When does uncertainty become the worst condition of all? This fall, more than three years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, no one was sure what form Brexit would take, what kind of relationship we would have with our nearest neighbors, or whether the whole thing could still be called off. Theresa May, the first Conservative Prime Minister with the job of taking the United Kingdom out of the E.U., had been forced to step down at the end of July. The second, Boris Johnson, did not seem trustworthy. There was a departure time—11 P.M. on October 31st—which the government tried very hard to convince people was real. On September 1st, it launched a hundred-million-pound public-information campaign called “Get Ready for Brexit.” TV spots showed sparkling European vacation destinations and advised viewers to check their travel insurance. There was a six-second video on Snapchat. Signs flashed on highways in the rain, telling truck drivers, “Freight to EU, Papers May Change.”
But everyone knew that Brexit was unlikely to happen by Halloween. May had spent two years negotiating an exit deal with the other twenty-seven members of the E.U., only to fail to get it approved by Parliament. Johnson, a flamboyant Brexiteer, wanted to rip up May’s agreement, but there didn’t seem to be time to start over. He insisted that Britain would leave, regardless of how talks went with Brussels. “No ifs or buts,” Johnson said, outside No. 10 Downing Street. The gulf between what the government said was going to happen and what seemed possible, let alone sensible, grew wider by the day. You could scroll through an article on your phone, full of the reasons that Brexit would not occur on October 31st, and be interrupted by an ad from the government telling you to get ready.
The ructions in Westminster took on historic proportions. Johnson lost his first seven votes as Prime Minister. In one, rebel Conservative Members of Parliament joined the opposition to pass a law aimed at preventing Johnson from taking Britain out of the E.U. without a deal. Johnson asked the Queen to shut down Parliament; the Supreme Court opened it up again. He called for a general election; the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, refused to agree to one unless Brexit was delayed. The pound fell. Death threats multiplied. Politicians quoted poetry. A third of British adults said that Brexit had affected their mental health. A man in a clown outfit stood outside the gates of Parliament shouting, “Save our bendy bananas!”
Within weeks of the Brexit deadline, three very different outcomes were still possible. Johnson could somehow defy the odds and replace May’s deal with a more extreme form of Brexit, and get it approved by Parliament. He could seek to disobey the law and take Britain out of the E.U. without a deal. Or he would have to ask for an extension and hold an election, and the whole sorry story would continue. Newspapers published very complicated graphics, indicating all the branching futures. Foreigners marvelled at the mess. One European ambassador described the situation to me as an “intoxicating self-blockade.”
Elements of the Brexit crisis have been there since the beginning. The referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union was a momentous act of direct democracy in a country that has been governed by Parliament for more than three hundred years. Seventy-four per cent of M.P.s, along with the Bank of England, the Confederation of British Industry, David Beckham, Stephen Hawking, and J. K. Rowling—“the establishment,” “the machine,” in the words of Leavers—opposed Brexit. The referendum did not specify what Brexit would look like. The constitution stretched and strained. The government struggled to cope. May’s attempts to contain the opposing forces in the country—the political imperative to leave and the frightening economic consequences of doing so—did not work. She ended up losing her majority in Parliament and crafting a compromise with the E.U., which satisfied nobody.
Since taking office, Johnson has sought to channel the nationalist impulses that brought about the Brexit vote. Unlike May, who quietly campaigned for Remain, Johnson headlined pro-Brexit rallies and spoke of looking forward to Britain’s “Independence Day.” He talks winningly about the country’s future outside the deadening regulations and pooled sovereignty of the E.U. “The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts,” he has said.
But Johnson’s political career has been marked by lies and evasions. “He is genuinely a bad person. Not an unlikable person but a bad person, as in he has no morals, no principles and beliefs,” a former close colleague told me. “He would be whatever Prime Minister was necessary to maximize the chances of gaining and then maintaining power.” Between 2008 and 2016, Johnson was a liberal mayor of London. During his campaign, earlier this year, to become the leader of the Conservative Party, he veered between promises to leave the E.U. on October 31st, “do or die,” and strange, chummy disquisitions on his hobby of making model buses and painting the passengers inside.
