The brawl over Brexit is getting dirty. Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament marks a sharp escalation of hostilities.
The prime minister hasn’t only increased the likelihood that Britain leaves the European Union without a deal on October 31, he has dared the opposition to trigger a general election. Beyond Brexit, his plan risks unleashing an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
Johnson’s supporters justify the decision to “prorogue Parliament with three key arguments. First, that it is merely routine; second, that it is in the service of honouring the result of the 2016 referendum, which Parliament is bent on frustrating; and third, that it will help the government in its eleventh-hour negotiations with the European Union.
You have to squint hard to see Johnson’s decision as part of the normal course of things. It is true that Parliament is normally suspended for a brief period before each new session and doesn’t sit during the party conference season in September when lawmakers are at their respective annual meetings.
Certainly, this session has dragged on; while most last a year, the current one started in June 2017.
Yet by any other measure, the decision to prorogue now with the express intention of ensuring that a minority government’s view prevails over the will of Parliament – and on the most important issue to face the country since World War II – can only be considered extraordinary.
The House of Commons Library notes that prorogation has rarely lasted longer than two weeks; this one will be for five. Some constitutional watchers suggest that it may violate the stipulation in the 1688 Bill of Rights that “for redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently.”
The last time the House was prorogued to get around opposition to a bill was in 1948, when the then Labour government legislated to restrict the power of the unelected House of Lords. Yet that was different from today: A majority of MPs wanted that bill to pass.
The second argument – that the directly expressed will of the people should override that of the legislature – is highly dubious. There was nothing in the 2016 referendum, or indeed in the ‘Leave’ campaign that Johnson fronted, which told voters that a no-deal Brexit would be an option, let alone the government’s preferred choice. There was nothing that told the electorate of the potential costs.
Nor is it fair to tar lawmakers as “remainers.” Most have committed to manifestos supporting Brexit; their opposition is to leaving without a deal, for which there is also no great public support.
But what of the argument that the EU will only move if its feet are put to the fire? If Brussels believes that Parliament will stop Johnson, why should it give an inch? It is difficult to say for sure that at this late stage the EU will suddenly find a way to rewire the backstop to allow both sides to declare victory – but it looks highly unlikely.
Johnson appears to be goading his opponents into calling a vote of no confidence that would trigger an election. He has lined up two scapegoats to blame during the campaign: the EU, for refusing to change the terms of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, and Parliament for frustrating the will of the people. He wants to be able to claim that only his party can deliver Brexit after obstructionists in Parliament and Brussels closed off more reasonable courses of action.
Politically, this gamble may just pay off. If Johnson’s most important objective is to win an election and stop Farage from cannibalising the Conservative vote, elbowing Parliament out of the way makes perfect sense.
His timing looks to be spot on. Attempts by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to assemble a temporary government of national unity under his leadership have flopped spectacularly. Given the depth of opposition in parliament to a no-deal Brexit, that was an astonishing vote of no-confidence in Corbyn.
At a meeting this week, opposition party leaders agreed that they would seek legislative means to block a no-deal Brexit. But that too wouldn’t be straightforward as it would require taking control of the parliamentary timetable. Much will depend on whether Speaker John Bercow can offer assistance.
Whatever he says, it is unclear whether Corbyn would welcome an election now. His poll ratings have been abysmal, and many voters distrust his party’s confused stance on Brexit. He faces a stiff challenge from Jo Swinson’s resurgent Liberal Democrat party, which has robustly opposed leaving the EU.
Constitutionally, though, Johnson has unleashed forces he may be unable to control. Conservatives have always argued that the 2016 vote to leave the European Union was about restoring sovereignty to Westminster. He is now gagging Parliament.
Johnson could still be challenged. One route is through the courts. Former Conservative prime minister John Major has previously threatened litigation, while the Scottish National Party has already brought a legal challenge in Edinburgh. But the judges may be reluctant to prevent a prime minister from exercising the historic right to prorogue Parliament.
If the courts won’t intervene, expect protests. “If Parliament is silenced on the biggest issue of our time we must take to the streets,” Labour lawmaker David Lammy wrote on Twitter. Those threats may be overblown – Britain doesn’t have the same tradition of street protests as France – but these aren’t normal times.
Johnson’s bid to circumvent Parliament has made the country’s once stable legislature look impotent. The rage of lawmakers will rebound for weeks. The only question, for the prime minister, will be how it all plays out at the ballot box.