LONDON – Boris Johnson hurtled to the top of British politics with an air of charm and disarrayed befuddlement. He slipped into Latin and Greek, changed sides when it suited his ambitions and oozed a mischievous bravado, as when he put his foot on a table at the French president’s palace last week.
But Johnson’s decision on Wednesday to cut short a session of Parliament revealed another side: the ruthless tactician who took office as prime minister this summer. With Brexit hanging in the balance, Johnson marshaled all the power of Downing Street to cut out the legs of a wobbly opposition, risking a constitutional crisis to get what he has promised.
Suddenly the man affectionately known as “BoJo” was being rebranded by some opponents a “tin-pot dictator.” And President Donald Trump, known for his own norm-smashing maneuvers, applauded Johnson, calling him on Twitter “exactly what the U.K. has been looking for.”
Johnson’s opponents argue that his policies could result in a disastrous no-deal Brexit with the potential to tear apart the United Kingdom, cripple British agriculture and some manufacturing sectors and throw the economy into a recession, while producing shortages of food and medicines.
With his boldest move yet as prime minister, Johnson showed that he would be as pugnacious in Downing Street as critics said his predecessor, Theresa May, was timid — and a radically different politician than he was as London’s mayor.
“It’s much more thought-through, more organized, in many ways more aggressive than the Boris Johnson people thought they knew,” said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.
With his “rabbit-out-of-a-hat decision” to suspend Parliament, Johnson knocked his opponents back on their heels and “conveyed the sense of a government that’s in control,” Travers said.
By limiting the time available to Parliament to block a no-deal Brexit, Johnson sought to undermine an opposition strategy announced on Tuesday, analysts said.
After weeks of arguing about who should take charge should they defeat Johnson, opposition lawmakers had changed their tune. They said they would shelve the idea of trying to throw Johnson out of office and instead proceed more deliberately, focusing on passing legislation that would stop a no-deal Brexit.
For a fractured opposition, it was a painfully considered strategy to band together and confront Johnson on their own schedule. It was also an admission that they did not yet have the numbers to replace Johnson with a caretaker prime minister, in large part because the opposition is divided over whether Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing, euroskeptic Labour Party leader, is a suitable replacement.
But Johnson had other ideas.
By cutting short the session of Parliament, he blew a hole in the opposition’s plan to take matters slowly and avert a decision about whether to try unseating him. In effect, analysts said, he called their bluff, giving anti-Brexit lawmakers only a matter of days to decide whether they felt strongly enough about stopping Brexit to kick him out of office.
They are “throwing down the gauntlet to Corbyn and others to call a confidence vote next week,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent. “Johnson and his team are ruthlessly exploiting the divisions on the Remain side.”
Where May paid heed to conventions and shrunk from major showdowns, Johnson fulfilled the hopes of hard-line Brexit backers by inching Britain closer to a constitutional crisis.
While Johnson sharply curtailed Parliament’s time to debate Brexit, he has not stopped the body from sitting altogether. Lawmakers will return from summer recess next week, and analysts believe there is still time for opposition leaders to stick to their plan and pass a law blocking a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson may also have galvanized members of his own Conservative Party who oppose a no-deal Brexit but were so far unprepared to try to throw out Johnson’s government. One Conservative lawmaker, Dominic Grieve, said the move made a no-confidence vote more likely, calling Johnson’s actions “an attempt to govern without Parliament.”