It is hard to know how much he makes up as he goes along. Two days before Johnson took office, he hired as his senior adviser Dominic Cummings, the former campaign director of Vote Leave, the main pro-Brexit organization in 2016. Cummings had almost total control over the messaging of Vote Leave, which became notorious for its brazenness and its success with digital targeting. “Dom is obsessed with propaganda,” a former Vote Leave staffer told me. “He will build an army that is programmed to think like him.”
This fall, Johnson’s high-risk approach to Brexit has been defined by martial imagery and language that summons memories of the Second World War. He said that attempts to block his plans amounted to “collaboration” with Brussels. He described the law passed by Parliament to stop Britain from leaving the E.U. without a deal as the “Surrender Bill,” and expelled twenty-one Conservative M.P.s who voted for it from the Party. On September 5th, Johnson answered questions about Brexit in front of an unsettling backdrop of black-uniformed police officers. When asked whether he would, if necessary, request an extension to the Brexit talks, he replied, “I’d rather be dead in a ditch.”
“If it doesn’t make me scream, I get rid of it.”Cartoon by Kendra Allenby
The government amplified its preparations for a no-deal Brexit, collectively known as Operation Yellowhammer. Opposition M.P.s forced the release of an internal report warning of interruptions to the supply of fresh food, fuel, and medicine, as well as potential job losses, nursing-home closures, and clashes between fishing boats at sea. “Protests and counter-protests will take place across the UK,” the report cautioned. The poor would suffer the most. The “Get Ready for Brexit” ads rolled on. “I’ve never experienced politics like it,” Dominic Grieve, one of the purged Conservative M.P.s, told me. “It’s a complete departure from U.K. norms, and I’m afraid it will leave a trail of damage.”
The fury infected all sides. “We are now irreconcilably split for a generation,” Roland Rudd, the chairman of the People’s Vote campaign, which advocates for a new referendum, told me. “I don’t pretend that reversing this madness is going to bring us together. Honestly, it won’t.”
Until Johnson came to power, it had been possible to believe that there was a middle way on Brexit, or to be in denial that a decisive moment would ever come. That was no longer the case. A year before the referendum, Cummings wrote a blog post outlining what the Leave campaign might look like. He quoted Otto von Bismarck: “If revolution there is to be, better to undertake it than undergo it.”
In December, 2015, about one per cent of British people believed that Britain’s membership in the European Union was the most important issue facing the country. This summer, a poll of members of the Conservative Party—whose hundred and sixty thousand voters elected Johnson as the Party’s leader by a huge margin—showed that sixty-one per cent would accept significant damage to the British economy in order to get out of the E.U. Fifty-four per cent were willing to see the Conservative Party destroyed. “It is a complete mystery how something that was not a high-priority issue can become in three years your defining political identity,” the M.P. Rory Stewart told me. During the spring, Stewart, who served as a minister under Johnson in the Foreign Office, stood as a moderate candidate in the Conservative-leadership contest. Three months later, he was among those thrown out of the Party. “It is peculiar. It is fascinating,” Stewart said. “We are all sitting in the center with nothing.”
Each fall, Britain’s political parties hold conferences—jamborees to raise money, rally the faithful, and grab a few days of media attention. At the end of September, the Conservative Party gathered for four days in Manchester, in a convention center that used to be one of the city’s main railway stations. Above the entrance, next to the old station clock, a large blue banner read “Get Brexit Done.”
In a darkened auditorium, members of Johnson’s government took turns giving speeches on a low stage, and taking questions from fellow-Conservatives through an app. Matt Hancock, who is in charge of the National Health Service, announced a new hospital-building program. Hancock wore a sharp suit and spoke without notes, in short, uncomplicated sentences. He described visiting a cramped hospital in the city the previous day, parts of which dated from the nineteenth century, when it served as a workhouse. “Know this,” Hancock told the conference. “We won’t just fix the roof. We’re going to build you a whole new hospital.”
One of the principal arguments for leaving the E.U. is that it will liberate Britain from the bloc’s amazing array of rules. Since Brexit was dreamed up by the right wing of the Conservative Party, it is generally assumed that part of the goal is to become a low-tax, small-state competitor to mainland Europe—a nirvana sometimes referred to as “Singapore-on-Thames.” But this is in conflict with the aspirations of the millions of people who voted for Brexit in the hope of better public services and a more responsive government. While in office, Johnson has made no attempt to align these contradictory desires. He has promised to hire twenty thousand new police officers and maintain a dramatic increase in spending on the N.H.S., while enacting tax cuts for higher earners.
