Parliament Defies Boris Johnson On Brexit

The House of Commons handed Prime Minister Boris Johnson a huge loss yesterday, throwing the short-term future of Brexit into doubt.

Over the weekend I noted that British Members of Parliament opposing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to suspend Parliament and force the nation through a hard, no-deal, Brexit at the end of October faced a narrow window of opportunity to succeed. Essentially what they needed was for everything to go right for them and everything to go wrong for Prime Minister Johnson. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened:

LONDON — British lawmakers on Tuesday rose up against Prime Minister Boris Johnson, moving to prevent him from taking the country out of the European Union without a formal agreement. The epic showdown pushed Britain to the verge of a new election.

After losing his first-ever vote as prime minister, Mr. Johnson stood up in Parliament and said he intended to present a formal request for a snap general election to lawmakers, who would have to approve it.

A little over a month ago, Mr. Johnson, a brash, blustery politician often compared to President Trump, swept into office with a vow to finally wrest Britain from the European Union by whatever means necessary, even if it meant a disorderly, no-deal departure.

Now, Parliament has pulled the rug out from under him, and Mr. Johnson is at risk of falling into the same Brexit quagmire that dragged down his predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May.

The lawmakers forced his hand by voting by 328 to 301 to take control of Parliament away from the government and vote on legislation as soon as Wednesday that would block the prime minister from making good on his threat of a no-deal Brexit.

That prompted an angry response from the prime minister.

“I don’t want an election, the public don’t want an election, but if the House votes for this bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on Oct. 17 to sort this out and take this country forward,” Mr. Johnson said, referring to the next European Union summit.

Tuesday was a critical moment in Britain’s tortured, three-year effort to extract itself from the European Union. The saga has divided Britons, torn apart the ruling Conservative Party and prompted complaints that Mr. Johnson has trampled the conventions of the country’s unwritten constitution.

A majority of lawmakers are determined to block a withdrawal from the European Union without a deal, which they believe would be disastrous for the country’s economy. Tuesday’s vote suggested they have the numbers to succeed.

Mr. Johnson’s aides had made clear that, in the event of a defeat on Tuesday, he would seek a general election on Oct. 14 — just a little over two weeks before the Brexit deadline of Oct. 31.

In his rebuttal to Mr. Johnson’s call for elections, the opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said he would agree to an election only after Parliament passed legislation barring a no-deal Brexit. The House of Commons is expected to approve the measure on Wednesday.

Tuesday’s vote marked a moment when Mr. Johnson’s hardball tactics, for once, were met with equal resistance.

On a day of high drama, Mr. Johnson lost his working majority in Parliament even before the vote took place, when one Conservative rebel, Phillip Lee, quit the party to join the Liberal Democrats, who have managed to stage a resurgence by positioning themselves as an unambiguously anti-Brexit party.

The practical effect of Mr. Lee’s defection for Mr. Johnson was limited, however, because the government would fall only if it were defeated in a confidence motion.

But in a moment weighty with symbolism, Mr. Lee walked across the floor of the House of Commons and sat beside Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as the prime minister was speaking about the recent Group of 7 summit. Mr. Lee accused Mr. Johnson of pursuing a damaging withdrawal from the European Union in unprincipled ways, and of “putting lives and livelihoods at risk.”

Mr. Lee’s break with the Tories was most likely just the first of many.
On Tuesday night, Downing Street began pressing ahead with plans to discipline those rebels who voted against the government, moving to expel them from the Conservative Party. Those who defied the government included two former chancellors of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond and Kenneth Clarke, and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill.

That could threaten Mr. Johnson’s ability to manage day-to-day business in Parliament, underscoring the need for a new election.

The extent of the Tory civil war was on full display as several of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative critics, including Mr. Hammond, lobbed hostile questions at him, making it plain that they had not been brought back into line by threats of expulsion from the party.

Opponents of a no-deal Brexit argue that leaving the block without a deal — as Mr. Johnson has promised to do, if no agreement is reached — would be catastrophic for the British economy. Many experts say it could lead to shortages of food, fuel and medicine, and wreak havoc on parts of the manufacturing sector that rely on the seamless flow of goods across the English Channel. Leaked government reports paint a bleak picture of what it might look like.

