MANCHESTER, England—The two biggest names in Brexit are headed for a ferocious general-election showdown that threatens to take down the entire project as collateral damage. If Prime Minister Boris Johnson is forced to request another extension from the EU later this month, he will go to the polls facing a fired up Nigel Farage ready to accuse him of selling out the Brexiteers and failing to deliver his signature promise of leaving by Halloween.
The fallout could be devastating for the Conservative Party, and for Brexit.
If a significant chunk of the Tory vote sides with the radical forces of the Brexit Party, that could allow a rainbow coalition of anti-Brexit parties to secure a majority in Parliament. With Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the nationalist parties from Scotland and Wales in control of events, a second referendum that could cancel Brexit would become all but inevitable.
That’s why Johnson uttered the phrase “get Brexit done” by Oct. 31 no fewer than eight times during his first speech as leader to the annual party conference in Manchester on Wednesday. If he secures Brexit first, polls and seat analysis suggest he would sweep to victory in an election.
Unfortunately for Johnson, European Union officials are pouring cold water on the chances of a deal this month and Britain’s Parliament has passed a law preventing him from forcing the country out without one.
Johnson is backed into a corner and looking at increasingly unlikely solutions to escape. His premiership depends on it, and he is still almost two months short of avoiding a place in the history books as Britain’s shortest serving prime minister.
On the eve of the Conservative Party conference last Friday, the hardline forces of Brexit gathered in central London to remind Johnson just how much pressure he is under from the right. Before an electrified crowd in Westminster, Farage taunted Johnson, who had tried to “out-Brexit the Brexit Party” in the belief that traditional Conservative voters would return to base.
“But here we are!” Farage bellowed. “The reason Brexit Party voters are not going to go back en masse is very simple—we just don’t trust the Conservative Party!”
The problem was exemplified by one of Johnson’s former Conservative colleagues who was also on stage. Ann Widdecombe was a high-profile Conservative lawmaker for more than 20 years, but earlier this year she was elected as a member of the European Parliament for the Brexit Party during the stunning May elections in which the Euroskeptic party finished in first place—and the Conservatives fell back into fifth.
She sent the crowd into raptures by threatening to repeat the trick at the coming election unless Johnson secures a hard Brexit by Oct. 31. “If he doesn’t, then he is going to find that the next general election for him will be like leading the charge of the Light Brigade,” she warned, recasting Lord Tennyson’s epic poem about a disastrous cavalry charge.
Brexit to right of him,
Brexit to left of him,
Brexit in front of him,
Volleying and thundering...
The next line was drowned out by cheers, but Johnson is well aware of his predicament. When asked his week on the BBC about allegations of sexual misconduct, the prime minister invoked the very next line himself: “Stormed at with shot and shell.”
Backstage, Widdecombe explained that Johnson was partly to blame for the position he’s found himself in. He made a “do or die” pledge to deliver Brexit by Halloween during the leadership race that saw him succeed Theresa May in July, and he’s spent the last three months repeating the date over and over.
“If he asks for an extension, his standing would collapse completely,” Widdecombe told The Daily Beast. “He’s invested a huge amount of personal capital in this, he really has.”
The Brexit Party has made it clear that it would back Johnson, and even form an electoral pact, if he commits to a “No Deal” Brexit, which would instantly withdraw Britain from all of the institutions, trade deals, and reciprocal arrangements of the EU. Critics of this position point out that Britain would immediately have to begin negotiating its way back into similar relationships—from a position of weakness as the domestic economy readjusts.
No. 10, which is now staffed by a host of Vote Leavers brought in as Johnson got the old Brexit team back together again, has rejected any suggestion of striking a deal with the Brexit Party. Farage and his acolytes were members of the rival Brexit group Leave.EU during the referendum and the acrimony between the two factions has shown little sign of easing. A Johnson spokesman said last month that Farage and Arron Banks, who bankrolled Leave.EU, were not “fit and proper persons and they should never be allowed anywhere near government.”
Richard Tice, the chairman of the Brexit Party, told The Daily Beast that Johnson would soon have to reconsider: “He’s doomed, he’ll be begging for our support.”
By Any Means Necessary
A few days later in the hubbub of the luxe Midland Hotel lobby in Manchester, lawmakers gathered during Conservative Party conference to sip $17 gin and tonics with party members and business leaders in expensive suits. Dominic Cummings shambled out of a side door and marched across the room in a crumpled shirt and three-stripe hoodie.