A former senior civil servant told me, “I think the Johnson strategy is basically to say, ‘I get it. And I’m not a kind of Thatcherite.’ But then to couple that with a very hard-line Brexit position.” He continued, “It might work. But, economically, by the mid-twenty-twenties, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.” The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts that, under Johnson, government borrowing will be double the amount previously estimated, and that public spending will rise at its fastest rate in a decade. In Manchester, Hancock described Labour’s “Corbynistas” as “hellbent on destroying everything that’s made this country great.” According to the I.F.S., Johnson’s spending as Prime Minister is roughly in line with Corbyn’s most recent electoral promises.
The hot events in Manchester were held by the Brexiteers. During May’s tenure, a group of some eighty Conservative M.P.s, known as the European Research Group, teamed up with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to repeatedly scuttle her Brexit proposals. The current chair of the E.R.G. is Steve Baker, a born-again Christian and a former engineer, who has spoken of his wish to “tear Parliament down and bulldoze the rubble into the river,” for its behavior since the referendum. Baker’s predecessor in the job was Jacob Rees-Mogg, a tall, preternaturally posh former backbencher who is now the Leader of the House of Commons. In early September, footage of Rees-Mogg, lounging in the House of Commons as if he were at a Roman bath, had gone viral. He was unavoidable in Manchester: recording an episode of “The Moggcast,” signing T-shirts at the souvenir shop, looming above cocktail parties.
One afternoon, I went to see Baker and Rees-Mogg speak at an event organized by the Free Market Conservatives. A banner featured a quote from Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher: “Is freedom anything else than the right to live as we wish?” Baker and Rees-Mogg were appearing with Andrea Jenkyns, another member of the E.R.G., who, like Baker, was one of twenty-eight so-called Spartans who voted against every form of May’s Brexit agreement. Winning over the Spartans, as well as the Democratic Unionist Party, would be essential to passing any deal with the E.U. that Johnson proposed. The room was packed.
The crowd had come for Rees-Mogg. He arrived ten minutes late, to great applause, wearing a dark double-breasted suit. Even to a British person, Rees-Mogg is a figure out of time. His voice, a plangent, plummy thing, is like an artificial-intelligence simulacrum of how the upper classes spoke in Edwardian England. “Do you remember what all the panjandrums had to say?” Rees-Mogg asked, recalling the dire warnings ahead of the Brexit vote. “Plague of frogs. Death of the firstborn. Economic recession. Merely if we had the temerity to vote to leave. Against that pressure, against the I.M.F., against the O.E.C.D., against all the other sets of incomprehensible initials, we revolted. We said, ‘We will not be told what to do by acronyms. We are not having an acronymocracy.’ ”
One of the riddles of English nationalism, as personified by Rees-Mogg and Johnson, is how seriously to take it. (Rees-Mogg has six children; the sixth is called Sixtus.) “A lot of this stuff sounds like it is sort of pantomime, this right-wing stuff in Britain,” Stewart told me. “Because the tone in which they do it is all a bit Gilbert and Sullivan.” Like other unlikely populist figures, Rees-Mogg operates within an ironic shimmer, knowing what people have come to hear. His descriptions of the perfidy of the British élite have the ring of an insider. “We found ourselves up against the British establishment at its least attractive,” he said. “People who pretend to do one thing and do another.”
At the end, Rees-Mogg took a question about the Brexit Party—which was set up by Nigel Farage, in January, to campaign for an immediate departure from the E.U.—and the threat it posed to the Conservative Party at the next election. (Rees-Mogg’s sister Annunziata was elected to the European Parliament for the Brexit Party in May.) Rees-Mogg replied that everything rested on delivering Brexit on October 31st. “If we do, we win,” he said. “If we don’t, we lose.”
