Natasha Hakimi ZAPATA
Another day, another drama in the Brexit saga that has consumed the United Kingdom. The past few days have once again left heads spinning around the world as those interested in U.K. politics try to catch up with the events that keep unfurling at neck-breaking speed. On Friday, the Oct. 19 deadline put forward in the Benn Act to either get a Brexit deal passed through Parliament or ask the European Union for an extension past the Oct. 31 deadline loomed. That’s when Prime Minister Boris Johnson miraculously managed to negotiate a deal with the EU—well, I should say, a regurgitated, amended version of his predecessor Theresa May’s deal.
After over a month of defeats in his homeland, things seemed to be looking up over the weekend for the newly minted prime minister. On what was dubbed “Super Saturday,” Parliament convened on a weekend for the first time in over 40 years to vote on his deal just before the 11 p.m. deadline to send an extension request to the EU—something he’s publicly stated he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than do. But because we’re talking about Brexit here and the only thing that’s clear about this mess is that nothing is ever clear or straightforward, Saturday went very differently than Johnson presumably hoped as he returned to Westminster with his “my deal or no deal” approach.
The motion passed 322 to 306, forcing Johnson by law to request a three-month extension of Article 50 from the EU in order to allow time for the legislation to be voted on in Parliament. The thinking behind this move was that parliamentarians need time to properly review the 500-plus-page deal before signaling their support. All of this, it’s worth noting, took place against a backdrop of anti-Brexit protests in which thousands took to the streets, including children with signs that read along the lines of “Brexit stole my future.”
The very existence of the amendment speaks to how little faith even those who were once supporters have in the prime minister. Many, including some politicians who are still members of the Tory Party, believe Johnson cannot be trusted to stick to his word, and are doing everything they can to ensure he doesn’t pull a fast one, not only on his fellow parliamentarians, but on the entire U.K. It is a sad state of British affairs when even members of your own party don’t believe you’ll do what you say.
In a move that seemed to affirm the reason for MPs’ lack of faith, Johnson sent two letters to the EU on Saturday evening—one requesting an extension, which he refused to sign, followed by a signed letter in which he opined that it would be a mistake to delay the process any longer. The move was that of a petulant child, as Labour’s Brexit Shadow Minister Keir Starmer quickly pointed out. More importantly, it was the act of a man who has coasted through life on his white male privilege all the way to one of the most powerful positions in the world. This moment, like no other, sums up Johnson’s ethos: He is through and through an unscrupulous, wealthy man who is simply unaccustomed to hearing the word “no,” and will throw a tantrum and play games with countless lives in order to get his way.
This two-letter business reminds me of another moment in Johnson’s career in the not-so-long ago past of 2016. Just days before he declared he would join the campaign to leave the European Union, the then-power-hungry backbencher wrote a secret column in which he argued for the U.K. to remain in the EU. The turning point in Johnson’s ideas on the EU, like his two letters, is illustrative of his true allegiances to none other than himself. At the time, it seems he assessed which campaign would provide him with an easier path to power, over the heads of his former Oxford chums David Cameron and George Osbourne, and chose to back “leave” in direct opposition to his party and the Tory government.
In sending two letters to the EU on Saturday, Johnson was somehow able to create an illusion—although who knows whether anyone is fooled—that he didn’t actually request an extension. It was, put simply, a last-ditch attempt to save face in front of his hard-right supporters who perhaps expected him to keel over before writing such a request. His play is already being challenged in courts and ultimately is unlikely to affect whether or not the EU grants an extension, which it is expected to do.
