Is Britain headed for a political crisis? As new Prime Minister Boris Johnson fights for Brexit to be implemented, he’s facing a wall of opposition from other government figures. The Heritage Foundation’s Nile Gardiner, an expert in British politics, joins us to discuss how Brexit could still happen on Oct. 31, what’s at stake, and what kind of leader Johnson is. Read the interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:
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Katrina Trinko: Joining us to discuss Brexit, new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and more is Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center at The Heritage Foundation. Nile, thanks for joining us.
Nile Gardiner: It’s my pleasure. Great to be here. Thank you.
Trinko: So, first off, do you think there’s going to be an election? [Since the interview was conducted, the House of Commons voted against holding an election.] What’s at stake? Johnson specifically called out this meeting on October 17th. What’s that meeting, and why does it matter?
Gardiner: Well, it’s a real game of chess at the moment, and the prime minister has called for an early general election on October 15th. That is just actually two days before the European Council meeting on October 17th and 18th, and just two weeks ahead of the Brexit deadline, which is October 31st.
So, the clock is ticking down towards Brexit. The prime minister has just lost a vote in the House of Commons on the issue of who controls the timetable for Brexit.
And the Commons has voted for Parliament to seize control of that timetable in an effort to block a no-deal Brexit.
Of course, the aim and the goal of members of Parliament who have voted against the government is to ultimately block and stop a Brexit altogether.
And so, Boris Johnson is saying that in order to deliver Brexit, which is the will of the British people, 17.4 million Britons voted for Brexit in June 2016, he says there has to be a general election, and the conservative government, according to Boris Johnson, must be brought back with a majority in order to pass legislation.
And he’s thrown down the gauntlet to Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labor Party, to back a general election.
The Labor Party, it has to be said, [is] not actually cooperating with Boris Johnson’s call.
The Labor Party is not agreeing to a general election for the October 31st Brexit date, not least because the Labor Party, I think, would suffer huge losses in that election. I expect the Conservatives would win an election comfortably and certainly the opinion polls show that.
But you need two-thirds of Parliament to support an early general election, which is why you need the Labor Party to support Boris Johnson’s call for a general election.
So, [it’s] a very difficult situation, a bit of a stalemate at the moment. It remains to be seen exactly how this is all going to turn out. But to summarize, this is really a battle between the British government standing on a platform of delivering and implementing the will of the British people, with Brexit pitted against members of Parliament who wish to derail and stop Brexit.
This is what it’s all about here. And Boris Johnson, I think, is the right man at the right moment in history here, and he is now calling on the British people to back him in a general election.
I think there should be a general election held on October 15th to decide once and for all the issue of how Britain should move forward in implementing Brexit. But it has to be said, the leader of the Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is a far-left Marxist, is running scared because he knows that the Labor Party is going to be heavily defeated in this election.
Trinko: So, what’s the timeline here for determining whether there is an election? Obviously, this is a very different system than the United States has. It seems shocking to me that you could have an election this quickly, but when would it have to be voted on to actually occur?
Gardiner: So, it would have to be voted on this week, because the government has prorogued Parliament, as it’s known, or in other words, suspended Parliament for a period of nearly five weeks starting at the beginning of next week.
So, there has to be a vote this week on whether or not to hold a general election. … After all, the next general election is officially supposed to be in 2022. This is why a parliamentary vote is required here.
If Parliament votes against a general election, it does put the prime minister in a very difficult position. Then, the prime minister has to decide whether he is going to basically implement what Parliament has voted for or whether he is going to choose to just simply go ahead with a no-deal Brexit on October 31st and ignore the will of Parliament.
So, it is a very difficult position that the prime minister is placed in, and there is also the issue of how the House of Lords is going to vote as well, because in order for this bill to go through, the House of Lords has to also vote in favor of the bill.
There are 92 Conservative amendments to this legislation in the House of Lords. And so, it is not entirely clear that there will be sufficient time for this bill to pass through the House of Lords.
If it does not go through the House of Lords, the legislation put forward by the House of Commons will not be implemented.
Trinko: And the legislation that you’re talking about here is the delay of Brexit without a deal for another three months past October 31st?
Gardiner: The legislation that has been put forward by the opposition party, together with over 20 rebel Conservative [members of Parliament] … basically instructs the prime minister to seek an extension of Article 50 of the treaty on European Union, extending the date for Britain’s exit from the EU [European Union] to January 31st, 2020.
The goal of this legislation really is to, in my view, prevent Brexit from ever happening, by calling for endless delays to Britain’s exit from the European Union.
And so, we should be absolutely clear about what is the intention of those members of Parliament who have put forward this legislation. It is to destroy Brexit. It is to prevent Britain from leaving the European Union.
And therefore, the prime minister has made it absolutely clear that he is not prepared actually to follow what this legislation stipulates. And that’s why he’s calling for a general election.
