Earlier this week, with the United Kingdom's October 31 deadline to exit the European Union looming large, British lawmakers threw the brakes on Brexit in dramatic fashion. A coalition of 21 Conservative Party members of Parliament, leery of the potential for catastrophe as a result of their country's sudden EU departure, rebelled against Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson and joined forces with the opposition party, backing a law that would further delay the three-plus-year Brexit process.
In the days since, the conflict has prompted high-profile partisan defections, extremely British insults, and even the resignation of Boris Johnson's brother, Jo, who explained that he could not choose between country and family any longer, from Parliament. It may also lead to a new national election in the UK in the weeks to come, leaving the future of Brexit, somehow, more uncertain than ever before.
What is Brexit?
Yes, perhaps it's best if we start with the (very) basics. Brexit is the United Kingdom's planned departure from the European Union, a 28-member consortium of states that operate under a common legal system and have created a single market for jobs, goods, and capital. EU citizens can work in any EU member state, for example, and for the most part can pass freely between states without going through passport control. A single customs union prohibits tariffs and other barriers to free trade as between member states.
Skeptics within Great Britain had long argued that EU membership undermined British sovereignty, especially by limiting its ability to control immigration. The right-wing UK Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, championed this message to significant electoral success in 2014 and 2015—a sort of Tea Party equivalent to the more mainstream Conservative Party.
Seeking to capitalize on this sentiment and prevent the UKIP from siphoning off Conservative Party support, during the 2015 general elections, Conservative Party prime minister David Cameron promised to call for a referendum on the UK's EU membership if re-elected to his position. He earned a decisive victory and, with the threat of departure in hand, set about renegotiating the terms of the UK's EU membership. The proposed deal, he declared in February 2016, would afford the UK "special status," allowing it to tighten immigration going forward. At the same time, it would prevent the UK from leaving the European Union altogether.
The proposed deal, however, was not enough. In June 2016, a narrow majority—52 percent—of British citizens voted in favor of leaving the EU, the "special status" agreement notwithstanding. This was a humiliating defeat for Cameron, who had stumped hard for his tentative deal; he resigned as prime minister and was replaced by fellow Conservative Party member Theresa May. In March 2017, the government initiated the formal withdrawal process, which started a two-year Brexit clock that was set to conclude with the UK's departure on March 29, 2019.
What's happened since then?
No member states have left the EU since its inception in 1993, and considerable uncertainty exists about the economic ripple effects of unwinding this longstanding relationship. Since the UK would no longer be part of the EU customs union, for example, the two entities will need to negotiate new trade agreements. Borders, meanwhile, will need passport checkpoints again. A Brexit deal would create a transition period to allow individuals and businesses alike to adjust to these new rules of the road. The government, led until very recently by May, has been negotiating furiously with the European Union to agree on terms of the exit. The entire thing is roughly analogous to a diplomatic divorce settlement.
The problem, however, is that in the intervening two years, Parliament has voted down multiple version of the proposed agreement, delaying that planned deadline until October 31.
A lot of reasons. One major sticking point is how the border between Northern Ireland (which part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which will remain in the EU) is going to work going forward. Right now, there are few restrictions on trade and travel between the two Irelands, but that could change in a hurry once the UK leaves the European Union's single market, creating a sudden need for customs, border checkpoints, and so on. Given the associated logistical headaches and region's troubled geopolitical history, neither the EU nor the UK wants this.
Part of what the EU and the UK are trying to do is strike a comprehensive trade agreement that would address this issue. But if they can't do it, the EU has insisted on a "backstop" in place—a transitional arrangement that would keep the Irelands in a single customs territory. As the BBC explains, this would effectively keep the UK in the European Union's customs union, even as the UK is trying to leave it.
Lawmakers in the Conservative Party—the largest party in Parliament—who otherwise favor Brexit do not care for the "backstop," and have rejected three different proposed deals that contain it. Meanwhile, none of May's dealmaking efforts were particularly appealing to members of the opposition Labour Party, which generally opposed Brexit during the 2016 referendum. In March, on the heels of the most recent of these high-profile defeats, May announced that she would resign as Conservative Party leader; in July, she stepped from her post as prime minister, too.
What is a no-deal Brexit?
Exactly what it sounds like: If Parliament doesn't approve a deal by the October 31 Brexit deadline, the UK will suddenly be out of the European Union when Brits wake up on the morning of November 1. This could entail serious economic and logistical consequences: The sudden imposition of customs procedures and border checkpoints, for example, could disrupt supply chains, cause backups at ports of entry, and even affect the availability of food and medicine. As the BBC notes, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that a no-deal Brexit would prompt a UK recession all by itself. The EU, meanwhile, has freed up some 700 million euro in emergency aid to EU businesses whose operations might be similarly disrupted.
Who replaced Theresa May?
The new prime minister and Conservative Party leader is one Boris Johnson, a mop-topped early Brexit proponent who is excited to finish what he started. Johnson's winding path to his current position included two terms as Mayor of London, a journalism career at the Times and the Daily Telegraph, and a brief stint writing about cars for, uh, British GQ. (In a June New Yorker profile, Sam Knight notes that during a series of satirical Telegraph columns mocking an early iteration of the EU, Johnson wrote that the organization would standardize condom sizes among its member states.)
