British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has eclipsed President Trump as the chaos-maker-in-chief. Just weeks into his tenure at 10 Downing Street, the new leader tried to take a wrecking ball to the political system and ended up hitting himself as well.
This is all in the latest chapter of the long-running drama known as Brexit. In the summer of 2016, British voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union. Nothing has been the same since. Government has been paralyzed, and the public’s dissatisfaction has grown steadily. Two prime ministers were taken down by the turmoil unleashed by that vote. Johnson could be the third. Or could he?
Like Trump, Johnson is much bluff and bluster — in look and action. At the dispatch box in the House of Commons, he looks slightly out of place, his hair permanently mussed and askew, his head cocked to one side or the other. But if he looks as if he doesn’t quite belong, he also seems to relish the political combat with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and others in the opposition. It hasn’t gone well.
Johnson is the antithesis of his predecessor, Theresa May, the impassive and by-the-book leader whose failed efforts over two-plus years to find a workable deal to take Britain out of the European Union forced her resignation and damaged her reputation. She must hope that Johnson’s initial floundering and flailing will make her look at least a bit better in retrospect.
Campaigning for the leadership of the Tory Party, Johnson had vowed to take Britain out of the European Union as it was scheduled to do on Oct. 31, deal or no deal. He insisted — based on no evidence — that by drawing that line in the sand, the leaders in Brussels would find it in their interest — as well as Britain’s — to produce something different and more acceptable than what May’s negotiations have brought forward.
That was the plan. Getting there has not gone according to plan, however. If Johnson had a clear strategy, it has not been evident. Instead, he has suffered crushing parliamentary defeats that have brought further attention to the dysfunction of the country’s political system.
What’s happened to Johnson? Only that he has seen his power to set the Brexit agenda removed, driven more than 20 Conservative rebels out of the party, cost him his parliamentary majority. On Thursday, Johnson’s brother announced he would stand down as a member of Parliament.
Oh, yes, he also provoked a constitutional crisis in Britain by declaring that Parliament would be closed down for much of the next month. Trump no doubt would like to do the same with Congress, if he only had the power to do so.
No one can say how events will play out. The House of Commons approved a measure that would extend the deadline for leaving the European Union if no deal has been approved by the Oct. 31 deadline. Johnson has insisted he could get a deal but there’s been no sign of a new proposal or negotiations.
Left open is the question of just when a snap election will be held, assuming that there will be one. Johnson’s proposal for a new election in mid-October — his response to having Parliament take away his power to set the agenda — was demolished by a vote on Wednesday. Corbyn insists he wants a new election, date to be determined after the fate of Brexit negotiations and deadlines are clearer.
Just who would win that election is another matter. Corbyn’s reluctance to move on Johnson’s deadline underscored Labour’s nervousness. Labour allies called Johnson’s proposal a trap. Corbyn likened it to Snow White’s poisoned apple. Labour lawmakers abstained on the key vote, and Johnson was left empty-handed. But it seems likely the voters will be asked to resolve the question of who should lead the country sometime in the fall.
Trump has been a Johnson champion for a long time. The president undercut May at every opportunity and boosted Johnson whenever he could. Johnson has seemed his kind of politician — reckless, irreverent, disruptive, not a detail person.
Through Vice President Pence, who met with Johnson on Thursday in London, Trump sent a message of support, for Britain leaving the European Union, and for the prospect of a new trading agreement between the two nations who supposedly share a special relationship. “Fantastic,” Johnson said to Pence, while noting that negotiations could be difficult, which was hardly an understatement.
Everything appears more difficult than when Johnson had so breezily proclaimed as a candidate for the leadership post and even in his early days as prime minister. It all hit a wall when Johnson came in contact with Parliamentary opposition and the internal revolt among his own members. As with Trump, the predictions come easily, but the execution comes harder.
Johnson underestimated the ability of his opponents in Parliament to move swiftly to seize the agenda from the government. He might have thought that Corbyn, who has been calling for an election for many months, would bite into that apple. His miscalculations have left him empty-handed, but not necessarily without options or resources.
Trump has repeatedly challenged the institutions of the American political system, seeking to weaken or delegitimize any that threaten his power or him personally. In his short time as prime minister, Johnson has gone even further, tearing at the underpinnings of democratic government in what has become an all-out war.
How long this can go on is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the president will offer advice to his friend, the prime minister. Johnson has put himself in a corner, and one hope is that he will be rescued by the British electorate if and when there is a new election. Whatever the eventual outcome, the system was not meant to endure this much stress for this long.