Boris Johnson Stumbles Toward Brexit As E.U. Rejects Latest Proposal

As the Brexit deadline approaches, Boris Johnson's options dwindle and a hard Brexit becomes more likely.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan hit a major roadblock late last week as European Union negotiators rejected his plan for the United Kingdom’s exit from the E.U., thus further adding to the chaos as the nation heads toward the uncertainty of an October 31st deadline that remains in place:

LONDON — On Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to have accomplished what his long-suffering predecessor, Theresa May, never could. He rallied support among lawmakers for a plan to extricate Britain from the European Union and won praise from some of the same legislators who had tormented Mrs. May.

One Conservative Party lawmaker even seemed to compare Mr. Johnson to Moses, the biblical figure who descended from the mountain with new commandments.

But diplomats in Brussels greeted his Brexit plan frostily and pointed out a series of gaps and problems. It was an ominous sign that, after more than three fraught and exasperating years of debate in Parliament, Brexit was heading once again for a deadlock — this time in Brussels.

European Union leaders have been polite, at best, about Mr. Johnson’s proposal. On Thursday, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said he had told Mr. Johnson he was “open but still unconvinced.”

A less-diplomatic reaction came from an influential committee of the European Parliament, which declared the plan to be not “even remotely” acceptable. The European Parliament would have a veto over any deal.

“On the parliamentary side, it is plausible that Boris Johnson could scrape a majority together,” said Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, a research organization. “But on the European Union side, it is not a workable deal.”

Johnson, of course, is under pressure from two sides and it’s unclear if he’s going to be able to thread the needle in a way that pleases both sides. On the one side, there are the European Union negotiators and the European Parliament, which must approve any agreement from the E.U.’s side of the table. On the other side, there’s the British Parliament where Johnson faces a whole host of other issues:

Mr. Johnson appeared to have a small majority of lawmakers backing his latest proposals for resolving the Brexit crisis. But many see the question of a parliamentary majority as largely academic, including Anna Soubry, a former Conservative lawmaker who opposes Brexit.

She said that Mr. Johnson “thinks he has got the support of Parliament, but he can’t get any support from the E.U.”

Mr. Lowe said that Mr. Johnson was trapped in a Catch-22 that would be familiar to his predecessor, Mrs. May. To get an agreement from European leaders, he would have to make significant concessions, and that would cause his new supporters in Parliament to melt away.

“What we are all waiting for is a general election,” Mr. Lowe said.

In order to get a General Election, though, Johnson is now required to seek an extension of time from the E.U. to ensure that there is not a hard, no-deal, Brexit on October 31st as the current schedule calls for. So far, Johnson has not made that request and it’s unclear when, or if, he will. Indeed, over the weekend, he was making statements that made it appear as if he was prepared to let a hard Brexit happen notwithstanding what the law says. That obviously would create a serious constitutional crisis, but we’ve already seen a few of those rock British politics since Johnson took office so on some level it’s par for the course.

The last chance that Johnson has to reach a deal with the European Union, or to seek an extension of the current end-of-the-month deadline, comes at the E.U. summit on October 17th and 18th in Brussels. If he’s unable to reach a deal then, though, it’s unclear exactly what will happen. The most likely outcome would seem to be that the October 31st will remain in place and that the United Kingdom will crash right through it regardless of the fact that every credible economist has argued that such a hard Brexit would be a disaster that could very well throw the United Kingdom into recession. At the very least, it would make life in the short term far more difficult for British citizens than they have become used to under the European Union, especially when it comes to the availability and price of everyday consumer goods, including food and wine. It would also have a significantly disruptive impact on trade between the United Kingdom and the Continent and, of course, would complicate the situation in Ireland where the border with Northern Ireland would have to be hardened for the first time in more than 20 years.

There’s literally no sane reason that any of this has to happen. And yet, much as is the case with the Trump Presidency here in the United States, here we find ourselves with very little that we can do with it.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Kathy says:

    I think the British expression for what’s going up with both Brexit, since the referendum, and Johnson, is “balls up.”

    For those who don’t speak British, I think the closest American translation is FUBAR, Fouled(*) Up Beyond All Recognition.

    (*) It’s not “Fouled.”