For years, Rees-Mogg was a marginal figure in Parliament. In 2012, he suggested that the county of Somerset should have its own time zone. Before he joined Johnson’s administration, this summer, he had voted against the governments of May and David Cameron a hundred and twenty-seven times. After his event, I went to a meeting organized by the Conservative Group for Europe, one of the last remaining Europhile factions within the Party. It featured mainstream Conservative M.P.s—all former ministers—who had been ejected from the Party. The meeting was in a conference room at a hotel next to the convention center. I arrived a few minutes before it was due to start, at 7 P.M., and ended up sitting next to Peter Hebden and Simon Wrenn, two Conservative elected officials from Hertfordshire, just north of London.
It was the end of a long day. They had thought that there might be free food. Hebden, a former policeman, held an empty wineglass in his lap. The men joked about having voted for the Brexit Party in the European elections. “You wouldn’t be able to admit it if you had done it yourself, could you?” Wrenn said. “No,” Hebden said. “I couldn’t possibly admit it.” They were relaxed about a no-deal Brexit. “It’s what people politely refer to as a rebalancing of the economy,” Wrenn said. “That is, a load of people getting fucked over, isn’t it?”
The Party rebels—Alistair Burt, a former Foreign Office minister; David Gauke, a former Justice Secretary; and Grieve, a former Attorney General—sat at a table at the front. The room had a low ceiling and spotlights, and the men were hemmed in by microphones and reporters. Grieve explained that they had voted with the opposition parties in Parliament to stop Johnson from taking the country out of the E.U. without an agreement because it would disproportionately affect the poor and the elderly. “We are all absolutely united that precipitating a no-deal departure is unacceptable,” Grieve said.
“There! Now all you need is some sympathetic lighting.”Cartoon by William Haefeli
“No, we’re not,” Hebden heckled. “Are we?”
Grieve pressed on. Over the weekend, the right-wing Mail on Sunday had reported that the government was investigating him and the other rebel M.P.s for “foreign collusion,” alleging that they had received funding and legal assistance from European sources. Johnson described the situation as “very interesting.” (A Downing Street official later admitted that there was no investigation.) “What are we, as Conservatives, to make of this behavior?” Grieve asked his former Party colleagues. “It really goes to the heart of what we are.”
Gauke, a former member of the E.R.G., spoke toward the end. He described the rapid evolution of the Conservatives under Johnson. Faced with the impasse in Westminster, the Party was widely reported to be preparing for an election campaign, in which the Tories would pivot to sweep up working-class Brexit supporters who have traditionally voted for Labour or for Farage’s populist parties. “We are going to be dragged in a particular direction,” Gauke said. “It means the Conservative Party becomes much more aggressive, much more confrontational, much more divisive. We are no longer the party of Churchill; we are more the party of Trump.” Next to me, Hebden booed loudly. At the end of the meeting, Grieve checked his phone to see what kind of abuse he was receiving on social media. “I don’t know where it is from,” he said of one message, smiling. “Hopefully not from somebody in the room.” He read it out: “You are a foul traitor.”
Why was it so difficult to agree on a Brexit deal? The word that defined Theresa May’s struggles—and that became a metaphor, a pretext, a synecdoche for everything that was impossible—was “backstop.” Early in Britain’s negotiations with the E.U., which began in June, 2017, the bloc insisted on setting a default relationship—a backstop—in the unlikely event that trade talks failed. For the island of Great Britain, the options were clear enough. For the island of Ireland, the problem was close to metaphysical.
Until the late nineties, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which has almost three hundred crossing points, was a frontier guarded by soldiers in watchtowers. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended the Troubles, gave citizens of Northern Ireland the right to identify as Irish, British, or both. It also committed the two governments to an ambitious program of coöperation, which was made simpler because they were both members of the E.U. Now, twenty years later, when you call for an ambulance near the border, it can come from either side. Fifty-six per cent of voters in Northern Ireland opposed Brexit.
In February, 2018, the European Commission suggested a “Northern Ireland-only backstop,” in which the six counties of Northern Ireland would stay inside the main E.U. structures until a new permanent relationship could be established. The proposal called for regulatory checks on either side of the Irish Sea—creating an internal border, more or less, which, May said, “no U.K. Prime Minister could ever agree to.” In response, she proposed a “U.K.-wide backstop,” in which the whole country would retain some European regulations, plus additional ones for Northern Ireland, until the negotiators figured out what to replace them with.
