The Walls Are Closing in on Boris Johnson

A historic election is looming in Britain and panicking Tories will be tempted to tack to the far right. It’s starting to dawn on Boris Johnson that no one will be coming to clean up the mess he’s made of Brexit.

Britain's prime minister, Boris Johnson, speaks with year four and year six pupils during a visit to Pimlico Primary school on September 10, 2019 in London, England. (Toby Melville / WPA Pool / Getty Images)

Parliament is a sprawling mess in many respects. The building complex itself is in dire need of repair. Rats and mice scuttle about, inviting lazy comparisons with the Palace of Westminster’s elected and appointed professional inhabitants. Small fires, large patches of mold, flooding, and electrical malfunctions are commonplace. The United Kingdom also has no written constitution, so much of the political machinations that go on in London rely on interpretation, precedent, and legal tests. One such test has just occurred in Scotland: a judge in Edinburgh found the prorogation of Parliament (bringing a closed session early to limit debate) illegal. The finding will now be passed to the Supreme Court in London, where a judge will make a ruling on whether that reading is correct; two other rulings on the same hearing in England and Wales said it was not illegal.

At the start of this week, international viewers and the sizable number of British people who tuned into BBC Parliament when they’d ordinarily give it a miss were treated to the antiquarian peculiarities of the House of Commons, with “the Lady Usher of the Black Rod” asking MPs to leave the chamber to end a session of Parliament. The post, which derives its name from the ebony “black rod” adorned with a golden lion that is carried by the aforementioned “usher,” is currently held by Sarah Clarke, its first female occupant. Listing it as a sign of progress for women is akin to boasting about being the first feminist to catch bubonic plague. Members of Parliament on the opposition benches complained vocally about the prorogation, and were chastised in the usual fashion by John Bercow, the returning speaker of the House of Commons, who essentially keeps everyone in the Commons in check as a school principal might.

The legal case against prorogation will be heard next Tuesday. Party conferences will begin very shortly afterward, so it remains highly unlikely Parliament will return early at all. Instead, Labour and the Conservatives will begin their election campaigns in earnest while the government seeks to persuade possible coalition parties to get on board with whatever they propose when Parliament returns, while at least pretending to attempt to make a deal with the European Union that differs from Theresa May’s endlessly rejected deal.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Northern Irish group of nine MPs that propped up May’s government in 2017 before Boris Johnson completely lost his Tory majority, attended a meeting at Number 10 Downing Street with Johnson and Dominic Cummings, his head strategist. Leaving, they said the meeting was positive; shortly afterward, it was revealed that an idea that refuses to die — building a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland — was proposed as a means of avoiding a hard border between either of the two parts of Ireland or between Britain and Northern Ireland. The bridge has been mooted by Johnson before: he proposed it a few months ago, and the idea was discounted as unfeasible by engineers: the construction would be incredibly dangerous in such a windy, meteorologically tumultuous stretch of water, and would mean drilling in a stretch of sea where thousands of World War II bombs, containing poison, gas, and explosives, have been dumped. Johnson has a history with bridges, too: he sank millions into a project for a private “garden bridge” in London that never saw a single brick laid. Vanity projects are key to Johnson’s political mission, mirroring his own personal vanity: all he wants is for a physical memento to outlive him and secure his historical legacy.

The bridge Johnson sold the DUP was also one they had been chasing for years: it has featured in several DUP manifestos, with the route purporting to run between Larne and the Mull of Kintyre. Northern Ireland is in dire need of travel infrastructure, but not a bridge to Scotland: trains, roads, and buses handily miss the Nationalist areas of Northern Ireland, but the areas the DUP do well in are well served by transport. If the DUP can grab a few headlines by making it look as though they might swipe some extra cash for this unfeasible bridge, they’ll happily do so. How the hypothetical bridge would solve the customs issue remains a mystery; checks between the European Union and a United Kingdom that is not in the EU will be needed, otherwise people and goods can enter tariff-free or without visas or passport checks. That was the whole point of the “take back control” narrative, and the strongest reason many people voted to leave the EU. If people or goods now enter the UK over a bridge from Larne rather than a road in South Armagh, nothing has changed to warrant different treatment.

Visiting Dublin earlier this week, Johnson told the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, that he thought a deal could be struck, while Varadkar stated to the assembled press that no realistic proposals had been put forward by Johnson and his government and that Ireland could not “agree to the replacement of a legal guarantee with a promise.” That jibe holds at its heart the keenest explanation of why Johnson’s approach to Brexit is unraveling so speedily. For his entire life, any problem he has encountered, he has bounced back from: affairs, being fired, losing political battles, they all get either sorted out by acquaintances or colleagues or disappear into the shadows of people’s memories. Like many upper-class people in England, Johnson has always found that everything turns out alright in the end.

That won’t happen with Brexit: the United Kingdom has to find a way out, a manner of exiting or remaining that treats people and goods crossing borders as a serious issue, not something to be ignored. Johnson is waiting for everything to fall into place and be done for him, but this time, ultimate power resides with his office. There is no one else to clear up the mess he so badly wanted to inherit, and he has to sort it out himself while the eyes of the world are upon him.

An election is inevitable, and little movement is happening with Brexit. So watch the Labour Party’s conference to see what proposals will be pushed hardest by Jeremy Corbyn’s party, but especially watch how hard-line the Conservatives become in the following week, as they panic and realize that without winning a majority, they could be done forever. It has finally dawned on Johnson that nobody is coming to rescue him, and that the future of Brexit and the Conservative Party rests on him.

The Tories are about to lurch even further to the right. No one knows what will happen in the next act, and for possibly the first time in his life, Johnson might well wish for less attention.