What is happening in the British Parliament now is an attempt to find an exit from this dilemma.
The great background fact to all the maneuvering is the deadline of October 31, 2019, the date Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union. (Brexit was originally scheduled for March 31, but the May government requested and received a six-month extension.)
Johnson’s hope is to get a withdrawal agreement in place before October 31, exit by that date, and only then force an election. With Brexit then irrevocable, British voters would confront the stark single-issue choice: Johnson or Corbyn? Johnson could expect to win a five-year mandate to repair the damage he himself inflicted by Brexit.
But this plan depends on exquisite timing. Dissident Conservatives led by the former front-bencher Oliver Letwin have joined with Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, and a moderate Labour group led by Hilary Benn to delay and disrupt Johnson’s strategy. Yesterday, Johnson was forced to request a second extension from the EU. If the EU grants the extension, there will be time for more politics before Brexit goes into effect—possibly including a second referendum.
Johnson could try to lead Britain out of the EU despite the extension. Some of his ministers say they are determined to drive forward regardless of public opinion. But Parliament has voted to require affirmative approval by Parliament of a British exit. Johnson would have to defy that vote and arguably break the law to achieve Brexit. The British courts have slapped him down once, when he tried to prorogue Parliament despite lacking a working majority in the House of Commons. If he bolts for Brexit despite the law, the courts will surely slap him down again. While Johnson is a risk-taking politician, he is no Donald Trump: He is not ultimately a lawbreaker.
Johnson’s cross-party parliamentary opponents have the votes to stop early exit. They have the votes to deny an early election. The big question is: Do they have the votes to force a second referendum? A second referendum would be even more bitter and divisive than the first. Anti-EU voters will feel cheated of a victory they have sought for decades—and that they felt they had at last won in 2016. Some pro-Brexit advocates—including the chairman of the Conservative Party!—predict (or threaten) civil unrest if they do not gain their prize.