Trinko: Now if he doesn’t get a general election, is the prime minister on solid legal ground in Britain if he ignores Parliament and just leaves the EU?
Gardiner: Well, that’s a very good question. And I think that it’s a complex constitutional matter here, and Boris Johnson made it very crystal clear today he was not prepared to implement this legislation. And if indeed Parliament does not vote in favor of a general election, then this creates an extraordinary situation, where the prime minister has already made clear that he’s not prepared to delay Brexit beyond October 31st.
But that’s what this legislation is calling for. And I think it will be up to constitutional lawyers really to give the clearest, I think, description of what may possibly happen here.
But I have to say that this legislation pits Parliament against the will of the British people. The British people voted to leave the European Union. Parliament is blocking that at the moment. So, this is an historic moment, quite possibly a constitutional crisis for Great Britain. And only time will tell to see how this is resolved.
Trinko: So, this is not the first time that it’s been proposed for Brexit to be delayed, or in fact the first delay, correct?
Gardiner: Yes. Yeah, that’s correct. So, [then-Prime Minister] Theresa May was not able to get her EU-withdrawal agreement through Parliament, and Britain then was compelled to delay the start date for Brexit and seek an extension.
Trinko: And why have the negotiations between Britain and the EU been as fraught as they are? Why have they not been able to come up with a deal that’s acceptable?
Gardiner: Basically, in essence, it’s because the European Union has treated the Brexit negotiations as a kind of punishment beating for Britain.
And so, the EU has made all kinds of unreasonable demands, which has not been acceptable to especially many Conservative members of Parliament who voted against the EU-withdrawal agreement.
And in my view, the EU has not approached the negotiations with good faith at all. … So, basically the EU fears what Brexit means for the … future of the European Union, which is why they have handled these negotiations in such an unpleasant fashion.
They fear that Brexit will potentially lead to the breakup of the European Union. They fear that if Brexit is a success, that others will follow Britain’s example, and therefore, they are trying to punish Britain in terms of the negotiations.
And that’s why the EU-withdrawal agreement, as Theresa May negotiated it, was defeated three times in the House of Commons, not least with a significant number of Conservative [members of Parliament] voting against it.
And so, Boris Johnson has called for a new agreement to be negotiated with the EU, whereby the EU makes significant concessions. And I have to say that although Britain is negotiating in good faith, the EU is not, and we are very much heading, I think, towards a no-deal Brexit in terms of eventually leaving the European Union.
And so anti-Brexit [members of Parliament] are well aware of this, and they fear that if Boris Johnson is able to proceed, that he will take Britain permanently out of the European Union. So, they are trying desperately to try and stop that by delaying the process.
Trinko: And if there is a no-deal Brexit, what does that actually mean, and is it, as some pundits have suggested, the end of the world and Britain basically goes back to the Dark Ages?
Gardiner: Yeah. So, a no-deal Brexit simply means that Britain negotiates or trades with the rest of the world under World Trade Organization terms.
So, the United States deals with much of the world under World Trade Organization terms. It has some specific trade agreements with some countries, but the United States actually trades with the European Union under World Trade Organization terms at the moment.
There isn’t a U.S.-EU trade deal in place. They have been working on one for many years. It’s never seen the light of day. So, Britain is the world’s fifth-largest economy. It’s been a great trading nation for hundreds of years. It has the strongest big economy in Europe.
The German economy is in very difficult conditions. The British economy is doing a lot better. Britain will overtake Germany probably by 2030 as the largest economy in Europe.
Britain’s population is rising. Germany’s is falling. The U.K. is going to do just fine. And already there are advanced preparations, not just in Britain, but all over Europe, for a no-deal Brexit.
The Germans are preparing for it. The Germans sell 15% of their cars to the U.K. Large numbers of German workers will lose their jobs if trade does not continue freely between the U.K. and Germany.
So, I think that what will happen is that Britain and the EU will negotiate a series of mini-deals to cover all sectors of economic activity, and eventually they will come to a broader trade agreement.
And so, a no-deal Brexit, that doesn’t mean the end of the world, as its critics allege. It simply means that Britain exits the European Union without a formal agreement with the EU.
Britain is already talking to over 100 countries in the world about implementing free-trade deals, including with the United States, and those deals will be put into place within the next couple of years. And I’m sure eventually there will be a good deal with the EU as well.
But I think sanity will prevail in Europe, and a pragmatic approach will be implemented by European governments to ensure that trade continues freely, post-Brexit.
It’s in the interest of both sides to have that happen. And I think Britain will do just fine. Britain did just fine before it was a member of what was originally the European Economic Community and later the European Union. And I think Britain will do just fine outside of the EU today.
So, I’m very optimistic about the economic prospects. Foreign investment continues to pour into the U.K.
A lot of big U.S. companies are investing very heavily in Britain. A million American jobs depend on British companies and vice versa. And there’s going to be a very big U.S.-U.K. trade deal in place in the Brexit era.
