Amid the storms of autocratic populism, democratic victories are especially precious. In Turkey, the new mayor of Istanbul represents a hopeful challenge to the 16-year rule of the country’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Hong Kong, the student protesters have forced the withdrawal of a hated extradition bill. And in Britain this week, Parliament is standing up to a cynical prime minister bent on a destructive policy backed by the slimmest possible of mandates.
Three years ago, Britons voted by a narrow margin of 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the European Union. They were assured that the manner of the leaving would be smooth and even profitable. The Europeans would be desperate for a new trade relationship with Britain, because German carmakers love to sell into the British market. Quitting the EU would liberate money for the National Health Service and other public programs. There would be no serious fallout for the British economy or for England’s relationship with Ireland or Scotland.
Three years on, these promises have been exposed as lies. A fractious negotiation with the European Union yielded a withdrawal agreement so unappealing that it could not get through Parliament; the work of crafting a new trading relationship to replace EU membership has not even started. Rather than saving British taxpayers money, the withdrawal agreement lays down that Britain must pay a hefty exit fee of almost $50 billion to Europe.
The British economy, which used to be one of the best performers in the Group of Seven leading industrial countries, has slumped toward the bottom of the league table. Peace in Ireland is at stake, and the Scots are again talking independence. Although opinion has shifted less than you might expect in the face of this evidence, a second referendum would probably overturn the vote to leave the EU.
Before the referendum, the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, seemed unsure which side he favored. As mayor of London, he had privately dismissed the idea of quitting Europe, recognizing the damage it would do to the city’s exports of financial services. In the run-up to the referendum, he drafted an unpublished newspaper column warning that Brexit would cause an economic shock, embolden enemies such as Vladimir Putin and perhaps even trigger the breakup of the United Kingdom. But, caring passionately and exclusively about his prime ministerial prospects, Johnson came out swinging in favor of Brexit.
Johnson was fired from his first job as a journalist for fabricating a quotation. He was fired from a later job for lying about adultery. During the referendum campaign, his campaign bus was plastered with a big fat lie about taxpayer savings from leaving the European Union. Now, having secured the prime ministership by winning a paltry 92,000 votes from members of his Conservative Party — a total representing about 0.2 percent of the British electorate — Johnson has descended to new depths of cynicism.
Contrary to Johnson’s referendum promises, but consistent with his unpublished fears, the Brexit process is threatening peace in Ireland. The British economy shrank in the most recent quarter.
But rather than soften his pro-Brexit position, Johnson is doubling down, promising to get Britain out of the EU by the end of October by dispensing with the need for a withdrawal agreement. The prime minister presents this folly as a way to get the Brexit process over with, much as a dentist might end your agony by yanking out your molar. But Johnson’s latest promise is just another cynical lie. If Britain left the EU without a deal, it would immediately need to negotiate with Europe about customs arrangements, food safety rules, the treatment of expatriates and so forth. Europe is not a rotten tooth that can be extracted and forgotten.
Johnson is coupling a destructive objective with equally destructive tactics. A majority of voters oppose his no-deal exit plan, and a majority of elected lawmakers regard it as madness. So the prime minister resolved to silence opponents by suspending Parliament. Until a few days ago, this anti-democratic coup seemed set to work. But this week lawmakers are seizing the last days before their suspension to block a no-deal outcome. A series of defeats for the prime minister in parliamentary votes suggests he has lost control of government.
One way or another, the chaos will probably result in an election. The outcome is deeply uncertain, because Johnson’s main opponent, the anti-Semitic and anti-capitalist Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is no more appealing than he is. The one hope is that a new political center will rise out of the mayhem. It is not the sort of miracle that sober pundits would bet on. But nor did they predict Istanbul’s new mayor. Or the student protests in Hong Kong.
Sebastian Mallaby a senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.