After the weekend’s defeat, Johnson and his government continued to scramble Monday to shape the narrative and push through another vote on his deal. But what exactly is in this agreement he so triumphantly returned from Brussels with? The main difference between May’s unpopular deal and Johnson’s are the arrangements regarding Ireland. Johnson attempted to replace the so-called “Irish backstop,” which would keep Northern Ireland and, by default, the rest of the U.K. in a customs union with the EU if the U.K. and EU fail to negotiate trade agreements during the designated two-year transition period. Under the new deal, Northern Ireland would have customs checkpoints in various locations not along the border with the Republic of Ireland, in a half-assed attempt to keep to the Good Friday Agreement. Johnson also negotiated further details regarding Northern Ireland, none of which earned him the support of the Democratic Unionist Party that feels, pretty justifiably, betrayed.
From a leftist perspective, as Starmer highlighted, the true issues with Johnson’s deal are that it removes the promise of a “level playing field” with the EU, replacing it with fuzzier language that could potentially allow the U.K. to backslide on environmental and labor standards in order to make deals with the U.S., among others. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had said May’s deal was for a “bargain basement Brexit,” called Johnson’s further-right revisions a “race to the bottom.”
Boris Johnson’s sell-out deal risks triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections: putting food safety at risk, cutting environmental standards and workers’ rights, and opening up our NHS to a takeover by US corporations.
Today, @UKLabour will reject it.
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) 19 октября 2019 г.
A few questions are still circling around these events. One is whether Johnson actually wants his deal (or any deal, for that matter) to go through, or if he is in fact working toward a no-deal Brexit. In September, around the time the prime minister was being handed defeat after defeat in the House of Commons and a painful loss regarding the prorogation of Parliament in the U.K.’s highest court, Johnson’s government spent an estimated $130 million on a “Get Ready for Brexit” campaign; I’ve seen the posters at London’s bus stops and the Underground, as well as the slogan emblazoned on buses. That’s when Philip Hammond, the former Tory chancellor under May, wrote an op-ed for The Times reiterating what the prime minister’s own sister, Rachel Johnson, had recently pointed out: This prime minister “is backed by speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit.”
As with all political games of this scale, those who will suffer most are never the monied elites who have the deep pockets and influence to profit from terrible historical events, something Corbyn has vehemently highlighted time and again. Rachel Johnson and Hammond’s remarks have led to calls for an inquiry into the prime minister’s conflicts of interests.
In the meantime, another question looming is “What now?”—a question that leads to hundreds of other questions rather than answers. Just as with the entire three-year process to date, anyone’s guess is as good as mine. Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow refused to allow Johnson to introduce another meaningful vote on his deal Monday, in a fresh blow to Johnson’s leadership. There have been indications that if his deal gets the votes it needs to pass in coming weeks, Labour backbenchers will add amendments that will require a second referendum, this time with the two options being the negotiated deal or “remain.” Given that most of the British public had no idea what “leave” meant when it voted in 2016, this would make sense, democratically speaking, despite plenty of Brexiteer attempts to frame another people’s vote as anti-democratic.
Another amendment that could be added is wording that would keep the U.K. in the European Customs Union, essentially solving the problem of the Irish border and forcing the U.K. to maintain EU environmental and labor standards in trade negotiations.
Either of these amendments may cause Johnson to either abandon his deal or swallow a potentially softer Brexit.
It’s crucial to recall, as many MPs have been reminding the public, that this is only the divorce agreement—the actual details of a future relationship with the European Union will be hammered out in the next stage over the coming years. The question the British public should ask itself then, especially as a general election is likely in the cards within the next few months, is who it wants leading the negotiations for Britain. If Johnson’s deal and actions are indicative of nothing else, they reveal that he and his government are solely interested in protecting the interests of the elite over those of workers, and will happily take the U.K. in a hard-right direction. This prime minister seems to have little respect for the democratically elected Parliament, as he proved with his prorogation attempts.
The British may be tired of Brexit—frankly, who can blame them?—but they would be wise to heed the warning that perhaps this public exhaustion and high-pressure, last-ditch game was always the way the Tory Party and its leaders planned to ram this through Parliament.
As the Brexit rigmarole continues to unfold, the questions U.K. citizens and residents are facing aren’t just about what kind of connection to the EU they want to have, but what kind of nation they want to be.