Testing times for UK democracy

The next two months will test British democracy to the limits, and possibly beyond to the point of shattering it for a long time to come, writes Rod Oram.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unleashed a deep crisis by asking the Queen to suspend Parliament from early September until October 14, the longest such proroguing since 1945.

By halting Parliament, Johnson aims to thwart the clear majority of MPs who are opposed to his promise of a no deal Brexit on October 31 if the EU fails before then to improve the proposals it had offered his predecessor Theresa May.

On Tuesday opposition forces had said they would seek to pass legislation over the coming weeks to prevent a no deal Brexit. On Wednesday Johnson asked the Queen to suspend Parliament, and she agreed.

Last week Johnson got vague support from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for more negotiations. Proroguing of Parliament will strengthen Johnson’s hand, some Downing Street officials were reported as claiming off the record. It will reduce the opportunity of MPs to prevent a no deal Brexit. This, they argue, will make the EU more willing to offer Johnson concessions because they fear the damage a no exit deal will do to the EU.

But the official line by Johnson is vastly different. He says proroguing is a standard feature of the British system for when, for example, a new leader wants to call a halt to the parliamentary session they inherited, then launch their administration with a speech from the Throne laying out their new agenda. Doing so now has nothing to do with Brexit, he says.

It is true this is one of the longest ever parliamentary sessions, having run more than 340 sitting days; and it has become increasingly dysfunctional and neglectful of other urgent business because it is so enmeshed in the politics of Brexit.

But suspending Parliament cleverly serves Johnson’s Brexit agenda. It plays strongly to his main claim that MPs opposed to Britain leaving the EU are using parliamentary manoeuvrings to “thwart the will of the people”, as expressed by the narrow majority for an exit in the 2016 referendum.

However, that was not a vote for a chaotic exit at any cost, which is the main damage many MPs are trying to prevent. By suspending Parliament, Johnson is halving at least the time MPs have to scrutinise the legislation for the exit, without a deal or with an improved one.

So far Johnson has only faced one day of scrutiny in the House of Commons since he became Prime Minister on July 24 because it immediately went into its summer recess. When it resumes on Tuesday it will sit only until September 12 at the latest (with a pause for party annual conferences along the way) before it is suspended until October 14 when the Queen reads the government’s speech from the Throne.

Meg Russell, a senior fellow of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative and the director of the constitution unit at University College of London, said: “What he’s doing, frankly, is hiding from parliamentary scrutiny: denying MPs the opportunity to question him and to hold him to account, and potentially denying them the opportunity to express no confidence in him.”

She continued: “He’s daring MPs to vote him out of office. If our constitution has one overriding principle, it’s parliamentary sovereignty: the government only is the government because it has the support of Parliament.”

"This country that self-identified so smugly as stable, tolerant and moderate, with a crown to symbolise traditions honed down the centuries, is revealed as fissile, fragile and ferociously divided."

Thus, this coming week is crucial both for Johnson and those opposing him. The time is probably far too short to get a bill through Parliament, against the will of Johnson and his government, to ask the EU to extend the October 31 deadline.

Therefore, the only way to halt Johnson is to win a vote of non-confidence in him and his government. While such a victory would require only half a dozen or so Tory MPs to vote against their government, that seems far too drastic a step for enough of them to take because it would likely lead to a short-term caretaker government led by Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

If Johnson survives the coming few weeks, the next crucial deadline is a planned meeting with EU leaders October 17-18 in Brussels. With or without a new deal, Johnson is promising MPs only two days of debate, October 21 and 22, on the UK’s Brexit strategy. Theoretically, MPs could then have another attempt at a no confidence vote or revamping the original Theresa May deal. But again the politics of either tactic are intense and the outcome highly uncertain.

If Johnson did face another no-confidence vote but lost, it would be up to him to decide when an election would be held. It is within his powers to set the date after the UK exits the EU on October 31. Downing St is said to favour November 7 for what it terms a “people versus parliament” election.

No doubt Johnson would run on having fulfilled his promise to lead the UK out of the EU. Judging by the vox pop on British television and radio after he announced the proroguing of Parliament on Wednesday, he is a hero to those voters who are fed up with politicians for the manoeuvring and deadlock over Brexit for the past three years. They are blaming Parliament for this mess and care little about the crucial issues of democracy and parliamentary process and practice.

But, as with President Trump and his dedicated base, such loyal voters are insufficient to win a mandate. Johnson would have to appeal to a broader range of the public to remain Prime Minister. The significant economic disruption caused by an EU exit on October 31 with or without a deal would only make the task harder for Johnson.

Between now and early November, the chances are high of Britain’s political and constitutional crisis becoming extreme. As Polly Toynbee, a Guardian columnist, wrote the day after Johnson’s prorogation announcement:

“This country that self-identified so smugly as stable, tolerant and moderate, with a crown to symbolise traditions honed down the centuries, is revealed as fissile, fragile and ferociously divided. A constitution that relied on gentlemanly governments’ willingness to bow to Parliament has evaporated, blown away now it’s led by a man who doesn’t give a damn for parliamentary sovereignty: taking back control is for him alone. He is ready to destroy anything that threatens his ambition.”

While newspapers on the right, notably The Times and The Sun (owned by Rupert Murdoch) and The Telegraph and Daily Mail, support Johnson’s strategy in their coverage, The Financial Times’ editorial robustly denounced it:

“Boris Johnson has detonated a bomb under the constitutional apparatus of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister’s request to the Queen to suspend Parliament for up to five weeks, ostensibly to prepare a new legislative programme, is without modern precedent. It is an intolerable attempt to silence Parliament until it can no longer halt a disastrous crash-out by the UK from the EU on October 31. The seat of British democracy, long admired worldwide, is being denied a say on the most consequential decision facing the country in more than four decades. So, too, are the British people — in whose name Mr Johnson claims to be acting. It is time for parliamentarians to bring down his government in a no-confidence vote, paving the way for an election in which the people can express their will.

He and the cabal around him who have chosen this revolutionary path should be careful what they wish for.”

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