Will Boris bet on elections?

After months of machinations by elected leaders and parliamentary strategists, the decisive vote on the future of Brexit may finally fall to the people of the UK.

How did we finally get here? The British parliament has forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask the European Union for a delay in the Brexit deadline from October 31 to January 31. If the EU agrees, a decision that could come later today, Johnson says he'll push for national elections on December 12.


To be clear, national elections are not a second Brexit referendum. But if they're held while the question of Brexit remains undecided, that single issue will surely shape the outcome.

Why would Johnson want a pre-Brexit election? He may calculate that his main rival, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, is a profoundly weak candidate, and that it's best to go to voters before the opposition can replace him with a formidable alternative.

He may also reckon that Labour would enter elections at a big disadvantage since it's more divided over Brexit than other parties. Corbyn would struggle to craft an electoral strategy that unites pro-Brexit Labour voters in the north with pro-Remain Labour voters in London.

Johnson may also believe, not without reason, that an election victory would clear the way for him to finish Brexit on his terms, without more delays from Parliament.

What would Boris have to do to schedule those elections? The simplest way would be for two-thirds of MPs to vote to hold elections. But if the Labour Party won't support that, the Conservatives have a Plan B. If another opposition party that does favor early elections – say, the Scottish National Party – calls for a vote of no confidence in the government, the Conservatives could abstain, allowing the government to fall, precipitating early elections if no other collection of parties can form a government within 14 days.

Who is likely to win the election? For now, the numbers favor Johnson's Conservative Party. An aggregation of four major polls conducted over the past two weeks has the Conservatives at about 37 percent, with Labour at 25 percent, the Liberal Democrats at 18 percent, the Brexit Party at 11 percent, and Greens at 5 percent. Vote percentages don't translate precisely to the number of seats won, but if the results came close to these percentages, Johnson might well claim a mandate to move forward, perhaps in partnership with others, toward a final deal with the EU early next year.

Wouldn't Johnson be taking a huge gamble? Yes, he would. Ask former prime minister Theresa May, who lost the Conservative Party's absolute majority in 2017 by calling elections she mistakenly believed would boost her party's Brexit leverage. No one can be sure how a campaign might play out. Some within his party argue that he should deliver Brexit before going to voters.

Might this election decide the Brexit question? If Johnson's Conservatives were to win a decisive victory, he'd probably have the public mandate he needs to push forward with his current Brexit plan, which would likely become law early next year.

But if voters move toward Labour and the Liberal Democrats in sufficient numbers to push Johnson out of Downing Street, that would likely lead to a considerable delay in negotiations with the EU and a second Brexit referendum in which voters would be presented with new Brexit options to choose from.

There is also the (quite large) risk that the result of the vote is ambiguous. If Conservatives win, but with a reduced majority, the Brexit outlook might well become even more confused, as Johnson's leverage would be weaker.

Yes, you read that right: Brexit could still become even more confusing.

The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace launched in 2018 with the commitment of signatories to stand up to cyber threats like election interference, attacks on critical infrastructure, and supply chain vulnerabilities. Last week, on the first anniversary of the call, the number of signatories has nearly tripled to more than 1,000 and now includes 74 nations; more than 350 international, civil society and public sector organizations; and more than 600 private sector entities. These commitments to the Paris Call from around the world demonstrate a widespread, global, multi-stakeholder consensus about acceptable behavior in cyberspace.

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Forty years ago, Islamic extremists angry at the Saudi government's experiments with social liberalization laid siege to the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

To regain control, the House of Saud had to strike a deal with key conservative clerics whose blessing they needed in order to send troops into the mosque . The monarchy agreed to roll back all liberalization at home, and pledged to actively fund the spread of conservative wahhabi Islamic teachings around the globe.

To understand better how the repercussions of those choices are still with us today, we put some questions to Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and author of the magnificently written 2007 book The Siege of Mecca.

His answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Why is it important to mark the 40th anniversary of the siege?

YT: We are at a historic moment once again in Saudi Arabia, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman openly talking about how he wants to rectify the errors of 1979 and bring the country into a more socially liberal system. And he has done a lot already, allowing women to drive and lifting many other restrictions, allowing pop concerts, cinemas, tourism — all those things that remained banned in Saudi Arabia because of the 1979 deal between the House of Saud and the clerics. We are obviously talking about social as opposed to political liberalization now, as the kingdom's political system remains as oppressive as ever.

How did the event change Saudi Arabia's society?

YT: The 1979 events gave the upper hand to religious conservatives for nearly four decades, freezing the social reforms and keeping the kingdom's population under control of the religious establishment and its Vice and Virtue Police. That had repercussions in every sector, most notably education, which created a new generation steeped in ultra-conservative Islamic values. It is only after the 2001 attacks [of 9/11] that this began to change, with the most dramatic erosion of the clerics' power happening since 2016.

How did the siege affect Riyadh's foreign policy?

YT: The new pact between the clerics and the House of Saud also meant that the Saudi oil money was to be used to spread its ultra-conservative version of Islam around the world, at the expense of more moderate and open interpretations. That changed the discourse in Islamic countries all over, and indirectly fostered the rise of extremism.

The siege came a few months after the Iranian revolution, how did that play into things?

YT: There was a lot of confusion at first, as the US blamed Iran for the Mecca events and Iran blamed the US. But, all in all, the siege taught the Saudi royal family that the best way to confront Iran's aspirations to lead the pan-Islamic revolution was to stoke Sunni sectarianism that dismissed Iranians as not really Muslim because of their Shiite faith.

That became a point of convergence between the supporters of Juhayman [al-Oteibi, leader of the siege], the Saudi clerics, and the Saudi government. And we see the repercussions of that rise of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism across the region today.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he is trying to move Saudi Arabia back onto the pre-1979 course of social liberalization. Is that possible?

YT: Well, empirically it is happening. I refer you to the piece I just wrote from Saudi Arabia for the WSJ. Times are changing and the influence of social media and the internet in general on young Saudis is massive, opening up their minds. Also, hundreds of thousands of young Saudis have traveled to the US to study on King Abdullah scholarships in the past decade, bringing back fresh ideas.

So far the backlash to the changes in the kingdom has been very limited. The question is: is Prince Mohammed dragging a reluctant kingdom into modernity, or was the society changed and reachable all along? We'll see what happens in the coming years.

In many ways the Siege of Mecca is the story of unintended consequences: of leaders tolerating (and even supported) extremists who ended up turning on their masters. Is there a comparable situation today that worries you?

YT: Well, history is full of unintended consequences. Did Putin expect Ukraine to harden as a nation-state and decisively turn toward the West as a result of his [invasion of the country] in 2014? My guess is no: he expected it to crumble.

On the question of jihadists, I think countries have learned since 2001 and since the rise of Islamic State that extremist proxies are dangerous. How long will that lesson hold?

Time will tell.