A Brexit logjam, in three dimensions

Twelve hundred and nineteen days have passed since the British people voted to leave the EU, and Britain's departure now seems more of a mirage than ever.
Twelve hundred and nineteen days have passed since the British people voted to leave the EU, and Britain's departure now seems more of a mirage than ever.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (NY TIMES) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he will not do business with Parliament until the opposition Labour Party agrees to a general election. Labour said it will not agree to an election until the European Union decides how long an extension to grant Britain to leave. And European leaders said they will not make that decision until the deadlock in London is broken.

Even by the wheel-spinning standards of Brexit, there was something remarkable about the circular futility of events on Friday (Oct 25).

Twelve hundred and nineteen days have passed since the British people voted to leave the EU, and Britain's departure now seems more of a mirage than ever.

The destination looms on the horizon but eludes every effort to reach it, as Britain's politicians wage a kind of forever war over how, or even whether, to carry out the results of that much-disputed referendum.

With Mr Johnson and his opponents locked in their umpteenth stand-off this week, the debate drifted further and further away from the best way to negotiate Britain's departure - let alone the costs or benefits of doing Brexit - and more towards a crude display of political positioning in advance of a likely election.

"This is a very superficial way to approach things at a time where the stakes are so high for Britain and also for Europe," said Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, senior adviser on European affairs at the Bertelsmann Foundation.

"They have never addressed the fundamental question of 'remain' or 'leave' and its consequences, either in the referendum campaign or in the current arena."

The enervating nature of the endless bickering, he said, played to the advantage of Johnson, with his call for a swift exit, because many people simply yearn for an end to the saga, "even if that price is a chaotic Brexit".

Yet far from unifying people around a single policy, there is evidence the battles are hardening divisions and stoking the anger of those on both sides of the vote.

A new study from the University of Cardiff and Edinburgh University found that a majority of people who voted to leave believe that violence against MPs is a "price worth paying" to get Brexit done.

A majority of those who voted to stay believe that protests, even those in which people are injured by violence, is a "price worth paying" to avert Britain's departure.

About three-quarters of Britons polled said that to ensure that - depending on their views - Britain either leaves the EU or remains in it, they would take the risks of making the country or themselves poorer, and of the defeat or break-up of their favoured political parties.

 
 
 
 

"I was shocked, really a bit shaken," said Richard Wyn Jones, a professor at Cardiff University and a co-director of the survey project.

"What you find is a completely divided society where Brexit has become an existential issue, about defining who we are and who we are not."

The distance between those profound feelings and the petty gamesmanship between the Conservative and Labour parties was vast.

Mr Johnson said he would not press ahead with trying to win ratification of the withdrawal Bill he negotiated with the EU until the Labour Party grants him an election.

Critics said that was disingenuous, given that Mr Johnson has already won a vote in principle on the Brexit plan but sought to ram it through the House of Commons with just three days of scrutiny - something few Parliaments would accept.

His latest offer, they said, appeared less about passing the Bill than seizing an opportune moment to hold an election he thinks he will win.

On Friday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, said the government would not even introduce a new budget next month and would keep pressing for an election rather than pursue the programme laid out by Queen Elizabeth II in a speech less than two weeks ago.

For good measure, the Treasury announced it would delay the introduction of a commemorative 50-pence coin to mark Britain's exit from Europe.

The Labour Party, for its part, said it would not agree to a vote until it was clear that Britain would never leave the EU without a deal.

The party's leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said on Friday that he would give his assent, "providing the prime minister comes to Parliament on Monday and makes it absolutely clear he is going to make sure that there is no crash out".

In part, that reflects a lack of trust in Johnson, who has threatened to leave without a deal and has said repeatedly he would never ask for an extension to Brexit. Yet it is not within Mr Johnson's power to guarantee there could never be a "no-deal Brexit", since the EU's other 27 members could refuse to grant any extension.

With many of his Labour lawmakers resolutely opposed to an early general election because they fear they could lose their seats, Mr Corbyn appears to be setting a very high bar for granting one.

In European capitals, meanwhile, frustration is mounting by the day. Twice before, it has granted extensions to Britain, with no resolution. This time, the EU wants to know, before it acts a third time, whether the extra time will be for ratification of Johnson's deal or for an election.

Pro-Brexit forces in Britain cast a hopeful eye to Paris, where President Emmanuel Macron looms as a potential saviour. So fed up is he with Britain's dithering, the thinking goes, that he might insist on giving Britain only a two-week extension, which would force the parties in Parliament to approve the draft exit plan.

As with so many remedies, however, this one is losing its potency as time goes on.

European officials broke up a meeting in Brussels on Friday without agreeing on any extension, and some diplomats said Mr Macron was unlikely to press his demands against the wishes of all the other members.

Their most likely response is to give Britain until Jan 31 to leave, the extension that Mr Johnson requested last week, under duress, and which he said he does not want.

That would, in theory, resolve the Labour Party's resistance to an election, since it would put off the danger of Britain falling out the EU without any deal until after the country voted.