Johnson’s Opening Salvo
Boris Johnson announced last week that Parliament is to be prorogued days after MPs return from their summer recess: both Houses of Parliament will stand empty for five weeks. A new session will begin on 14 October. A Queen’s Speech debate typically takes a week of parliamentary time, which leaves just over six sitting days until the Brexit deadline. Across the press, opposition politicians have described Johnson’s power grab as an affront to democracy. The speaker of the House of Commons said it was a ‘constitutional outrage’. The thousands of people protesting in cities and towns across the UK on Saturday were clearer and bolder: they called it a coup.
Prorogation is one of the dustier – and normally unremarkable – aspects of parliamentary process. The feudal reliquary of the British constitution still treats it as a power of the Crown, but it is in practice a power of the prime minister: previous ministries have used it to speed the passage of Lords reform (Attlee) or evade awkward parliamentary questions before a general election (Major). Johnson’s prorogation is different, harkening back to intemperate kings frustrated by the rudiments of democracy: it forecloses MPs’ powers of scrutiny, snuffs out awkward legislation, and declares the prime minister’s unwillingness to be bound by parliament.
On the surface, the prorogation is a piece of strongman theatrics: during the dwindling twilight of Theresa May’s tenure, the frothier backbenchers and Tory activists fantasised about suspending parliament. For them it’s a pleasing sign of Johnsonian vigour. Johnson’s media mouthpieces and legislative functionaries, however, have been careful to spin it as normal, even banal: a new prime minister ending an unusually long session of parliament and laying out his legislative stall. Johnson’s letter to MPs promises ample time to debate the government’s approach to the EU Council meeting on 17 October. The unusual length of the prorogation – the longest in modern times – is explained away as a convenient and efficient embrace of the period that parliament was likely to adjourn for the party conference season.
That is a lie. Adjournments require the consent of the House, and opposition leaders have discussed delaying or cancelling the conference adjournment in order to deal with Brexit. Prorogation requires no such consent, bouncing the House into abeyance whether it wills it or not. During adjournment, select committees can still meet, scrutinise and call for evidence; while Parliament is prorogued, no such powers exist. Legislation begun before an adjournment can be resumed after it ends; but prorogation falls like a guillotine on any bill not carried over by ministers – it severely curtails the time available to constrain Johnson’s pursuit of No Deal. It is a squalid and cynical power grab masquerading as parliamentary propriety, undertaken by a prime minister who, for all his pastiche Churchillism, is too weak to face the Commons and fears the exercise of its sovereignty.
Prorogation is only the opening salvo of Johnson’s war on Parliament. Tactics floated by Number 10 include eating into parliamentary time with a new budget, filibusters in the Lords, stuffing the upper chamber, ignoring any bill passed in parliament, and refusing to resign after losing a confidence vote. Michael Gove – who declared in 2015 that the rule of law was the ‘most precious asset of any civilised society’ – yesterday suggested that the government might choose to ignore legislation passed by parliament.
The mania for confrontation burns especially bright in Dominic Cummings’s eyes, but Tory contempt for parliamentary democracy is deeper set: May’s government sought Henry VIII powers to remake the law without scrutiny; had to be dragged to the Supreme Court to allow parliament to vote on invoking Article 50; refused to publish papers and information at every turn; was found in contempt of parliament; refused to schedule opposition days; and tried to ram through its Brexit bill despite multiple defeats in the Commons. Johnson is a worsening of degree, not a difference in kind.
Johnson’s position is also weaker than Number 10’s sound and fury suggests. His majority in is slim and wavering; his plans to remove the whip from Tory rebels – should any find their spines – might collapse it, at least formally. No sign of concession from Europe has been forthcoming. Polling suggests that more than half the country, and a quarter of those who voted Tory in 2017, disapprove of the prorogation. The volatility of parliament, and the empowering effect that small margins have on rebels, ought to impel Johnson to fresh elections – but it is far from obvious they would give him a majority. The difficulty of fending off internal schism – especially if defrocked former Tories stand as independents – while trying both to retain seats taken from the Liberal Democrats and to win back Brexit Party defectors cannot be surmounted by mere brio.
Unless Johnson pursues No Deal, or something close to it, he is at the mercy of Farage and Conservative Brexit ultras; if he does pursue No Deal, its economic consequences ought to doom his ministry. Almost all government manoeuvres are now performed in this light: Johnson may hope for the connivance of the ERG in delivering a ‘No Deal in name only’, but it is hard to imagine them or Farage swallowing payment of the £39 billion ‘divorce bill’. The alternative strategy is to delay the question of culpability as long as possible, pump out spending in an emergency budget – especially in target seats – and try to lay the blame for economic turbulence at the feet of traitorous MPs, Brussels, the Irish, and unpatriotic cosmopolitans. Johnson’s greatest gift at the moment is the fractious and involuted opposition, many of whom spent the summer indulging pipe dreams about a fantasy government led by Ken Clarke.
MPs will probably try this week to introduce legislation against No Deal, perhaps by use of novel emergency procedures; but the Cooper-Letwin Act, which mandated May to seek an extension to Article 50, barely scraped through its third reading in April – and only then because the government finally conceded its loss and did not talk it out in the Lords. There is no likelihood Johnson will do this. It is hard to know whether the government would recognise even a defeat on its Queen’s Speech or a confidence motion, or would somehow try to plough on regardless.
Johnson’s contempt for democracy may yet prove his undoing. Political conflict throughout the Brexit process has been largely confined to the institutions – quixotic legal challenges or arcane parliamentary strategy – because of the technical nature of the Article 50 process. If the conflict with parliament intensifies, popular protest at the usurping of sovereignty could easily broaden beyond the Leave-Remain divide; it at least widens the scope for conversations about democracy in Britain, which have so far been confined to the question of whether the EU is properly democratic. If Cummings has banked on billing the Tories as defenders of a species of democracy – the ‘will of the people’ as manifested by the 2016 referendum – it would be powerful to fight back on the same grounds: in defence of democratic rights long struggled for and once thought settled.
British democracy is sustained by a number of polite fictions: the neutrality of the monarch, the Crown in Parliament, the parity of the UK’s four nations, the binding stricture of convention, the sovereignty of parliament, the equal power of everyone’s vote. They are now being put to the flame by the government, and in the longer term it may not be possible to conjure the myths back from the ashes. Marx once remarked that the repeal of the Corn Laws saw the Tories of his day abandon every piety about the constitution and the church and reveal themselves as defenders, above all, of their rents. Johnson’s assault on Parliament and willingness to trample constitutional niceties is a similar moment of clear-eyed revelation: the Conservative Party has been denuded of its shrouds of patriotic pomp and tinsel. It could be a spur to find a better foundation for democracy than our worn-out fictions.