Argument

King Johnson vs. Parliament

By proroguing Parliament at a crucial moment, Britain’s prime minister is following in the footsteps of King Charles I. The result won’t be as bloody, but it will do violence to the country’s democratic institutions.

A demonstrator, wearing a mask depicting Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, protests outside the gates to Downing Street in central London on Aug. 28.
A demonstrator, wearing a mask depicting Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, protests outside the gates to Downing Street in central London on Aug. 28. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

Niccolò Machiavelli had some advice on dealing with enemies. If you’re going to wound them, make sure they end up dead—or with an injury so great that they can never seek revenge. In dealing with his political enemies, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has failed the Prince’s test.

Johnson’s problem is this: He won the leadership promising to leave the European Union by Oct. 31 “come what may” and while there is a theoretical possibility the EU could offer him a deal he could get through Parliament, the chances of the Irish backstop—to which his coalition partners the Democratic Unionist Party object—being removed from the withdrawal agreement are, as Johnson himself might have put it, less than him being “reincarnated as an olive.” 

Unless he is willing to see around one-third of Conservative Party voters defect to the Brexit Party, he has to be prepared to leave the EU without a deal. (The food shortages and economic disruption that will cause will have a similar effect but would at least allow him to survive as prime minister a bit longer.)

The 2017 election, however, produced a Parliament opposed to leaving without a deal, which, through unconventional legislative maneuvering, passed a law by a single vote in April this year and forced then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s government to seek an extension of the Brexit negotiation period until Oct. 31.

A cross-party majority of members of parliament, including some who are still members of the Conservative Party, have been planning to repeat the maneuver. Over the summer, two trial balloons were floated to stymie this effort: to suspend (“prorogue”) Parliament so it can’t pass any such legislation again or to hold an election, which dissolves Parliament for the campaign period, but to make sure the election date itself occurs after Britain leaves the EU.

Both strategies ran into considerable opposition from MPs, the civil service, and even people who are now ministers in Johnson’s cabinet. Health Secretary Matt Hancock was opposed when running for the party leadership but has since gone silent on the matter. Amber Rudd, now Johnson’s work and pensions secretary was once opposed to prorogation, saying, “I think it’s outrageous to consider proroguing Parliament. We are not Stuart kings”—a reference to the decision of King Charles I of the House of Stuart to prorogue Parliament for over a decade in the mid-17th century, leading to the “eleven years’ tyranny,” civil war, and his eventual execution. 

This prorogation will be shorter. It takes advantage of the fact that Parliament traditionally does not sit during Britain’s autumn party conference season to suspend Parliament between Sept. 12 and Oct. 14, adding about two weeks to the time it doesn’t sit. This deprives opposition lawmakers of valuable time and makes it harder for them to pass a law required to demand an extension.

It may be harder, but it is not impossible. Instead of eliminating their ability to strike at him, Johnson has given the opposition reason to do so, whereas before many of them had been prepared to wait until it was certain that he couldn’t negotiate some kind of modified Brexit deal. Anna Soubry, the former Conservative MP who now chairs the Independent Group for Change in Britain’s House of Commons, told Foreign Policy it has galvanized opposition: “Former members of the Cabinet who are absolutely furious and now see that what many of us have been saying to them which is that these people are ruthless … these people are now saying, ‘My god, you’re right.’” More circumspect pro-Europeans think it has accelerated opposition that would have otherwise happened during special parliamentary sittings convened during the conference season. 

This raises the stakes. If opponents of a no-deal Brexit can neither pass special legislation nor defeat the government in a vote of no confidence, they will run out of options. If, however, they do pass legislation, Johnson might decide to ignore it. They could ask the courts to enforce it, but Britain has not had to enforce judgements against an unwilling prime minister in the past. Normally the prime minister would have resigned in these circumstances. But in this case, his resignation would just cause an election, the date of which he is currently entitled to set at a point after the Brexit deadline.

Johnson’s second mistake was to pretend that this was merely the normal prorogation that happens between parliamentary sessions and allows a government to present a new legislative program, known as a Queen’s Speech, to Parliament. While a new parliamentary session was due—the last session ran for over two years, whereas most sessions last just one—and it is reasonable for a new prime minister to be able to set out the government’s legislative agenda, there is no reason it needs to be done right in the middle of the country’s most serious political crisis in a century.

On BBC Radio the afternoon after the parliamentary suspension had leaked to the press, Johnson argued that it was needed to allow the government to legislate for “infrastructure improvements.” In a country that hasn’t built a new airport runway in London for the entire time it’s been a member of the EU and whose new high-speed railway is over a decade late, this is laughable. As the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, put it bluntly: “However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country.” It simply looks too sneaky. And a snap opinion poll suggests that voters have smelled a rat. The poll from YouGov has only 27 percent supporting Johnson’s gambit, with 47 percent opposed. (The rest don’t know.)

Britons aren’t particularly enamored of their politicians, but they care about their institutions.Parliament is now more likely, not less, to pass legislation thwarting a no-deal exit on Oct. 31, so the government needs to escalate if it is to get out of this mess of its own making. Preparations for a general election, in which the Conservatives have a sizable, but fragile, lead, have hardly been concealed. The slogan, apparently, is to hold a “People versus the Politicians” poll. Leaving aside its abject populism, this ignores the fact that Britons aren’t particularly enamored of their politicians. But, as the spontaneous demonstrations that broke out across the country on Wednesday evening showed, they care about their institutions.  

More than 800 years after King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, establishing that monarchs were not above the law and paving the way for parliamentary democracy, an unelected British prime minister is sidelining elected representatives. By proroguing the legislature, he’s set himself up for a contest better described as King Johnson against Parliament.

That didn’t work out so well for King John, never mind those Stuarts.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.

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