Defeated Johnson loses his authority and credibility
If there is any silver lining to the otherwise very cloudy atmosphere in Westminster Village today, it is that MPs reasserted themselves on Wednesday night in the face of the undemocratic attempt by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to marginalize them in the weeks leading up to the Brexit deadline at the end of October.
Johnson’s decision last week to prorogue Parliament until mid-October — effectively sidelining the democratically elected body from having any meaningful impact on if and how the UK leaves the EU on Oct. 31 — adds to the sense that, for this government, adhering to democracy is just an option when it might be convenient. Moreover, in one act by a novice prime minister, he has exposed his inexperience, incompetence, hypocrisy and detachment from reality. Now, with Parliament taking control of Brexit and blocking both a no-deal exit and a fresh election, the two options the prime minister favors, Johnson is left in a bind, for which he has only himself to blame.
In a matter of a few days, the word prorogation, which was previously confined to constitutional lawyers and the corridors of Westminster, became one of the top trending terms on social media and was dropped into almost any conversation up and down the British isles, almost as frequently as Brits talk about the weather. In one simple act, which entails the temporary suspension of Parliament until a new session starts, Johnson took the route of a mad dictator. By suspending the elected body’s sovereignty, which is a principle of the UK constitution and grants Parliament the powers to enact or terminate any law and scrutinize government activities, he entrusted all this power to his and his government’s own hands. Not surprisingly then, more than 20 of his own MPs rebelled and joined the opposition in their effort to block a no-deal Brexit.
For him to deny that his action was for the sole purpose of taking complete control of the Brexit process until the Oct. 31 deadline and leaving with or without a deal is a blunt lie that disrespects the British people. It adds the insult of lying about the real reason for wanting to paralyze Parliament at one of the most crucial moments in the nation’s recent history to the injury inflicted on the very essence of parliamentary democracy.
In the five long weeks that Parliament is going to be completely shut down, with legislation suspended and the executive free of parliamentary scrutiny, Johnson intended to lead the country out of Europe, either with an agreement or, most likely, without one.
The outrage in response to the decision to prorogue Parliament was unprecedented in its force and crossed party lines. There was almost a competition for who could use the strongest superlatives in expressing their justified anger at the disregard shown by a government for the country’s democratic processes. Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow described Johnson’s decision as a “constitutional outrage.” Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, condemned it as “reckless,” while the former Conservative Chancellor Philip Hammond tweeted: “It would be a constitutional outrage if Parliament were prevented from holding the government to account at a time of national crisis. Profoundly undemocratic.”
In Johnson’s world, arguments are matters of personal and political convenience. Hence, he thinks that he can fool the entire country, and Europe, into believing his claim that he has suspended Parliament in order to advance other issues of importance on the government’s agenda, and that this act of sabotaging the democratic process is to conceal from the other 27 EU member states that there is disunity in the political system and throughout the nation over Brexit. By his absurd logic, he claims this will enhance his bargaining power with Brussels for a better deal as he threatens its negotiators with a no-deal exit. Does he genuinely believe this?
The outrage in response to the decision to prorogue Parliament was unprecedented in its force and crossed party lines.
It is hard to tell what is worse: That he himself gives any credence to such an utterly implausible argument or that he believes anyone within the British or European political systems would fall for it. Suspending Parliament will not encourage the EU to make more concessions, and it is most definitely not a sign of either strength or unity. It sends a message to Europe that the UK, chiefly its government and prime minister, has lost its way. The EU’s representatives might now wonder if it is not in their interest to let Britain inflict on itself the ultimate damage of leaving without a deal, and wait for it to come back later cap in hand, begging for further negotiations on relations with Europe from a position of weakness.
Instead of attempting, as a new prime minister, to reach some consensus in Parliament, Johnson is playing havoc with the democratic foundations of this country. His actions might be technically legal, but they lack any popular legitimacy and betray the spirit of constitutional arrangements. In the process, Johnson has demonstrated great carelessness in embarrassing the monarch, putting her in an almost impossible situation whereby she had to approve the suspension of Parliament. In this, he embroiled her in his partisan march of folly toward a no-deal exit from Europe, compromising the Queen’s role as a unifying force in British society who is above party politics.
If this political maneuver smacked of desperation, Johnson’s threat to deselect rebel MPs from his own party if they joined forces with Labour in bringing a bill designed to stop the UK leaving the EU on Oct. 31 without an agreement was the epitome of desperation combined with foolishness. He was defied by 21 of his own MPs, who proved themselves ready to adhere to their principles despite the threat of deselection. Johnson’s actions have ripped the Tory party apart, and it is especially counterproductive while he is planning fresh elections. This means going into a campaign with a deeply divided party, while forcing out some of its most prominent figures.
Following this week’s votes in Parliament — which look set to stop the government from executing its promise to leave Europe, come what may, at the end of October, and denied it from going to the polls — Johnson has already lost any authority or credibility and he might even end up as the shortest-serving prime minister in the country’s history.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg