Shutting Down Parliament Is Worse Than a Coup. It’s a Mistake.
If Boris Johnson is hoping to pressure Europe to accept his preferred Brexit outcome, he has badly miscalculated.
Ever since U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to deliver Brexit on Oct. 31 “do or die,” the slogan has threatened to come back to haunt him. That’s perhaps why Johnson—a man who has always put his own advancement above anything else and who became prime minister by making contradictory promises to the different factions within his profoundly divided Conservative Party—is now so intent on bringing the United Kingdom out of the European Union: because he has gambled his political life on it. The rest is details.
Those details are now coming into view. The news on Wednesday that Johnson has requested, and received, permission from the queen to prorogue Parliament from Sept. 12 to Oct. 14—and thus prevent any parliamentary debate or action during that period on Brexit—has provoked outrage in the U.K. and consternation abroad. Johnson has been accused by his opponents, including members of parliament from his own party, of acting in a profoundly undemocratic and unconstitutional manner.
The constitutional implications of prorogation aside, this step will probably be ineffective as far as Brexit is concerned. The prime minister may think that prorogation will help him to pressure both the remaining EU member states and the House of Commons into submission. In this, he is unlikely to succeed.
The situation is complicated, because, technically, Johnson did not break any laws to bring it about. It is standard practice to prorogue Parliament before a Queen’s Speech, which signals the beginning of a new parliamentary session and provides an opportunity for the government of the day to lay out its policies. What are highly questionable in this context are the length of the prorogation period and the circumstances under which Parliament is being suspended. Johnson, an unelected prime minister heading a minority government, has significantly limited the number of days on which the House of Commons can debate, and possibly thwart, his Brexit policy. Since a no-deal Brexit remains the default of the Article 50 process under which the U.K. is leaving the EU, this move severely impairs, but does not fully eliminate, the ability of MPs to prevent such a drastic outcome. Meanwhile, there are press reports that that Downing Street is contemplating further procedural tricks to tie the hands of the opposition.
The decision to prorogue Parliament demonstrates Johnson’s contempt for the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and shows the lengths to which he would go to free his hands from what he considers a meddling opposition, but it is no proof that he prefers a no-deal Brexit—only that he would countenance it. He defends his actions by pointing out that the House of Commons will have what he calls “ample time” in late October to debate the deal he hopes to strike with the remaining EU members at the European Council summit on Oct. 17 and 18. In reality, Johnson’s opponents would be faced with an impossible choice in such a scenario: They could vote against Johnson’s deal and take the responsibility for a no-deal Brexit, or they could vote for the deal to prevent crashing out of the EU, thereby turning Johnson into the hero of the hour who pulled his country back from the brink of economic and political turmoil through his strong leadership. Either way, Brexit would be secured, and Johnson would spin the outcome in his favor.
It is not unconceivable that Johnson genuinely hopes to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement with the rest of the EU and push it through Parliament. His behavior abroad has stood in marked contrast to his actions at home. During his inaugural visits to Berlin and Paris, and the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, last weekend, he played the role of a magnanimous and sensible statesman in search of a compromise, determined to convince his “European friends and partners” of his sincerity and pragmatism. On the same day that the suspension of Parliament was announced, his envoy, David Frost, traveled to Brussels to continue talks with the European Commission. It is likely that the Johnson government considers thwarting the British opposition against no-deal as an asset in its negotiations with the EU. This would be in keeping with a view deeply ingrained in Westminster: that the remaining EU members have so far been playing hardball only because they have relied on the House of Commons to block the road to a mutually damaging no-deal. Another truth universally acknowledged in the U.K., and reiterated by Johnson, is that the EU always waits until the last minute before it agrees to a compromise.
If this really is Johnson’s hope, then he has not only caused constitutional outrage at home—he has also misread the EU’s position. No-deal is not in its economic or political interest, but it is preferable to abandoning its key principles. The reason why the rest of the EU has held firm on the main point of contention, the Irish border, is not that it is comfortable that a no-deal Brexit could never happen. It is their resolve that the integrity of the single market and solidarity with Ireland must be paramount.
From the remaining EU members’ perspective, it makes sense to provide Johnson with an opportunity to prove his bold claim that there are workable alternatives to the Irish backstop. The last chance of rescuing the withdrawal agreement is to keep the U.K. at the negotiating table, which the EU will likely do until the very end. And, should the negotiations ultimately fail, its congeniality toward to Johnson will have served another purpose: to shift the blame for a no-deal Brexit straight back to him. The fact remains that any proposals the U.K. puts forward will have to work. Until now, nothing of substance has emerged. The suggestion by Johnson that the remaining EU members should trust him is laughable, and the prorogation of Parliament, whether it is technically legal or not, will have done nothing to improve his reputation.
From the point of view of political strategy, Johnson may have overplayed his hand by proroguing Parliament. Until now, it has been one of Johnson’s greatest assets that the majority of British MPs disliked no-deal but could not agree on the ultimate destination they were aiming for. There are those who support Brexit but will not accept crashing out of the EU, and there are those who reject Brexit in any form. Opposition against no-deal has been nothing but the lowest common denominator between politicians who are divided by profound ideological differences, not to mention personal animosities. This is especially true of the Conservative MPs who would have to vote against their own government to make any plan to stop no-deal viable.
Johnson just provided them with ample motivation to take such a life-changing decision. He transformed the opposition against no-deal into the defense of representative democracy and parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament will still sit for four days before the prorogation period begins. Anything can happen, but if it does, it will happen fast.
Helene von Bismarck is a German historian and commentator specializing in British foreign policy. Twitter: @helenebismarck