May’s backstop was her undoing. Everyone found a reason to hate it. E.U. officials described it as a “swimming pool” of rules, in which Britain would be partially submerged and Northern Ireland would be in the deep end. For Remainers, the arrangement captured the pointlessness of Brexit. The country would continue to obey E.U. laws, but without having a say in their formulation. For Brexiteers, May’s backstop seemed to reveal the real intentions of European officials and the British deep state: to never let the country leave at all. “That deal was so bad,” Baker, the chairman of the E.R.G., told me. “It was like exiting into a prison from which you can glimpse your freedom but never taste it.”
Johnson came to power promising to scrap the backstop. On August 21st, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, offered him thirty days to solve the conundrum. Johnson described it as a “blistering timetable” and then seemed to ignore it.
During the hiatus, it wasn’t clear that the British government wanted a deal at all. In early September, Cummings was quoted in the British media describing the negotiations as a “complete sham,” designed to run down time. (Cummings denied saying this.) Two weeks later, Johnson’s Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, flew to Madrid and gave a speech warning darkly about how British imports of Spanish sherry and Manchego cheese might be affected. “We risk being trapped in a zero-sum game, which will lead to zero outcomes,” he said. In the talks, British negotiators announced that, in any future trade deal, they no longer wanted to keep the U.K.’s social and environmental rules in step with the E.U.’s—indicating a more radical departure than May’s government ever envisaged. E.U. officials bristled. “The U.K. is not Singapore,” one senior official told me. “This vision will rapidly hit reality.”
The atmosphere was bad. But everybody knew that Johnson was a flexible character, who might be willing to do anything to get out of a jam. “There is that paradox,” the senior official said. “The problem is that nobody really knows the motive of the strategy of Johnson.”
The Prime Minister made his pitch to replace the backstop on the last day of the Conservative Party conference. Extra seats had been set up in the auditorium. Party members waved Union Jacks. The lights dimmed and the words “Get Brexit Done” were projected onto five screens. The crowd chanted, “Boris! Boris!” Johnson entered to the opening chords of “Baba O’Riley,” by the Who. He is thickset. His hair, an astral blond, is swept forward in a short bowl and maintained in a permanent state of semi-mussedness. He cannot resist a buzzy phrase. Onstage, he described Brexit Britain as “a world-class athlete with a pebble in our shoe.” He said, “If Parliament were a laptop, then the screen would be showing, I’m afraid, the pizza wheel of doom.”
Johnson stretched and swung his arms to get himself going. He pumped his knees under the lectern. He wriggled his fingers to enliven some talk about high-speed Internet cables, which he described as “super-informative vermicelli.” He muttered, “It’s true, it’s true,” when people laughed or clapped. He said only a few lines about his new plan for Northern Ireland. “This is a compromise by the U.K.,” he said. “And I hope very much that our friends understand that and compromise in their turn.” Then he asked the Party faithful about a no-deal exit: “Are we ready for it?” The hall cheered. “Yes, we are,” Johnson affirmed.
The details of his proposal were published a few hours later. It was a dizzying scheme—even by the technical standards of the Brexit talks—with ad-hoc customs checks away from the border and other checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea. Instead of a hard border, there would be two “half borders.” The whole instrument would rely on the support of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the territory’s fractious parliament, which had not sat for almost three years, owing to a scandal caused by subsidies for wood-pellet-burning boilers. E.U. officials whom I spoke to were politely nonplussed. “What we have on the table is a kind of mixtum, a composite of various elements,” the European ambassador said. “That is maybe the particular challenge of this proposal.” Given Johnson’s rhetoric, no one was sure that the idea was even serious. “Are we being gaslighted by the British government?” an E.U. diplomat asked me.
For almost a week, the offer hung in the air. Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s chief negotiator in Northern Ireland, concluded that Johnson’s proposal would “undermine the basis on which the Good Friday Agreement was built.” Irish officials had a similar response. “We have taken down barriers,” one said. “Why would we put up a new one?” The problem of Northern Ireland occupied the heart of the Brexit crisis because it asked, in the starkest terms, what kind of new relationships were really going to be feasible with Britain’s closest neighbors—given the constraints of trade, geography, and bloodshed. It also contained the biggest risk of going wrong. In a no-deal scenario, both sides agreed, a hard border would be inevitable, and violence would likely return. “That’s where we are,” the former senior civil servant said. “That’s the bugger of the situation.”