Mr. Johnson says he needs to keep the no-deal option on the table to give him leverage in talks in Brussels, because an abrupt exitwould also damage continental economies, if not as much as Britain’s. The prime minister appealed to his own lawmakers not to support what he called

“Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill,” a reference to the leader of the opposition Labour Party.

“It means running up the white flag,” he said.

More from The Washington Post:

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a devastating loss Tuesday on his first key Brexit vote, setting up a legislative battle Wednesday that could lead to a snap general election.

A rough day for Johnson, when 21 members of his own Conservative Party joined opposition lawmakers to take control of the parliamentary agenda and force a vote on a Brexit delay, concluded with the prime minister introducing a bill seeking a general election. He suggested he would seek action on that election bill if Parliament votes Wednesday to postpone Brexit by three more months.

“Parliament is on the brink of wrecking any deal we might be able to strike in Brussels,” Johnson said. “Because tomorrow’s bill would hand control of the negotiations to the E.U. And that would mean more dither, more delay, more confusion.”

While denying that he wanted an election, the prime minister added, “If the House votes for this bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on October 17 to sort this out.” That is the date British and European Union officials are scheduled to meet next.

Johnson was selected as leader of Britain in July through a vote involving only dues-paying members of his party. A general election — putting all seats in the House of Commons up for a vote — could either sink his government or give him a popular mandate for his promise to leave the E.U. by Halloween, “do or die.”

The prime minister would need the support of two-thirds of Parliament to schedule an election, which could happen as soon as Oct. 14. It would be Britain’s third general election in five years.

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party was prepared to fight an election, but he first wanted Parliament to pass the delay bill and ensure that Britain won’t abruptly crash out of the E.U. in October without a deal to manage the withdrawal.

“Tonight we defeated Boris Johnson in his first Commons test and tomorrow we will legislate against his disastrous No Deal plans,” Corbyn tweeted.

Analysts say a “no-deal” Brexit could be economically damaging and lead to food and medicine shortages in Britain. Johnson has dismissed those predictions as fearmongering.

Johnson lost Tuesday’s procedural vote, 328 to 301. That capped a humiliating day for the prime minister, who was appearing before Parliament for only the second time since taking Britain’s top job. He was heckled mercilessly as he defended his hard-line Brexit stand.

He noted that Tuesday was the 80th anniversary of Britain’s entrance into World War II and said, “This country still stands then as now for democracy, for the rule of law.” He was met with jeers.

He insisted that Britain was making progress in talks with E.U. leaders about an orderly Brexit, which drew more mocking laughter.

As Johnson spoke, Conservative lawmaker Phillip Lee dramatically crossed the chamber to defect to the Liberal Democrats, explaining in a statement that Johnson’s party had become “infected with the twin diseases of populism and English nationalism.”

Lee’s theatrical move stripped Johnson of his single-vote working majority in the House of Commons, making it all but impossible for him to enact legislation and increasing his incentive to ask the nation’s voters for a mandate.

Johnson’s ideal outcome at this point would be to keep the October 31st deadline, and the threat of a hard Brexit, in place and call elections that would take place roughly two weeks before the deadline. As things stand, though, it seems difficult to see how he’s going to be able to pull that off. Under the terms of 2011’s Fixed Terms Parliament Act, though, a snap election can only be called if the sitting government gets the consent of two-thirds of the House of Commons. This, of course, would require not just that Johnson’s Tories support the deal, but that he get sufficient support for the call from the Liberal Democrats and/or other parties, including Labour, the Scottish National Party, and the Northern Ireland parties. Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader, has made it clear that his party will not support an early elections bill without passage of superseding legislation that would prevent a no-deal Brexit at the end of October and which would seek another extension of time from the European Union, preferably to the end of January.