Trinko: So on Wednesday, President Trump talked about Boris Johnson. Via BBC politics, here’s what the president had to say:
Trump: Well, Boris is a friend of mine, and he’s going at it. There’s no question about it. He’s in there. I watched him this morning. He’s in there fighting, and he knows how to win. Boris knows how to win. Don’t worry about him. He’s going to be OK.
Trinko: … So, to backtrack a little bit, of course, as you mentioned, Boris Johnson is a relatively new prime minister, succeeded Theresa May. He’s often compared to Trump, who seems to think rather highly of him.
What should people know about Boris Johnson, and what kind of leader is he?
Gardiner: Well, Boris Johnson is a very charismatic figure. I think he’s someone who is 100% dedicated to delivering Brexit. He is a very clever individual.
I’ve met Boris Johnson on many occasions. I’ve hosted him here at the Heritage Foundation in the past. He is actually a very brilliant politician, and he comes from a very, very highly educated background, and he is someone who I think has the right leadership skills to lead Britain in the Brexit era.
He is a conservative conviction politician. He’s a big admirer of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.
He’s totally different [from predecessor] Theresa May, who was an exceedingly dull figure, who really had very little in the way of any kind of political ideology.
Boris Johnson is different. He is a true conservative, and he’s also struck a very good relationship with President Trump. And it’s very good to see President Trump supporting Boris Johnson. That’s a reflection of the strength of the “special relationship.”
I think that Trump’s instincts are right here. Boris Johnson is going to do well. I think that Johnson will win the general election comfortably, and I think he’s going to deliver Brexit.
And so, I wish that members of Parliament would have the same faith in Britain that President Trump has, actually.
And Trump has demonstrated a very high degree of faith in Brexit. He is the biggest supporter of Brexit on the world stage. And I think he sent exactly the right message of support for Brexit and for Britain at this time.
Trinko: So, it’s been over three years now since the British people voted for Brexit. As you mentioned, there are obviously forces in Parliament who are trying to make sure it never happens.
What’s at stake here? I mean, is it economic things like having to bail out other countries? Is it sovereignty and not having the EU tell them what to do? What does Britain face if they end up staying in the EU?
Gardiner: Yeah, that’s a great question. Why did the British people vote for Brexit? Why do so many Britons still continue to support Brexit? And the level of support for Brexit hasn’t fallen, I don’t think, at all.
And at the end of the day, I think that the most important reason, and the polling has demonstrated this, in terms of the reasons why British voters supported Brexit, the top reason is the desire to retake control of Britain’s sovereignty and self-determination, to be a free country again.
About two-thirds of British law is decided in Brussels, and British courts are subject to the rulings of European courts. Britain has no control over its trade. It doesn’t control its own borders.
The European Union really dictates a great deal of British everyday life, and that is completely unacceptable, and it is time for the British people to throw those shackles off and to be a truly free country again.
No member of the European Union is a truly free nation, and that’s a price that countries pay for being a member of the EU. It’s a surrendering [of] sovereignty.
And so, the debate in Britain over sovereignty is similar to debates that are taking place all over Europe, actually. You can see it in every European country, and there is a growing backlash against the centralization of power in the EU.
You see that especially in countries like Italy, for example. Poland is a very good example of this. All over Europe, you are seeing a growing rejection of the centralization of power.
When the EU started out, in the form originally of the European Coal And Steel Community, later the European Economic Community, it started off really as an economic bloc. It developed later into a political one.
When Britain joined the EU, the British voters did not vote to join a separate national EU superstate. They voted to join what they thought was a sort of free-trading area, or customs union. That morphed into a … national monstrosity. Now, [it] has 28 countries.
No nation in the EU has complete sovereignty. So, that is at the heart of the British people’s desire to leave.
Secondly, of course, I think is, the desire really to control immigration, decide who comes into the country is a very big, big part of that. That ties into the sovereignty issue.
I think also there’s an issue of the cost of the European Union. Britain is a net contributor to the EU, and the U.K. pays far more into the EU than it gets out of the EU.
And so, Britain has to subsidize southern European countries, Eastern European countries, to the tune of tens of billions of pounds a year. And that isn’t popular with a lot of British voters.
So, those are some of the main reasons. But I think at the very heart, this is a debate about sovereignty and self-determination, something that all Americans can relate to.
This is about freedom, and this is what Brexit is all about. It’s about the right of a nation state to decide its own future, the right of the British people have their own laws, control their own borders, decide who actually has control of Britain’s courts.
And these are fundamental freedoms that people have fought and died for, for thousands of years, and the British people have decided that they want to retake that freedom. And that’s what Brexit is all about at the end of the day.
Trinko: Right. Nile, thank you so much for joining us.
Gardiner: My pleasure. Thank you very much for having me on.