The story of Brer Rabbit is a well-known trickster tale in American folklore. In one episode, Brer Fox has finally got Brer Rabbit trapped and is deciding how to finish him off; he wants the worst possible fate for a foe who has constantly outwitted him.
Brer Rabbit begs for mercy. “Drown me! Roast me! Hang me! Only please don’t throw me into the briar patch,” he pleads. And that’s exactly what the fox does, to Brer Rabbit’s delight. You see, says a smug rabbit as he combs his fur later, “I was bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox.”
It’s far easier to picture the amply built, politically agile Boris Johnson as a bear, or even a fox, than a scrawny rabbit. But there’s no question that the British prime minister’s opponents appear to have him cornered. He seems to have miscalculated repeatedly as he tries to deliver Brexit by Halloween. He’s being forced to request a Brexit extension, is unable to call an election, is stuck without a majority and his party is in open warfare.
That’s not even all. Scotland’s high court declared his suspension of Parliament illegal, leaving the UK Supreme Court to decide the matter next week. Thanks to another constitutional sleight of hand, Johnson was also forced to release sensitive government information about the possible impact of a no-deal Brexit, including shortages of food, fuel and water, and public disorder.
This looks bad, politically fatal even. Johnson’s many opponents in Parliament have scored victory after victory. But assuming they’ve struck a killing blow is dangerous. While Johnson’s opponents are celebrating his difficulties, they may be sending him straight to where he’s most comfortable: His own version of the briar patch.
The conventional wisdom is that if Johnson is forced to ask for, and accept, an extension to the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline, it would be a devastating climb-down after he said he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than do so. But would British leave voters really blame Johnson? It’s not certain they would.
Polls show a more polarized public, with Brexiters increasingly inclined to excuse almost any behavior to get the UK’s European Union departure over the line.
Johnson will look to weaponize any extension, claiming it is a remainer trick to stop the “will of the people.” The EU might even struggle to approve a delay if Johnson promises to be difficult, or risk looking as if it has taken sides in Britain’s domestic political wars. Any of that would help Johnson’s campaign of blame.
He has other options too. He might refuse to comply with Parliament’s order to delay Brexit, or resign, leaving Labour’s hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn to try to stitch together a government to request an extension. And, as Bloomberg reported Thursday, there’s always the prospect that an EU outlier such as Hungary might block another Brexit delay, which requires unanimous approval.
The Labour Party took the decision (against Corbyn’s instincts) to deny Johnson an October election because it didn’t want to give him what he wanted: A national vote that could have galvanized Britain’s Brexiters into returning Johnson’s Conservatives with a mandate to crash out of the EU if necessary. But an October election would have been awkward for the prime minister. He would have had to choose between a pact with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which wants a no-deal departure, and retaining more moderate Tory voters.
The more time that passes, the more Parliament looks unable to decide what it wants — and the more Labour’s own Brexit divisions are exposed — the more Johnson’s appeal to get Brexit done may resonate with weary British voters.
Certainly Parliament’s suspension (or prorogation) has put Johnson back where he’s happiest, out of the House of Commons and in sole charge of the prime ministerial bullhorn. He can’t legislate, but he can make announcements and they’ll be reported by the media while MPs have lost their forum. He can engage in a flurry of diplomacy and make lavish spending promises.
A decision against his prorogation by the Supreme Court would be embarrassing, of course. It would make it harder to avoid the legislation demanding that he pursues a Brexit extension. But legal setbacks and moral outrage don’t necessarily translate into voter rejection. Indeed, a loss would let him portray the Scottish (and possibly English) judges as part of an anti-Brexit establishment; and while a reconvened Parliament would bombard him with uncomfortable questions and committee hearings, it would help his electoral platform (“the people versus Parliament”) to show lawmakers standing in the way of Brexit.
None of this suggests that Johnson, or his adviser Dominic Cummings, are at all happy with this state of affairs. They clearly blundered. Nor is this a healthy place for Britain’s economy or its polity.
Johnson’s team is betting that voters will reward him ultimately for showing leadership and doing whatever it takes to quit the EU. But that’s a huge gamble and would require the Tories to compensate for what will certainly be lost seats in Scotland, London and other remain-supporting parts of the country. Prorogation has also helped unite the opposition to no deal and it’s hard to rule out electoral pacts on that side.
Even Brer Rabbit foolishly got himself stuck and was at the mercy of Brer Fox. Much depends then on what his opponents do next. In an interview with the Evening Standard Thursday, the now exiled moderate Tory lawmaker Oliver Letwin dangled a possibility. He said a cross-party alliance is prepared to withhold an election until after either a deal is agreed or a second referendum held.
That’s an interesting proposition. In one scenario, Johnson would have delivered Brexit and could fight an election on centrist, pro-growth turf against a socialist opposition without having to worry as much about losing support to Farage (as long as any Brexit deal was robust enough for his taste).
While the alternative route of a new referendum may not be ideal, campaigning is where Johnson is happiest. The prime minister’s enemies may feel they have him where they want him, but Johnson’s hide is thick enough to withstand a few thorns. You can’t count him out yet.