What all of this means, of course, is that Johnson is basically at the mercy of a Parliament that he cannot control. In the end, he has nobody to blame for this but himself. His insistence on a hard Brexit is apparently widely unpopular even among members of his own party and his effort to suspend Parliament to prevent a democratic debate on an issue that will impact the United Kingdom for years to come is even more unpopular. That’s the reason he finds himself in the position he’s in, why he’s likely to lose this standoff, and why he may not be Prime Minister for nearly as long as he thought he would be when this all started.

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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. An Interested Party says:

    His insistence on a hard Brexit is apparently widely unpopular even among members of his own party and his effort to suspend Parliament to prevent a democratic debate on an issue that will impact the United Kingdom for years to come is even more unpopular.

    Wow…a political party actually standing up to the idiotic polices of its leader…quite the foreign concept here…well, with the GOP anyway…

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    That’s the reason he finds himself in the position he’s in, why he’s likely to lose this standoff, and why he may not be Prime Minister for nearly as long as he thought he would be when this all started.

    I don’t think he ever intended to be PM for any longer than it took to ram thru a no-deal Brexit and now he can’t even do that.

    From John Crace:

    “Pifflepafflewifflewaffle,” yelled Johnson, after the defeat had been declared by Obi Wan Bercow, the Rebel Alliance’s Jedi knight. His mouth opened and closed but only empty words emerged. The merest hint of bravado for a deal that didn’t exist. Scraps for his crestfallen troops, many of whom looked shell-shocked. History first as tragedy, then as hubris.

    He pleaded for the election he said he didn’t want, but none of the opposition leaders obliged. Thanks, but no thanks. The prime minister could go whistle. If it was all the same to Boris, they’d wait until Her Maj had signed off the bill before going to the polls. His reputation for dishonesty preceded him. Dom and Dommer, his trusted guru had outthought himself at every turn. Classic Dom. Or was that Classic Classic Dom? Who was now currently on the loose somewhere in Westminster, yelling at his shadow

    This was just the final humiliation in a day full of them. There are shitshows and there are shitshows. But the afternoon’s was something else. If there have been worse performances from a prime minister at the dispatch box in the last five years, no one could remember them. Much more of this and letters will be piling up in the 1922 Committee demanding the return of Theresa May. This was the day Boris Johnson was stripped bare. Exposed as the Great Pretender. A mere carapace of vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’other.

    I’m not sure there is anything quite as sharp as a British tongue, or in this case, keyboard.

  3. Jen says:

    I’m sort of fascinated by the level of confidence Johnson has that the threat of a no-deal Brexit is the most effective bargaining chip with the EU. I just don’t see it that way–the EU would be hurt by a no-deal Brexit, yes, but not as badly as the UK. It makes more sense for the EU to maintain their position.

    Similar to Trump and some of the mistakes he’s made with the trade war with China, it seems a fair amount of problems are created when leaders think they have more leverage than they actually do. Similar to Trump, Johnson’s dishonesty is a core part of his problem now: no one trusts him to do the right thing, nor do they trust anything he says.

    @OzarkHillbilly: I know many Brits who are sharp of wit. That is good writing.

  4. Kathy says:

    Essentially what they needed was for everything to go right for them and everything to go wrong for Prime Minister Johnson.

    The opposition did its part, and Boris did his! 😀

    This episode tells me MIB 3 is not as popular or well-known to be a part of the public’s consciousness, else wed be seeing “It’s Just BORIS!” memes already.

    Seriously now, King Boris’ claims that he needs no-deal as leverage would ring true, rather than hollow, if he had not made sure parliament was shut out, if he had a working plan for a deal, if he had any kind of deal in mind, and if he weren’t so obviously running down the clock.

    Considering the UK changed governments just a few months before the deadline, it would have been reasonable for Boris to tell the EU, “Please, guys. I just took over, and while I’m acquainted with May’s deal, I need time to look up and consider all other proposals that have already been tried. This is a BIG decision for my country and all of yours. Even though we’ve been at it for three years now, we can’t hurry things long now just because everyone wants it over with. Not when the long term well-being of our continent depends on what we do here. We must extend the deadline to at least January 2020, maybe even further.”

    That’s what he’d do if he wanted to make a fair deal, or any kind of deal.

