Britain’s Parliament was formally dissolved [this week] to make way for next month’s general election. Though the election campaign has only just begun, dozens of lawmakers—including recent government ministers, veteran parliamentarians, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own brother—have already said they won’t run again.
The exodus of more than 70 MPs (and counting) is not just a simple case of political turnover. Many of the lawmakers who have opted to sit out this election are considered to be the more moderate members of the House of Commons, particularly when it comes to their positions on Brexit. Though they have all cited their own reasons for stepping down—from family obligations to the “nastiness” of the current political discourse—the underlying cause is clear: Parliament, much like the rest of the country, remains bitterly divided over Britain’s bid to leave the European Union, and the center ground is dwindling between those who wish to see Brexit happen by any means necessary and those who want to stop it altogether.
Rory Stewart believes he can change that. Last month, the erstwhile Conservative lawmaker and prime-ministerial hopeful announced his independent bid to be the next mayor of London so that he can challenge the “extremism” that has taken over British politics.
It’s not an area Stewart is unfamiliar with. After all, he has spent most of his life in the service of the British government: first as a diplomat (and allegedly a spy), then as a deputy governor in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, followed by nearly a decade in the House of Commons. But after failing to secure the Conservative Party leadership in June, Stewart now believes that the best place to address the problems plaguing Westminster isn’t from within, but outside it.
[Read: London’s mayoralty: Britain’s last political refuge?]
It’s a tall order for any mayoral candidate—not least because the role doesn’t actually afford too many powers. Still, Stewart, who ranks third behind the Labour incumbent and Conservative candidate in a recent poll, remains undeterred. In an interview with The Atlantic at a policy conference in London, he shared his thoughts on how he hopes to change politics at the local level, and the potential for a new centrist movement in Britain. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Yasmeen Serhan: You’ve spoken a lot about the hollowing of the center ground in British politics. What do you think is behind it?
Rory Stewart: My theory for why the center ground has collapsed is that people have completely failed to make the business of government interesting … Populist extremes generally have very little to do with governing. It’s to do with radical and often extremely unrealistic fairy stories about your country and its future. But people are attracted to that because the actual business of making a better society [and] real change hasn’t been communicated. Nobody has managed to engage an audience with it, so people revert to fairy stories.
And this goes all the way back to our childhood. When you’re in school and you’re taught about politics, what happens is your teacher puts up an image of Martin Luther King [Jr.] or [Mahatma] Gandhi or [Nelson] Mandela and makes you think that politics is about these kind of grand revolutionary changes. Now, in certain countries at certain moments, if you’re lucky enough to be one of those people, it could be [about] that. But that isn’t generally the business of democratic politics in the developed world. They don’t put up images of George Bush Sr. talking through some transitions in his education policy. That’s just not how people think.
Serhan: In the video announcing your mayoral bid, you talked about the “extremism” that you feel has taken over this country’s politics. How can you tackle this issue from city hall?
Stewart: I want to change the way our democracy works. At the moment, the British system is that you get a vote [for mayor] every four years, and then you have to shut up until four years later. It essentially subcontracts your brain to this person—the mayor—and then four years later you get another say. This is ridiculous. Why would you want to subcontract your brain to me? Aren’t you going to participate with me in governing this city? So I want to steal from Ireland and use these models of citizens’ assemblies to try to actually provide ... an active, engaged citizenship ... I want to move away from the will of the people expressed once every four years toward something more like a jury: a randomly selected group of citizens who speak for the citizens.
Serhan: Sort of like keeping a pulse on the views of the electorate?
Stewart: Yes, but not a snapshot poll—a deliberate exercise where that jury sits for a number of days chewing through an issue, working toward a compromise, working toward consensus.
I mean, the way that abortion was eventually solved in Ireland was not through a referendum saying yes or no, not through a citizens’ assembly asked yes or no, but through citizens’ assemblies spending days going through survivors’ testimony, medical evidence, working together, listening to the same evidence. And at the end of that, something very interesting emerges—not yes or no, but how many weeks? What happens if somebody’s raped? How about mental-health issues? That’s what you need citizens to do, that’s what citizens are never encouraged to do.