  2. grumpy realist says:

    Boris Johnson is playing kabuki politics. I don’t know if he was thinking he could actually BS a Brexit “deal” through both the EU and the HOC–the man isn’t known for his prep work on any project anywhere–or that he could just do enough of it so he could wipe a tear from his eye, ask for an extension, and then immediately turn around and pin an election, figuring that most Tories won’t actually go off and support Farage and The Brexit Party.

    The problem is, everyone else involved knows exactly how much of a BS artist Johnson is, so they’re being eagle-eyed about everything. “Trust me” is not a statement anyone with an ounce of brain would accept from Johnson. And they’ve now pinned him down with the Benn legislation. Unfortunately, there are sufficiently dopey idiots in the U.K. that if Johnson decided to throw a tantrum and call everyone in his way a “traitor”, he might be able to pull it off.

  3. DrDaveT says:


    I think the British expression for what’s going up with both Brexit, since the referendum, and Johnson, is […]

    I prefer shambolic, as lovely a new coinage as I’ve heard in a long time.

  4. Kathy says:

    @grumpy realist:

    About all that’s left is for Boris to present one plan to the EU, a different plan to the HOC, and hope they don’t talk to each other until the deal passes.

  5. Michael Cain says:

    @grumpy realist:
    If you assume that Boris is trying for either no-deal, or throwing Northern Ireland under the bus (NI stays in the single market and customs union with a hard border in the Irish Sea), he’s playing his hand well. Who was it that said crazy people are actually quite rational once you understand what their assumptions about the world are?

  6. grumpy realist says:

    @Michael Cain: I think that the bulk of the U.K. politicians have no idea exactly how a bad a no-deal Brexit could get. Hence the shadowboxing on all sides, totally oblivious of the fact that they’re about to go over an actual cliff.

    This is the problem with a bunch of politicians who think they can bluff and posture and schmooze their way through all problems. At some point I suspect the EU will simply say “ok, bye, have fun” and let go of the rope.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    The most likely outcome would seem to be that the October 31st will remain in place and that the United Kingdom will crash right through it regardless of the fact that every credible economist has argued that such a hard Brexit would be a disaster that could very well throw the United Kingdom into recession.

    Is there really any evidence that this isn’t exactly what Boris wants to happen?

  8. EddieInCA says:

    I’ve got my tickets for London at Christmas. Everything will be on sale, literally.

    Those golf courses I’ve wanted to play in Scotland… See you in April.
    That trip to Wales I’ve wanted to take… See you in late April.

    Everything is going to be 50% cheaper then than today. Can’t wait.

  9. Jen says:

    @EddieInCA: Yes, it will be cheaper, but your food will be more expensive, and probably not as much selection.

    We go to the UK fairly frequently–at least once a year. People who complain about British food aren’t eating in the right places (or didn’t budget–food there is already more expensive than here). The availability of fantastic produce has increased dramatically over the last two decades, and all of that is about to go poof.

  10. rachel says:

    @grumpy realist:

    “Trust me” is not a statement anyone with an ounce of brain would accept from Johnson.

    Especially after that Scottish Court of Session found he’d mislead the Queen when he advised her to prorogue Parliament.

  11. wr says:

    @Jen: “People who complain about British food aren’t eating in the right places”

    People who complain about British food are parroting cliches that spring from the years following WW2. It’s a lazy laugh line for stupid people.

    On the other hand, since BoJo and company are desperately trying to bring back the days of post-war rationing, maybe it will be true again in the near future.

  12. JohnSF says:

    Thing is, the government, or more precisely Johnson and Cummings, don’t care one way or the other whether they get a deal, a no deal exit, or are forced to extend.

    In fact Johnson would care not a whit personally were the UK somehow obliged to remain, though he certainly cares politically.

    Their concern is purely with winning the next election.

    They believe that they can do so whether via No Deal (cannibalise Brexit Party, blame EU/Remainers) Deal (rely on national relief, woo No Dealers by blaming balance in Parlt.) or forced extension (people vs Parlt. campaign).
    Either No Deal or forced extension enable the 35% strategy; Deal enables the anti-Corbyn strategy.

    Meanwhile, the Parliamentary opposition has deadlocked: Labour leadership won’t countenance an emergency government unless Corbyn is PM and Labour in effective control.
    Centrist Labour MPs are not contesting this line, being terrified of deselection by the Corbynites.