    Instead he did what he’d do if he wanted no deal, while he also wanted to blame the EU for it.

  5. sam says:

    BoJo — Donald Trump with worse hair and better diction.

  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Has any of the current drama markedly changed the situation on the ground involving the problem of no exit plan (or referendum repeal plan for that matter) being able to achieve a majority in Parliament? I didn’t think so.

    Kicking the can 90 days further down the road doesn’t change anything. Sadly, the EU realizes that even though Parliament doesn’t.

  7. Joe says:

    I agree with you, Kathy. If BoJo really needed no-deal as leverage, he has done an impossibly bad job at communicating his strategy, which appears everywhere as just hold our breath and crash through it.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: MIB3 was IMHO pretty good. I guess it did pretty good at the box office, but deserved to do better. My understanding is that if you have Avatar you don’t need to spend money on ads. If you have an OK movie you advertise heavily. If you have a loser you let it sink without spending good money after bad on ads. I don’t understand the little dribble of ads they did for MIB3, and without mentioning Liam Neeson was in it.

  9. Kathy says:


    I don’t want to go off topic. I’ll just say I missed it in theaters, but then caught it on Netflix. My first reaction was “Please, don’t make more MIB movies!” But on repeated half-viewings (I keep the TV on for background noise sometimes, half-paying attention to it) on cable, it grew on me.

    Then I went and missed the MIB International in theaters due to having too much work…

  10. wr says:

    Here’s what I don’t get — Johnson knows what’s going to happen if the UK crashes out. He’s not stupid like Trump. He can read the government reports and see that they’re probably right. So he knows there are going to be massive disruptions — and he’s assuring the public there won’t be.

    What’s he going to do when it all goes pear-shaped?

    I suppose he’ll trot out the standard stiff-upper-lip-keep-calm-and-carry-on, but that worked in WW2 because Churchill didn’t bypass parliament to invade a peaceful Germany — they were forced into that war.

    I realize there are some US farmers out there who are still saying that they need to stick with Trump’s tarriffs a little longer and then he’ll be proven right, even if they lose their farms. But that’s his natural constituency. Johnson was “elected” by a handful of old, white guys, and there’s no one else who gives a damn about him.

    So unless he’s expecting to be handed several hundred millions in cash on the day of the crash-out, what’s his endgame here?

  11. Jen says:

    @wr: This is exactly why I think that he’s just misread the tea leaves on how strong his bargaining position is. I DO think he realizes how awful it will be and that’s what makes him think “the EU can’t possibly let that happen! This means I have the stronger bargaining point!”

    I just think he’s wrong in that assessment. Most of his blustering over the last 24 hours has been about how these moves have wrecked his chances of winning concessions from the EU…and I’m left wondering, “wait, is he really that convinced he had the upper hand here? REALLY?” It appears to be so.

  12. Moosebreath says:


    “the EU can’t possibly let that happen! This means I have the stronger bargaining point!”

    If Johnson thought that, he really is not too bright. The EU’s incentives are to not give concessions, and to make sure that dropping out is painful for the country doing so. Otherwise, more countries will threaten to drop out to wring concessions out of the EU.

  13. Kathy says:

    Screwing over your people may not seem like a sound electoral strategy, but it might be a case of either: 1) creating an external enemy in the form of the EU, or 2) the notion that a no deal Brexit can’t possibly be as bad as the predictions indicate.

    The second point may have some merit. worst case scenarios usually don’t take place, and that’s what most people will focus on. On the other hand, such massive events tend to be both better and worse than expected, depending on the area you’re looking at.

    For instance, there likely won’t be famine int he UK. But food prices will very likely rise. And almost certainly there’ll be a recession caused by the no deal exit. Also Scotland probably won’t secede, but the troubles may get started again in Ireland. And none of these things has to happen right away. Chances are the first day post-no-deal will look very much like the previous day for most people. It’s not an erupting volcano or an earthquake, after all, but a man-made disaster.

  14. JohnSF says:

    And Commons has jus passed the “delay” bill first stage vote 329-300.
    Extra vote from Caroline Spelman who has joined the rebellion.