At moments, the talks seemed certain to collapse. On October 7th, a senior government official—widely believed to be Cummings—sent a long text message to The Spectator, Johnson’s former outlet, blaming opposition M.P.s for their attempted “sabotage” of the Prime Minister’s efforts to make a new deal. “They’ve probably succeeded,” the official wrote. “History is full of such ironies and tragedies.” The next morning, Johnson spoke to Merkel from Downing Street. Within minutes, an anonymous source leaked an account of the call to the British media; the German Chancellor was alleged to have demanded that Northern Ireland stay permanently in the E.U.’s customs union. “It means a deal is essentially impossible, not just now but ever,” the source said.
I arrived in Westminster a few hours later. Climate protesters had blocked streets around Parliament Square, making it still and desolate. I met Nigel Dodds, the Parliamentary leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, in his office, next to the House of Commons. We sat by a brown-tiled fireplace, under a large portrait of Winston Churchill. The D.U.P. is one of the most hard-line pro-unionist parties in Northern Irish politics. It opposed the Good Friday Agreement, for the concessions that it made to Irish nationalists, and was the only party in the territory to campaign for Brexit. Since 2017, the ten M.P.s of the D.U.P. have been nominal allies of the Conservatives in Parliament, but they broke with May and worked closely with the E.R.G. to defeat her deal.
“You were talking to Terry Gross in your sleep again.”Cartoon by Luke Kruger-Howard
Dodds was much happier to have Johnson in office. Before he became Prime Minister, Johnson had courted the D.U.P. “He’s been very, very clear on the fact that the breakup of the United Kingdom is not a price that he’s prepared to pay,” Dodds told me. The Party approved of Johnson’s plan, but Dodds worried about the intransigence of the Irish government and the E.U. I asked him if he trusted Johnson to stand by the D.U.P. as the crisis intensified. “I’m asked this question a lot,” Dodds replied. “ ‘Do you trust Johnson?’ All I can say is, I can only trust ourselves. I can only trust myself.”
Johnson abandoned the D.U.P. two days later. On October 10th, he met Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, at Thornton Manor, a mock-Elizabethan country pile near Liverpool. They were photographed, deep in conversation, walking in the gardens. Varadkar came away smiling. The two leaders spoke of “a pathway to a possible deal.” The pathway required secrecy and diplomatic legerdemain. For several days, no one knew quite what Johnson had conceded. Then the shape of the compromise emerged: to keep the border open, the E.U. would allow Northern Ireland to leave its customs union—a symbolic win for Johnson—and, in return, the territory would abide by many E.U. regulations, with the U.K. enforcing any resulting customs checks on the British side of the Irish Sea. “Northern Ireland would de jure be in the U.K.’s customs territory but de facto in the European Union’s,” an E.U. diplomat told the Guardian. The arrangement would require approval, every four years, from the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The draft deal bore a heavy resemblance to the European Commission’s initial version of the backstop, which May had rejected as unthinkable. In Brussels, officials quipped that the backstop had become a “frontstop.” On the morning of October 17th, Dodds and Arlene Foster, the D.U.P. leader, accused Johnson of caving in to the E.U. In simultaneous tweets with Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, Johnson announced the deal anyway. He boarded a Royal Air Force jet in East London and flew to a European Council meeting in Brussels. Leaders arriving at the meeting allowed themselves a moment of elation. “It’s still the early afternoon—I’m an optimist,” Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš, the Prime Minister of Latvia, said. Emmanuel Macron, of France, said that Europe could now move to a “nouvelle phase.”
In the adrenaline of making a deal, it was easy to look past the effects that a more radical, Johnson-led Brexit was likely to have. Economic assessments of the most recent proposals suggested that the U.K.’s per-capita G.D.P. could be as much as seven per cent lower, in a decade, than if the country stayed in the E.U. Companies in Britain’s aerospace, automotive, chemical, food, and pharmaceutical sectors warned of the damage of straying too far from the bloc’s rules. That evening, in the belly of the monumental Justus Lipsius building, the E.U. leaders gave a press conference that felt like a wake. “It’s a little bit like an old friend that’s going on a journey or an adventure,” Varadkar, the Taoiseach, said. “We really hope it works out for them.” In London, the Brexiteers celebrated. “It is a really good, exciting deal,” Rees-Mogg said. He compared Johnson’s agreement to Tournedos Rossini—a dish of filet mignon, foie gras, truffles, and gravy.