This is not Cummings’ world. The cutthroat Vote Leave alum will never fit in with the rest of his party, and yet this is the man entrusted by Johnson to lead his strategy at one of the most contentious moments in British political history.
So long as you don’t intend to quote them, party members, officials and lawmakers are all too happy to denigrate his plan and cast doubt on whether his huge gamble will come off.
His aggressive, non-consensual pursuit of Brexit is regarded as “reckless” by party insiders who fear for their prospects at the election, which looms menacingly over conference, if Johnson fails to secure a deal.
Even a local politician wearing a “Boris Boris Boris” T-shirt admitted that the prime minister’s unswerving promise to deliver Brexit by the end of the month was “unnecessary.”
Johnson and his Downing Street team are well aware of the potential fallout from failing to deliver. They shut down Parliament last month in order to prevent lawmakers from coming up with a legally binding way to stop them from forcing through a “No Deal.”
The supreme court ruled that it had been unlawful to ask the Queen to “prorogue” Parliament in this way, but No. 10 had been too slow in any case, and lawmakers passed a bill to force Johnson to seek an extension unless a deal is reached with the EU for an orderly exit.
The author of that bill, Hilary Benn, told The Daily Beast last week that Johnson would not be able to find a way around that legislation because the courts would step in to halt his plans for the second time in a few weeks.
If he were to try another controversial maneuver, Johnson is also likely to come up against what President Trump would call “the deep state.” The head of Britain’s civil service union, the FDA, explained in Manchester this week that independent administration officials would refuse to go along with a Johnson plot to force through a “No Deal” Brexit if they believed that would mean breaking the law. “If we end up in a situation where genuinely a civil servant thinks they’ve been asked to break the law and they’ve received instruction on that, I think we will see people refusing to do that,” said Dave Penman.
Johnson and his allies have continued to hint darkly that they will find a way to get around the clearly expressed will of Parliament if they don’t get their way.
That may be the case, or it may simply be an act of political theater. If Johnson is forced to accept another Brexit extension, he’s going to need the spin operation of his life to convince skeptical Brexiteers not to blame him.
Leave Means Leave
The “out-Brexiting the Brexit Party” plan is designed with one target in mind: There are more than 100 leave-voting seats, mainly in the Midlands and the North, that are held by the Labour party. With some refocusing of the party platform to bolster public spending and reinforce law and order, Johnson thinks he can turn a swath of them blue for the first time since the Second World War.
By taking a more extreme position on Brexit than May’s administration, the Conservatives have potentially chosen to sacrifice Remain-leaning seats in London, the South, and Scotland, which they are likely to lose to Labour or the Lib Dems, in favor of sweeping the North.
If things go their way, the Brexit Party could even help them in traditional Labour areas where Leave voters want to avoid Labour’s promise of a second referendum but couldn’t stand to vote for the Conservatives. “There’s no doubt about it, in Labour-held seats where there’s a Leave majority the Brexit Party will do very well,” Brexit campaigner Kate Hoey, who has been a Labour lawmaker for 30 years, told The Daily Beast. “It will cause Labour a major problem.”
Matthew Goodwin, an academic and author of National Populism, sounded a note of caution to Conservatives over this strategy at a fringe event in Manchester. He reminded delegates that May had essentially made a similar play at the last election, one year after the Brexit referendum, by appealing to the economic concerns of Labour leavers and hoping to sweep up Brexit voters. “It’s worth remembering the 2017 campaign: How many pro-Brexit Labour seats did Theresa May win in the end?” he asked. “Six.”
Andrew Hawkins, a pollster at ComRes, said they had modeled three likely election scenarios based on their most recent five or six polls. The model suggests that if Brexit is in sight by polling day, the Conservatives will be the largest party, and if Brexit had already been secured, Johnson would romp home with a huge majority of 100-plus.
If an extension is granted, however, the picture is totally different, with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour becoming the largest party. That would put Brexit in jeopardy, as the party has pledged to hold a second referendum within six months of being elected after it has negotiated a new, softer deal with Brussels.
After a meeting of hardline Brexiteers at Manchester’s Comedy Store this week, one particularly fervent heckler demonstrated the strength of feeling as she beseeched Owen Patterson, a member of the Conservative’s pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), to make sure Brexit was secured this month. “If you don’t, I’ll shove you down them stairs,” she told the surprised lawmaker.
With tempers running high, Mark Francois, deputy chairman of the ERG, told The Daily Beast that the Conservatives had no choice: “If we kick the can down the road, we kick the bucket.”