    The Brexit extremists may yet win, but at least the forces of reason in Parliament have shown they won’t go down without a fight.
    Principled Conservatism isn’t quite dead yet in Britain.
    The honour roll of Conservative rebel MPs (so far):
    Sarah Wollaston
    Heidi Allen
    Anna Soubry,
    Phillip Lee
    Guto Bebb
    Richard Benyon
    Steve Brine
    Alistair Burt
    Greg Clark
    Kenneth Clarke
    David Gauke
    Justine Greening
    Dominic Grieve
    Sam Gyimah
    Philip Hammond
    Stephen Hammond.
    Richard Harrington
    Margot James
    Sir Oliver Letwin
    Anne Milton
    Caroline Noakes
    Antoinette Sandbach
    Sir Nicholas Soames
    Rory Stewart
    Ed Vaizey
    Caroline Spelman

    Those names probably only merit a “huh?” from most outsiders, but they include some of the most respected Conservative MPs of recent years.

  15. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Some of my hardline Brexiteer friends are livid. They’re almost to the point of demanding treason trials for any defections from BJ’s coalition in Parliament.

  16. JohnSF says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Oh, come on, don’t harsh my mellow… 🙂

    Actually I think if the Labour leadership is being more realistic, and the hard Brexiteers have been shown to be impotent, and IF (this is the big IF) there is a reality based government via one of several routes, there is a decision space for an agreement with the EU based on EEA/EFTA, then a New Deal/Remain referendum.
    (My own emotional preference is for no compromise “screw referendums; revoke, revoke, and ram it down their throats…”, but I’d let calmer heads lead on this; we’ve got to share the country with the silly buggers at the end of all this.)

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    My personal impression is to go with just ramming revoke down their throats, too, but in the bigger picture analysis, even though Brexit was probably always a stupid idea
    1) I am just another ignint cracker at the end of the day and
    2) it may be unwise to take the advice of sociopaths such as myself on matters of state.

  18. JohnSF says:

    IMHO the negotiating strategy isn’t primarily Johnson’s, it’s originating with Wiley E. Cummings (sooper genius).
    And the primary audience isn’t the EU, it’s the gullible Con/BP brexity base.
    Who tend believe several mutually contradictory things at once about it.

    The electoral strategy is pre-Brexit sell willingness to No Deal to the true believers, sell readiness to talk to the undecided. Post-Brexit, depending on if a “lipsticked” deal or No Deal, hope to kill Brexit as an issue on one side or the other and win through on distrust of Corbyn.

    Thing is, this Cummings “strategy of ambiguity” tends to collapse when closely observed under sufficient pressure; in any scenario Johnson must ultimately CHOOSE; go for the No Deal true believers and loose the compromisers or vice versa.
    Either BP will eat the Tory lunch or the LibDems will; and either way Conservatives can probably kiss goodbye to most of their seats in Scotland, and several rebel seats as well.
    Unless they can break through in Labour Leave seats they have little hope of a majority.

  19. Barry says:

    @wr: “Here’s what I don’t get — Johnson knows what’s going to happen if the UK crashes out. He’s not stupid like Trump. He can read the government reports and see that they’re probably right. So he knows there are going to be massive disruptions — and he’s assuring the public there won’t be.

    What’s he going to do when it all goes pear-shaped?”

    Declare martial law and rule as a one-party state.
    Assume that the Tory MP’s will support him, because they wouldn’t dare risk an election.

    Remember that some people see food riots as an opportunity.

  20. Jen says:

    And our VP, Mike Dense, is over there making it clear that the US sides with BoJo on the Oct. 31 deadline and the Irish are rightly annoyed.

  21. Stormy Dragon says:


    Speaking of the Irish, since the Torys no longer have a majority anyways, they no longer need to worry about losing the support of the DUP, which leaves BoJo free to resolve the backstop issue by agreeing to a hard border between NI and Great Britain

  22. JohnSF says:

    If the British Establishment have any remaining “back channels” to this Administration, I suspect a message like this may be on it’s way to Washington:
    “Dear Mr Vice President
    For our sake in this time of political and diplomatic angst, and for your sakes, in regard to future relations with Ireland, the European Union and a post Brexit crisis UK, can we humbly suggest you stop listening to the ERG, the Tufton Street mob, assorted friends of the Mercers and Mr Bannon, and most especially to Mr Farage, and refrain from jamming your dangly bits into this particular mincing machine.
    Yours, ever,
    the Brits”

  23. Jen says:

    @JohnSF: I don’t think there’s much more I could wish for, that would be…amazing.

