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Britain’s Brexit breakdown is a democratic crisis

The pragmatic center is being squeezed out of British politics, making Brexit an all-or-nothing fight to the death among absolutists

By Philippe Legrain

How, then, might a no-deal Brexit be stopped?

Rebel MPs’ preferred option had been to pass legislation instructing Johnson to seek a further extension to the UK’s exit deadline. They might still do so next week, or even just after the October European Council meeting, but the timing is very tight, and government delaying tactics could stymie the rebels.

Moreover, Johnson might ignore such an instruction, the EU could reject an extension request or, more plausibly, it might impose conditions on the extension that Johnson would reject.

The rebels’ second choice — a no-confidence vote — now seems likely next week. With his allies from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, Johnson has a parliamentary majority of just one vote. Because his suspension of Parliament has outraged rebel Conservatives who had previously balked at bringing down their own government, a no-confidence vote stands a greater chance of success.

However, bringing down the government would not be sufficient to stop a no-deal Brexit. The motley crew of rebels also would need to support the formation of a caretaker government that would seek a Brexit extension, call a general election and perhaps also legislate for a second referendum.

Moreover, Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a hardline socialist and closet Brexiteer, insists on leading such a government. That would require Conservative rebels, opposition Liberal Democrats and also MPs who quit the Labour Party in protest over Corbyn’s leadership to rally behind him — a tall order.

Alternatively, if Corbyn failed to muster a majority, he could give Labour’s backing to a caretaker government led by someone less controversial — but that is also unlikely. If an alternative government could not be formed within two weeks of a successful no-confidence vote, rebels would need to hope that Johnson called — and lost — an election before Oct. 31.

Johnson might calculate that it would be easier for him to win an election before no-deal chaos materializes. For now, at least, he has said that he would not trigger a pre-Brexit poll.

That leaves the nuclear option of Parliament voting to unilaterally revoke Britain’s notification of its intention to leave the EU under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. This is the only surefire way to thwart a no-deal Brexit.

However, it would be an incendiary move. Many Leavers would see it as an anti-democratic coup and, because it would reverse the 2016 referendum result, such a step would necessitate a new plebiscite pitching Remain against No Deal.

With luck, Johnson’s scorched-earth tactics will spur his disparate opponents into overcoming their differences to stop a no-deal Brexit, but, whatever happens, the pragmatic center is being squeezed out of British politics. Both hardline Brexiteers and diehard Remainers have rejected the only available exit deal. As each side ups the ante, Brexit is now an all-or-nothing fight to the death among absolutists.

Philippe Legrain is a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute and a former economic adviser to the president of the European Commission.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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