[Read: Ireland’s very secular vote on abortion]
Serhan: What sort of issues would you envisage utilizing citizens’ assemblies?
Stewart: I would expect to have certainly something on climate change immediately. That’s very, very important, particularly with [the climate-change protest movement] Extinction Rebellion. Certainly something on transport. I’d like to get them involved much more on the questions around knife crime and our solutions to that.
Serhan: How does this apply to big issues like Brexit? You’re running to be the mayor of a city that voted overwhelmingly against leaving the EU, and you’re competing against candidates who support the government’s deal, a second referendum, and stopping Brexit outright. Where do you see yourself on that spectrum?
Stewart: One of the paradoxes is that I’ve left parliamentary politics and the cabinet to get much more involved in local politics. The other candidates are talking as though they want to be prime minister, not the mayor of London. They’re trying to talk about everything: They’re trying to talk about Donald Trump, they’re trying to talk about Brexit, they’re trying to talk about issues that have nothing to do with running a city. That’s part of my whole problem with modern politics.
Serhan: These are the issues du jour.
Stewart: Look, I have a lot of sympathy: I voted Remain ... but I’m afraid that’s a little bit like my poster of Nelson Mandela. It’s a little bit about moving the conversation off how you run a good city onto virtue signaling, gestural politics, about feeling good about yourself.
The fact is, the referendum happened, people voted to leave, and there’s going to be a general election in several weeks’ time which is going to determine whether or not we’re leaving the European Union. It frankly doesn’t matter what a particular city in this country, even a great city, thinks about that … We can’t be as smug as [to say], “Oh, I’m part of diverse London. I have nothing to do with Britain.” This is where the Supreme Court is, this is where the Houses of Parliament is, this is where the government is, this is where the prime minister is. A lot of the problems in this country are to do with divisive politics and a sense in northern England that there are these kind of snooty people in London who don’t want anything to do with them. So I have to ... make it a capital as well as a great city.
Serhan: Several of your former colleagues—many of whom, like yourself, were kicked out of the Conservative Party for opposing a no-deal Brexit—announced that they won’t be standing at the next election. Are you concerned about the void they’ll be leaving behind?
Stewart: I’m deeply worried. On the one hand, I’m proud that when Boris began to take the Conservative Party to the right and began to push for a no-deal Brexit, we stood up and rebelled. I wish more Republicans did that against President Trump. But, of course, we paid a price because in the British system, unlike the American system, you literally lose your job … Now, we achieved something by rebelling. We blocked a no-deal Brexit. We forced [Johnson], I feel, to go out and get a Brexit deal when I think [Johnson’s senior political adviser] Dominic Cummings would have preferred a no-deal Brexit. So there was something achieved by that. But there was also a risk, which is [in] the Labour Party going to the left, the Conservative Party going to the right—there’s a huge, gaping hole.
[Read: Brexit imperils the world’s oldest political party]
Serhan: Who fills that void?
Stewart: If I’m successful in building a new type of politics, then I’d want that to maybe form a model—potentially in the way [French President Emmanuel] Macron did with En Marche in France—for how you can think about center-ground politics.
Serhan: If your mayoral bid is successful, are you prepared to continue current London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Twitter feud with President Trump?
Stewart: I wish [Trump] would start a Twitter feud with me! Nothing would guarantee my election more.
If you thought a Boris Johnson victory would put an end to Britain’s Brexit crisis, spoiler: It won’t.
The central thrust of Johnson’s election campaign is that, unlike the Labour Party, which wants to hold a second referendum on whether or not the U.K. should leave the EU, he will “get Brexit done” so Britain can move on to its core domestic priorities. Labour’s policy, he charges, will simply prolong the crisis.
For a country yearning for the three-year saga to just be over, it is a potentially appealing pitch. It is also almost entirely misleading.
While Johnson is right to say the U.K. could legally be out of the EU within weeks of an election result that returns a majority Conservative government on December 12, the reality is that this only closes the first chapter in the Brexit drama and opens up the next (and Chapter 2 is already beginning to look a lot like the first).