  24. JohnSF says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    The DUP are no longer really a factor.
    Govt. could (and IMHO would) betray them.

    But that would cause uproar in Con/ERG/BP/UKIP opinion that Johnson/Cummings need onside until they can be rendered less powerful via a No Deal exit or a “lipsticked pig” Deal.

    For the second, reverting to an NI-only backstop would be an obvious tactic, but would need to be done last moment before No Deal to pressurise both anti-No Deal opponents and “just let’s get out” Brexiteers to support.

    But having solidified and motivated opposition with the oh-so-bloody-clever prorogation tactic, Parliament is now removing the time and positioning required for this sort of pressure play to work.

    Check. And possibly stalemate.

    Latest update: government attempt to call a general election for (nominally) October 15 fails in the House.

    The irony of all this: Johnson never was a Brexit “true believer” in the first place.
    It’s always just been a vehicle for his ambition.
    I’m fairly sure had he been confident of succeeding Cameron as a Remainer, he would have been the most Remainy Remainer of them all.

  25. An Interested Party says:

    Those names probably only merit a “huh?” from most outsiders, but they include some of the most respected Conservative MPs of recent years.

    If only the most respected (Good grief, who are they!?!) Republican politicians would stand up to Boris’s equally ridiculous buddy on this side of the Atlantic…

  26. JohnSF says:

    Another update:
    An indication how deep discontent goes in the Conservative Parliamentary Party; Sir Richard Gale, MP and Privy Counsellor and not even among the rebels (yet) on Dominic Cummings:

    ‘To have an unelected, foul-mouth oaf at the heart of Downing Street is dangerous’
    Cummings is ‘in danger of tearing the party apart’ and should be ‘frogmarched out of Downing Street’

    Come on Sir Roger, tell us what you really think…

    Just one big happy family.

  27. JohnSF says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    OTOH I could always be wrong (yet again):
    Sebastian Payne reports:

    In the 1922 meeting, Johnson also hinted at the prospect of a paired-down backstop for Northern Ireland by quoting the late Ian Paisley: “Our people may be British but our cows are Irish”

    The PM referenced agri-food regime covering the whole island of Ireland in the Commons yday

    Testing water for the shift?

  28. JohnSF says:

    Think Crace was brutal?
    Rafael Behr is the ice cold assassin:

    Brexit is not the first thing Boris Johnson has found difficult, but it might be the first difficult thing he cannot simply abandon.

    (Note for the less concerned: Johnson has, let us say, an interesting history regarding relationships and their consequences…)

    Also :

    In short: there is no cliff, and even if there was one, the way to avoid it is by driving towards the edge at full speed with no brakes.

    A man who spent years in estrangement from the truth is unlikely to seek its company now.

  29. An Interested Party says:

    @JohnSF: American politicians could learn quite a bit from their British cousins…

  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JohnSF: I very much enjoy his every utterance.

  31. Kathy says:


    I’ve given the matter more thought, and the picture just doesn’t make sense.

    Negotiations are somewhat like poker. In the latter, you don’t say “I’m bluffing” when you bluff(*). Rather you claim you can win the pot, and dare the other players to call or fold. Likewise you don’t say “I’m using no deal as leverage,” if you are indeed using no deal as leverage. it gives the game away.

    What you do is claim you’ll take no deal over their offer if you can’t have the deal you want, and convince them you are serious about it. you do this by making no deal preparations, which Boris has made, preparing the people at home for no deal, etc. You don’t do it by removing all obstacles to no deal, like proroguing Parliament, and then claiming you’ll get the bestest deal ever.

    (*) If you let people believe you’re bluffing when you have a great hand, that’s not bluffing.