    LibDems and ex-Labour centrists, and rebel Conservatives, cannot stomach Corbyn on principles; but also endorsing him would be toxic with their voter base.
    Indeed, some Labour leftists are delighted to land these MPs with a possible choice of Corbyn or No Deal and consequent political damage; parts of the Labour left have always tended to view centrists as the real obstacle to their decisive victory.

    The only consolation is that the courts seem to believe that Johnson cannot wriggle out of the legal obligation to request an extension unless Parliament votes otherwise.
    This has been reported as a triumph for the government, as the court refused to order further safeguards.
    However, the judges seemed clear that he accepted the governments statements to the court on its obligations; by implication, any attempt at clever evasions could result in further proceedings on the basis of false or misleading statements.

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JohnSF: What are the chances that BoJo can get an extension? I know literally nothing about EU politics, but it would seem to me that the likely chain of events would be Boris asks, EU, knowing that Boris is not a good-faith negotiator, says no, No-Deal Brexit that Boris seems to want is on. Is he really fearful that the EU will say “well okay, but this is the last one, for sure, we’re serious this time?”

    And then, so what if they say that? Does it change anything on the ground in Parliament?

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I think Boris is expecting that he can shadow-box his way into being “forced” into asking for another extension, and the EU will, in order to not look like the baddies throwing the U.K. out of the EU, will grant another 6 months.

    Given today’s blow-up, the EU may not play the role he’s expecting….

  15. JohnSF says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Thing is, it is politically essential for Johnson to be seen to resist a further extension. (I doubt that he personally gives a damn either way)

    It’s all about positioning for a general election:
    ‘His Deal’ could work for him;
    No Deal might work for him depending on timing and blaming;
    Extension could work better than both so long as he is seen dragged to it kicking and screaming by “traitor Remainers”.

    That’s why a No 10 “source” was threatening that if Johnson was forced to ask for an extension, and the EU granted it, the UK would deliberately obstruct EU business, and refuse security cooperation to states who were pro-extension (both incoherent and, again, skirting the edge of threatening to ignore NATO obligations).

    That’s also why the negotiations are essentially desultory; as far a Johnson is concerned his “deal” only needs to be presentable as one acceptable to Leavers in Commons and thus the country.
    If, by some miracle, an arrangement for Northern Ireland can be reached that the EU and not-totally-insane Leavers can accept, so much the better, but that is a second- 0r third-order objective.

    The EU, and many “Anti-No-Dealers” are aware of the games being played.
    And EU patience is wearing thin, especially after todays No. 10 moves.

    It has not run out entirely, I suspect, because EU capitals are well aware of Johnson/Cummings “cunning plan” games; and because Ireland is still intent on a deal if possible, and an extension if necessary.

  16. JohnSF says:

    @grumpy realist:
    Could be Johnson wants to look forced; could be he would like to not have one.

    Either way can work for him electorally, given ‘framing’ works, and THAT is Cummings’ game.

    Another possible No. 10 tactic could be in play: ramp up the tensions so much, Anti-No Deal MPs are so worried that an extension could not be got under Johnson, they move to install emergency government despite Labour intransigence on arrangements i.e. accept Corbyn as PM.

    That enables a Johnson campaign using both anti-Remainer and anti-Corbyn ploys, and badly hits the LibDem and others by tainting them with Corbyn.
    (Also makes some more loopy parts of Labour left happy; they are neutral-to-leave on Brexit, and often see crushing centrists as the best route to their success.)

    It seems no crisis for the country is so existential as to persuade the idiot Tories and lunatic Left put partisan gamesmanship aside.

    On the governments appalling irresponsibility, dereliction of duty and violation of honour, Tom Peck in the Independent voices my thoughts better than I can.

  17. JohnSF says:

    On the governments appalling dereliction of duty, disregard of responsibility, and violation of honour, Tom Peck in the Independent voices my thoughts better than I can.

    It is a tale more abysmal than could possibly have been imagined…
    Economic misery and national humiliation, heaped upon millions of people, just so the Conservative Party can gain salvation from its own moral degeneracy…
    …psychotic, idiotic and degenerate frauds, miles out of harm’s way, insulated from the misery they spread by their own private wealth…