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With Brexit Gambit, Boris Johnson Reveals a Ruthless Side

LONDON — Boris Johnson hurtled to the top of British politics with an air of charm and disarrayed befuddlement. He slipped into Latin and Greek, changed sides when it suited his ambitions and oozed a mischievous bravado, as when he put his foot on a table at the French president’s palace last week.

But Mr. Johnson’s decision on Wednesday to cut short a session of Parliament revealed another side: the ruthless tactician who took office as prime minister this summer. With Brexit hanging in the balance, Mr. Johnson marshaled all the power of Downing Street to cut out the legs of a wobbly opposition, risking a constitutional crisis to get what he has promised.

Suddenly the man affectionately known as “BoJo” was being rebranded by some opponents a “tin-pot dictator.” And President Trump, known for his own norm-smashing maneuvers, applauded Mr. Johnson, calling him on Twitter “exactly what the U.K. has been looking for.”

Mr. Johnson’s opponents argue that his policies could result in a disastrous no-deal Brexit with the potential to tear apart the United Kingdom, cripple British agriculture and some manufacturing sectors and throw the economy into a recession, while producing shortages of food and medicines.

But those warnings have been filed away under “Project Fear” by Mr. Johnson and his supporters.

And with his boldest move yet as prime minister, Mr. Johnson showed that he would be as pugnacious in Downing Street as critics said his predecessor, Theresa May, was timid — and a radically different politician than he was as London’s mayor.

What Is Brexit? What Does ‘No-Deal’ Mean?

The basics of Brexit, the troubled plan for Britain to quit the European Union.

[Boris Johnson sought to stifle the Brexit opposition with a parliamentary delay.]

“It’s much more thought through, more organized, in many ways more aggressive than the Boris Johnson people thought they knew,” said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.

With his “rabbit-out-of-a-hat decision” to suspend Parliament, Mr. Johnson knocked his opponents back on their feet and “conveyed the sense of a government that’s in control,” Mr. Travers said.

By limiting the time available to Parliament to block a no-deal Brexit, Mr. Johnson sought to undermine an opposition strategy announced on Tuesday, analysts said.

After weeks of arguing about who should take charge should they defeat Mr. Johnson, opposition lawmakers had changed their tune. They said they would shelve the idea of trying to throw Mr. Johnson out of office and instead proceed more deliberately, focusing on passing legislation that would stop a no-deal Brexit.

For a fractured opposition, it was a painfully considered strategy to band together and confront Mr. Johnson on their own schedule. It was also an admission that they did not yet have the numbers to replace Mr. Johnson with a caretaker prime minister, in large part because the opposition is divided over whether Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing, euroskeptic Labour Party leader, is a suitable replacement.

[Bold move or coup? Social media erupts, and even the queen is not spared.]

But Mr. Johnson had other ideas.

ImageCreditErin Schaff/The New York Times

By cutting short the session of Parliament, he blew a hole in the opposition’s plan to take matters slowly and avert a decision about whether to try unseating him. In effect, analysts said, he called their bluff, giving anti-Brexit lawmakers only a matter of days to decide whether they felt strongly enough about stopping Brexit to kick him out of office.

Divided on many policies besides Brexit, and at odds over Mr. Corbyn, the opposition may not be able to organize quickly enough.

“His great advantage is that although his opponents are agreed on wanting to stop him, they can’t agree on anything else, and any dramatic, unexpected move which confuses them is likely to divide them for the same reason,” said Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “They’ll come to different conclusions about what’s going on and what to do about it.”

[What a no-deal Brexit might mean, and why it matters.]

In effect, Mr. Johnson invited the no-holds-barred confrontation that the opposition had only a day earlier tried to put off.

They are “throwing down the gauntlet to Corbyn and others to call a confidence vote next week,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent. “Johnson and his team are ruthlessly exploiting the divisions on the Remain side.”

Where Mrs. May paid heed to conventions and shrank from major showdowns, Mr. Johnson fulfilled the hopes of hard-line Brexit backers by inching Britain closer to a constitutional crisis.

ImageCreditJessica Taylor/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Today has confirmed what many had suspected for so long about his leadership style, that he is willing to be quite ruthless in his pursuit of Brexit,” Mr. Goodwin said of the prime minister. Mr. Goodwin said the decision laid the groundwork for “one of the most historic and consequential weeks in postwar British politics.”

For some analysts, it was evidence of the influence of one of Mr. Johnson’s most senior advisers, Dominic Cummings, a famously aggressive tactician who helped lead the referendum campaign in 2016.

Whoever is calling the shots, many analysts believe Mr. Johnson is inviting an early general election, and the prime minister is bullish about his chances. He has strong poll numbers and the opposition is divided. And the image of lawmakers putting their full weight behind undoing Brexit would provide an ideal backdrop for the ‘people versus Parliament’ campaign that Mr. Johnson seems eager to run.

But the road ahead is filled with risks.

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Before Boris Johnson’s latest move,

Parliament had about five weeks in session to debate a Brexit deal.

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But Mr. Johnson introduced a new parliamentary

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less than three weeks until the Brexit deadline.

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Before Boris Johnson’s latest move,

Parliament had about five weeks in session to debate a Brexit deal.

Sept.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

Parliament

returns

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

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Break for party

conferences

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Oct.

Parliament

scheduled

to return

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E.U. summit

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Britain leaves

the E.U.

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But Mr. Johnson introduced a new parliamentary

session and delayed the return of lawmakers, leaving less than three weeks until the

Brexit deadline.

Sept.

Brexit legislation

introduced

during these two

weeks will not

carry over into

the new session

1

2

3

4

5

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Oct.

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New session,

queen’s speech

and debates

13

14

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Britain leaves

the E.U.

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By Allison McCann

Under British parliamentary rules, Mr. Johnson is likely to need Mr. Corbyn’s support if the prime minister wishes to call an early general election — which is no sure thing as the Labour leader’s poll numbers sag. And Mr. Johnson is still dealing with an insurgent threat from the right in the form of the Brexit Party, which could siphon away crucial votes.

And while Mr. Johnson sharply curtailed Parliament’s time to debate Brexit, he has not stopped the body from sitting altogether. Lawmakers will return from summer recess next week, and analysts believe there is still time for opposition leaders to stick to their plan and pass a law blocking a no-deal Brexit.

Mr. Johnson may also have galvanized members of his own Conservative Party who oppose a no-deal Brexit but were so far unprepared to try to throw out Mr. Johnson’s government. One Conservative lawmaker, Dominic Grieve, said the move made a no-confidence vote more likely, calling Mr. Johnson’s actions “an attempt to govern without Parliament.”

SOURCE : https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/28/world/europe/boris-johnson-parliament.html

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