Before Tuesday, it was unlikely that too many people outside his constituency of Bracknell in Berkshire, England, would have heard of Member of Parliament (MP) Phillip Lee.
But, on yet another day of high Parliament drama over the seemingly-endless saga of Brexit, the Conservative (Tory) MP thrust himself into the spotlight by publicly defecting to the opposition, figuratively and quite literally joining the Liberal Democrats seated in the chamber. In doing so, Lee left the government of Boris Johnson without a working majority, thereby severely damaging his attempts to pass through his preferred form of Brexit.
“The Conservative government is aggressively pursuing a damaging Brexit in unprincipled ways. It is putting lives and livelihoods at risk unnecessarily and it is wantonly endangering the integrity of the United Kingdom,” Lee said in a statement. “It is using political manipulation, bullying, and lies. And it is doing these things in a deliberate and considered way.”
In a later interview, Lee revealed that he decided to defect after he listened to a radio discussion on LBC between a doctor and arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg. Rees-Mogg, a Conservative MP, said that the doctor’s concern that some patients could die due to medicine shortages after a potential no-deal Brexit was “deeply irresponsible” and accused him of trying to “spread fear across the country.”
Rees-Mogg, for his part, woke up on Wednesday to discover that he’d become a global meme, as an image emerged of him slouched on the benches inside the House of Commons looking like a Victorian aristocrat in an opium den.
Lee’s defection, and his very public snipe at Rees-Mogg, highlights the Conservative Party’s civil war at the heart of the torturous, never-ending Brexit debate.
The Tories have always been deeply fractured as to whether Britain would be better off in or outside the European Union. Former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, for instance, called the Brexit referendum in 2016 in an attempt to unite his party’s warring factions. Theresa May, the prime minister who preceded Johnson and who spent much of her tenure glumly trying to get Parliament to agree on a Brexit deal, also supported Cameron’s line that Britain would be better off in the E.U.
But, like a bunch of dithering college undergrads confronted with a term paper, the looming October 31st deadline for crashing out of the E.U. has led to a last-minute scramble among both pro- and anti-Brexit factions within the Conservative Party to get what they want. Last week, Johnson suspended Parliament for five weeks in an attempt to reduce the amount of time MPs had to block a no-deal scenario.
On Tuesday night, Johnson doubled down again by expelling 21 MPs from the Conservative Party, all of whom had adamantly refused to allow Johnson to leave the E.U. without a deal. In a sign of just how bitter the civil war has become, the expulsion included Phillip Hammond, former Chancellor of the Exchequer under Theresa May (the second-most important position in the British government) and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill.
But on Wednesday the rebels struck back, inflicting a humiliating 328 to 301 defeat where a cross-party section of lawmakers voted to control the Parliamentary agenda, meaning they can move forward with a plan to prevent a no-deal Brexit. A second reading of the bill on Wednesday passed by 329 votes to 300.
Johnson has vehemently opposed such a move, arguing that it gives the E.U. more negotiating power. In response, Johnson said that he’d have no choice but to call an early general election.
This may sound good from an outside perspective, but there is absolutely no guarantee that an election would bring about the defeat of Johnson and the stopping of Brexit. As ThinkProgress has previously pointed out, Johnson could use the election to essentially re-litigate the 2016 referendum, painting himself as the only politician who can deliver the supposed “will of the people.”
Bearing in mind the divisions in the Labour Party over Brexit, and the rise of the Brexit Party, it is entirely possible that Brexiteers rally around Johnson and deliver him a general election victory, which would, in turn, allow him to potentially push through a no-deal Brexit, as well as give him another four years of governing.
To make matters even more complicated, there’s no guarantee that Parliament will vote to authorize a general election. Johnson needs the support of two thirds of Parliament to allow a general election to take place, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has made it clear that he will only allow a general election if the rebels are allowed to enact their law guarding against no-deal.
As ever with Brexit, no one has a clear idea of precisely what will happen next. The only thing for certain is that the Houses of Parliament are likely to see unprecedented levels of drama over the next two weeks.