Brexit is an uncanny political process because it is an inversion of the way that things were supposed to go. The world was becoming only more connected; money and people flowed. Europe was leading the experiment. And then a population said no. In 2016, Remainers tended to make economic arguments for staying in the E.U., while Leavers spoke about sovereignty and the health of the nation. In truth, it was a matter of instinct for both sides: were you prepared to go on sharing your agency with international forces of unimaginable scale, or did you believe that an old country could somehow reassert itself and claw out its own domain? The question was more philosophical than real. Being a member of the E.U. cost less than two per cent of Britain’s national budget. Most of us did not care. But, once the question was asked, it became fundamental, and the prelude to every future question. Choosing Brexit meant that we would diverge. We would diverge from Europe, and we would diverge from one another.
Two days after Johnson made his deal, he brought it to Parliament for a yes-or-no vote. The House of Commons sat on a Saturday for the first time since the outbreak of the Falklands War. Johnson rose to his feet just after 9:30 A.M. His hands were still. He found a sober tone that often eludes him. “If we have been half-hearted Europeans, it follows logically that with part of our hearts—with half our hearts—we feel something else,” he said. “A sense of love and respect for European culture and civilization, of which we are a part.” His deal, he continued, represented a chance to “unite the warring instincts in us all.”
It was probably Johnson’s finest speech as Prime Minister. It didn’t count for much. In the afternoon, opposition M.P.s, along with many of the Conservatives purged from the Party the previous month, refused to approve Johnson’s deal until the underlying legislation necessary for Brexit had passed. That night, the Prime Minister was forced to send a letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, requesting another extension. He didn’t want to be dead in a ditch, after all. In a cover note, Johnson blamed M.P.s for failing to “inject momentum” into the process and said that he still believed it was possible for Britain to leave on October 31st.
With nine days to go, he tried a final time. The government attempted to force through the entire Withdrawal Agreement Bill, now required for Britain to leave the E.U.—a hundred and ten pages of legal text, and more than three hundred pages of explanatory notes and memorandums—in thirty-six hours of debate. The law is a monster: a latticework of E.U. rules and U.K. legislation, along with provisions governing Britain’s exit fees of thirty-three billion pounds; the rights of the three and a half million E.U. citizens who live in the U.K.; and the new, contentious arrangements for Northern Ireland. I went to the House of Commons to watch. For six hours, opposition M.P.s expressed their fears about workers’ rights and environmental standards. They pointed out that Parliament had been given more time to debate a bill on the use of wild animals in circuses. Ministers were shaky on the details. Nobody pretended that the population would be better off. D.U.P. members were furious. “What I don’t take is a Prime Minister who thinks I can’t read,” Sammy Wilson, the Party’s Brexit spokesperson, told the chamber. The debate ended in a Pyrrhic victory for Johnson. At 7 P.M., M.P.s voted for the law to move forward—the first time that Parliament had indicated its support for any form of Brexit—fifty-two to forty-eight per cent, the same ratio by which the country split in 2016. Fifteen minutes later, they voted against the government’s plan to legislate at such speed.
Johnson sat on the front benches, in the middle of it all. He crossed his arms and hugged himself. He nodded his head up and down and side to side. He raised his legs and banged his heels against the carpet. “How welcome it is—even joyful—that, for the first time in this long saga, this House has accepted its responsibilities, come together, and embraced a deal,” he said. But the way ahead was still blocked. “We will pause this legislation,” Johnson said. He would wait for Europe’s leaders to agree to a further delay. He would ask for a general election, and he would probably win.
In the space of a few weeks this fall—in “the compression,” as Baker, of the E.R.G., called it—Johnson made startling political progress. The glue loosened. People diverged. Britain’s constitutional fabric suffered, too, in ways it is too early to understand. But, in the process, Johnson clarified to a great extent what Brexit is going to look like and feel like. The shape of the future is now visible. The uncertainty has receded. The worst is most likely yet to come. ♦