As soon as Britain leaves the European Union, under the terms of the divorce settlement Johnson negotiated with Brussels, two brand-new deadlines immediately loom into view. First, the U.K. government must decide by July 1 whether or not it wants to extend the so-called transition period, which essentially keeps Britain inside the EU’s economic bloc for a temporary period to avoid a “cliff edge” economic shock while it negotiates a free-trade agreement.
Here, the second deadline emerges: December 31, 2020, when the transition period is due to run out. Most experts and EU officials believe there is next to no chance that the two sides can agree on a free-trade agreement in the 12 months between next month’s U.K. election and this scheduled end of the transition period. It took Canada seven years to agree to its trade agreement with the EU. Even in the United States, which tends to be quicker than the EU at tying up trade deals, agreements take time—Washington’s FTA with Australia took 14 months to negotiate, for instance.
[Read: Boris Johnson thinks he’s in control]
Despite the short window, Johnson has ruled out extending the transition period, claiming 12 months is plenty long enough. Brexiteers argue a U.K.-EU agreement is much simpler because the two start with total alignment of standards and regulations, given Britain’s membership in the EU single market. Yet this fundamentally misses the point: Any future trade deal will be concerned with how far Britain and the EU wish to diverge from each other—and to what extent divergence should reduce each other’s market access. Most trade deals are about bringing two economies closer together, not managing their slow drift apart, and therefore such a negotiation is fraught with political and technical difficulty.
Despite the time constraint, Johnson is under political pressure to rule out extending the transition period. His Conservative Party’s euroskeptic members of Parliament argue that the transition arrangement is a necessary evil, but one that should not drag on, because it amounts to “vassalage”—accepting EU law without voting rights to shape that law.
If no trade deal has been agreed on and ratified by December 31, 2020, Britain may leave the EU’s single market and customs union on simple “World Trade Organization terms”—the loosest, most basic form of trading relationship, stripping the U.K. of any preferential trading relationship.
According to former and current officials who spoke to me and asked for anonymity, it’s now almost inevitable that there will be another Brexit crisis late next year (should Johnson win the election) because of these deadlines.
[Read: This is just the beginning of Brexit]
If Johnson refuses to request an extension by July, foreign-policy and trade experts in Brussels and London who spoke to me said it was all too obvious how the following six months will play out. First, Johnson will attempt to use the threat of “no deal” to pressure the EU to give into his demands for a quick and simple trade deal. However, according to two serving and former diplomats who spoke to me, the EU is likely to respond to such threats by turning the tables on Johnson by using the ticking clock to do the exact opposite—piling pressure on London to sign up to its demands, principal among them the so-called level-playing-field provisions—legal commitments written into most free-trade deals to maintain certain mutually agreed on social, environmental, and economic standards. Supporters of such provisions insist they are necessary to avoid a race to the bottom in rights and standards and protect businesses from unfair competition. Put simply, the EU does not want to see the U.K. suddenly adopt radically lower standards that give its businesses a competitive advantage.
Cue a repeat performance of the past three years of back-and-forth diplomatic wrangling between London and Brussels, in which the EU has held firm to its redlines and the U.K. has eventually accepted them. The one unknown that could change the equation is the makeup of the next U.K. Parliament, which may, should Johnson win a majority, prove far more willing to accept leaving the EU’s economic bloc without any free-trade agreement to fall back on.
[Read: The never-ending Brexit crisis]
However, after Johnson’s sudden pivot to agree to a deal with the EU last month, despite fierce opposition in Northern Ireland, the EU has calculated, according to those who spoke to me, that the prime minister is prepared to turn on his closest political allies as it suits him when significant pressure is applied. The choice for Britain in this scenario, according to one experienced diplomat, will be a “diamond-hard Brexit” set out in a wafer-thin free-trade agreement negotiated hurriedly or an effective “no deal” exit on WTO terms. Both will create significant trading barriers between the U.K. and the EU, which currently do not exist.
Put simply, while Brexiteers believe the threat of “no deal” increases British leverage, the EU calculates that the threat increases its leverage, and is therefore happy to play along. The result: an inevitable crisis. If history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, the tragedy of the past three years of protracted and bitter negotiations is that it was all so predictable. The farce is that it might be about to happen all over again.