Parliament has voted to require affirmative approval by Parliament of a British exit. Johnson would have to defy that vote and arguably break the law to achieve Brexit. The British courts have slapped him down once, when he tried to prorogue Parliament despite lacking a working majority in the House of Commons. If he bolts for Brexit despite the law, the courts will surely slap him down again. While Johnson is a risk-taking politician, he is no Donald Trump: He is not ultimately a lawbreaker.
Johnson’s cross-party parliamentary opponents have the votes to stop early exit. They have the votes to deny an early election. The big question is: Do they have the votes to force a second referendum? A second referendum would be even more bitter and divisive than the first. Anti-EU voters will feel cheated of a victory they have sought for decades—and that they felt they had at last won in 2016. Some pro-Brexit advocates—including the chairman of the Conservative Party!—predict (or threaten) civil unrest if they do not gain their prize.
How real is any of this militant talk? By a two-to-one majority, Britons want a second referendum on final exit from the EU. Polls suggest that this time, the Remain side would almost certainly win, and by a bigger margin than Leave won last time.
What is driving the change in the U.K. is generational replacement. Until very recently, Britain was marked by a uniquely weak attachment to a “European” identity. On the eve of the Brexit vote, only 15 percent of British people thought of themselves as “European,” by far the lowest level of identification for a big EU state. The most striking and surprising effect of the Brexit debate in the U.K. has been to incubate for the first time a European political identity among the young. You see EU-flag pins on backpacks on the subway, EU flags in windows around the University of London. Since June 2016, 2.5 million young people have entered the British electorate, and about 1.4 million older people have died out of it.
Brexit advocates often use the phrase now or never to convey the urgency they feel. This weekend, the British Parliament decided “not now.” Suddenly, and for the first time since June 2016, “never” looks plausibly like the ultimate outcome.