As a politician, he has earned comparisons to Donald Trump for his bombastic approach to the media, his nationalist inclinations, and his casual racism. (And his hair.) In 2016, Johnson echoed the birther conspiracy theory Trump championed when he opined that then-president Barack Obama might harbor an "ancestral dislike" for the UK because of his "part-Kenyan" heritage. Even in the midst of all this Brexit madness, Johnson is facing calls to issue an apology for writing a 2018 column in which he compared Muslim women wearing burqas to "letterboxes" and "bank robbers." Labour Party lawmaker Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who is Sikh, earned applause from his colleagues for his impassioned excoriation of the prime minister earlier this week.
So where are we now?
In his first speech as prime minister earlier this summer, Johnson vowed that on his watch, the current Halloween deadline would be the last one. "We are going to fulfill the repeated promises of parliament to the people and come out of the EU on October 31, no ifs or buts," he declared.
On August 28, Johnson received permission from the Queen to suspend parliament (or "prorogue" it, as the Brits say) beginning as early as September 9. By itself, this is not unusual. In a statement accompanying the announcement, the new prime minister explained that he wanted to "bring forward an ambitious new legislative programme for [members of Parliament's] approval."
What is unusual, however, is the date legislative business is set to resume: not until October 14. This would allow lawmakers only a narrow, two-weeks-and-change window in which to avoid the potentially catastrophic outcome of a no-deal Brexit. Johnson has denied being motivated by any desire to sabotage last-ditch dealmaking efforts and force an abrupt breakup. But as the Guardian notes, prorogation of longer than a month is "unprecedented" in the modern era.
How has this maneuver played out?
Since then, just about everything that could have gone wrong for Boris Johnson has gone wrong for Boris Johnson. Again, Conservative Party lawmakers generally are okay with Brexit, but only the most extreme among them are okay with a no-deal version that would plunge the region into chaos. In a stunning development, 21 Conservative Party members—mostly old-line politicians, Winston Churchill's grandson among them—revolted on Tuesday, joining Johnson opponents to support legislation that would require him to either make a Brexit deal or request another extension to January 31, 2020.
That same day, Conservative Party lawmaker Phillip Lee elected to leave the party and join the opposition coalition. In a letter to Johnson, he expressed dismay at how "conservatism" is "measured by how recklessly one wishes to leave the European Union," and warned that the party is "infected with the twin diseases of populism and English nationalism." Lee's defection—which he made official by literally crossing the aisle—left Johnson without a working majority in Parliament.
On Thursday, Jo Johnson, who is Boris Johnson's brother and a fellow Conservative Party member, abruptly resigned his seat in Parliament, explaining that he felt "torn between family loyalty and the national interest." A month and a half ago, Boris Johnson was steaming towards a no-deal Brexit. Now, his own brother can't bring himself to support the prime minister's agenda any longer.
How has Johnson responded?
By calling for a new national election on October 15. Normally, UK elections are scheduled at five-year intervals, but a vote of no confidence in the prime minister or a two-thirds vote in the House of Commons can trigger a so-called "snap election" prior to the default date. (Imagine Congress decided to elect a whole new Congress in six weeks. British politics are wild.) With the prospect of a no-deal Brexit in serious jeopardy, Johnson is basically gambling that after an election, a newly-constituted parliament with more enthusiastic Brexiteers would allow him to get it back on track.
How did lawmakers respond to that?
By clobbering his motion. Only 298 lawmakers out of 650 supported it, leaving him 136 votes short of the 434 he needed to move forward. Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who heads the opposition in the House of Commons, ruled out supporting a snap election until the bill preventing a no-deal Brexit becomes law.
Johnson's frustrations with his stockpile of losses boiled over on Wednesday, when he called Corbyn a "chlorinated chicken" during a parliamentary session. At one point, while Corbyn was deriding Johnson as "desperate to avoid scrutiny," the prime minister appeared to shout in response, "Call an election, you great big girl's blouse."
What happens next?
The prolonged national debacle that is Brexit has dragged on for more than three years, and at this point, it's hard to see how this particular parliament extricates itself from this grand mess of its own creation. The Guardian reports that Johnson, who said he'd rather be "dead in a ditch" than ask for another Brexit delay, will resubmit his new-election motion to Parliament on Monday after the anti-no-deal-Brexit bill becomes law.
If Corbyn and company lend his motion their votes and agree to a new election, Johnson would presumably run hard on a populist message, accusing the current set of lawmakers of reneging on the Brexit referendum's promise and urging peeved voters to deliver him a new working majority. If he's successful, that parliament could quickly pass a law overturning that anti-no-deal-Brexit bill—an anti-anti-no-deal-Brexit bill, if you will. Finally free of meaningful resistance, Johnson could go about the task of leaving the European Union as quickly as possible.
If the opposition wins and Corbyn becomes prime minister, he'd presumably resume May's diligent efforts to negotiate a long-elusive Brexit deal, with that January 31 deadline safely in place. Put differently, even if the UK manages to avoid a no-deal departure next month, its prolonged national debacle is likely to drag on at least a few months longer.
You don't need to liquidate your sneaker collection and buy gold, but there are signs of trouble ahead.
Originally Appeared on GQ