LONDON—Theresa May’s abject humiliation over Brexit was three years in the making as she endured failed negotiations, misfiring political gambles, and a series of internal revolts. Boris Johnson got there in just one vote.
The biographer of Winston Churchill entered Downing Street breathing rhetorical fire just one day before Parliament was closed for the summer. On his very first day back in Parliament, he lost his majority in the House of Commons and was then defeated by his own side in a bitter battle over his trademark Brexit policy.
The prime minister was reduced to begging the opposition parties to agree to a general election after he lost the power to deliver a Brexit of his choosing by 328 votes to 301. Lawmakers are expected to vote to rule out a hard, no-deal Brexit on Wednesday, which Johnson believes will destroy his ability to negotiate a good deal with the European Union.
Johnson came to power boasting an ironclad, “do-or-die” commitment to deliver Brexit by Oct. 31. Braggadocious stories leaked to senior newspaper reporters explained that—after May’s failure to deliver Brexit—the real men were now in charge and would channel the spirit of “Cocaine Mitch” to force through their plan using every mechanism or procedure in the book.
Johnson appointed a notoriously spiky strategist as his chief of staff, and last week they broke with precedent and asked the Queen to shut down parliament for five weeks until just before the Brexit deadline to prevent lawmakers thwarting Johnson’s Brexit plan. The move was condemned as a constitutional outrage, and tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest in cities and towns across Britain.
Instead of convincing opponents within his own Conservative Party to back down, the extraordinary gambit only served to strengthen their resolve. When it looked as though there would be enough rebels for the House of Commons to seize control of parliamentary business from Johnson, No. 10 responded not with conciliatory overtures but by threatening to kick anyone who voted against him out of the Conservative Party and banning them from running for re-election under the party’s banner.
On Tuesday night, 21 members of the party disregarded the threats and voted to take away Johnson’s control over Brexit. The so-called “rebel alliance” will use that control to hold a new vote on Wednesday that would force Johnson to seek a further Brexit extension from the European Union.
The lawmakers who risked their own careers and were thus willing to be expelled from the Conservative Party in order to face down their party leader included a former chancellor of the exchequer, a former attorney general and Ken Clarke, a veteran of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet, who now holds the unofficial position of Father of the House, as the longest-serving member of the Commons.
Another of the rebels who moved against the prime minister was Sir Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Churchill, Johnson’s cherished hero.
Assuming the prime minister goes through with his threat to boot these Conservative stalwarts from the party, he will be reduced to presiding over a government with a majority of minus 42.
Philip Lee had already destroyed Johnson’s majority earlier in the day when he quit the party by walking across the chamber to sit with the Liberal Democrats—while the prime minister was still speaking.
“This Conservative Government is aggressively pursuing a damaging Brexit in unprincipled ways,” Lee said. “It is undermining our country’s economy, democracy and role in the world. It is using political manipulation, bullying and lies. And it is doing these things in a deliberate and considered way.”
Johnson challenged the opposition Labour Party to back his calls for a general election to be held on Oct. 15, before the Halloween deadline he has pledged to meet.
“I don't want an election but if MPs vote tomorrow to stop the negotiations and to compel another pointless delay of Brexit, potentially for years, then that will be the only way to resolve this,” he said.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he would only agree to an election once the threat of no-deal had been taken off the table.
It is very likely that an election will be held in the coming months, and the only thing on Johnson’s record will be the failure to deliver his only policy.