Boris’ move: A tough new test for a democracy with unwritten rules

Why We Wrote This

The cries of “constitutional crisis” coming from the U.K. after Boris Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament are likely overstated. But when a constitution is unwritten like Britain’s, even deviation from norms can stir controversy.

Vudi Xhymshiti/AP
Anti-Brexit demonstrators protest in front of the Houses of Parliament in London after Prime Minister Boris Johnson maneuvered on Wednesday to give his political opponents even less time to block a no-deal Brexit before the Oct. 31 withdrawal deadline.

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The step of suspending, or proroguing, the Parliament of the United Kingdom is a formality before starting a new legislative session. But the gap normally lasts days, not weeks. So when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a five-week break ending little more than a fortnight before the country is due to exit the European Union, it inflamed British politics.

But while Mr. Johnson’s hardball tactics strain political propriety, they’re not quite the nuclear option that some had feared – though they may still intensify a political crisis ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline. By reducing the legislative days available before then, Mr. Johnson’s minority government hopes to strengthen its hand. The risk is that both sides will escalate further, adding to the stress on a democracy that relies on unwritten norms and conventions.

“You have a government that is acting with contempt for Parliament,” says Thom Brooks, a professor at Durham University, England. While British leaders have long chafed at parliamentary scrutiny, they have also felt bound to make their case to MPs. A government that flouts norms to avoid scrutiny “is a real challenge for parliamentary democracy.”

When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his decision Wednesday to suspend Parliament for over a month, in an apparent bid to fetter the implacable opposition to his Brexit strategy, he got a raucous response.

John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons – a nonvoting, neutral post – called it a “constitutional outrage.” Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, said it was “a dark day for democracy.” Thousands of protesters gathered outside Parliament to decry the move. By Thursday, 1.5 million people had signed an online petition opposing suspension. And it is facing legal challenges in three separate U.K. courts.

But while Mr. Johnson’s hardball tactics strain political propriety, they’re not quite the nuclear option that some had feared – though they may still intensify a political crisis ahead of Oct. 31, the current deadline for Britain to leave the European Union.

By cutting the parliamentary days available before the deadline, Mr. Johnson’s minority government hopes to strengthen its hand over members of Parliament, including rebels in its own ranks. The risk is that both sides will escalate further, adding to the stress on a democracy that relies on unwritten norms and conventions.

“It’s definitely sharp practice,” says Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at Nottingham University, England. “It’s the context [of Brexit] that makes it outrageous. But the British Constitution allows us to do these things.”

Contempt for Parliament

The tussle between legislature and executive over Brexit has already upended several norms.

When Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, refused last December to publish the government’s legal advice on her Brexit deal, lawmakers voted to hold the government in contempt, a rare rebuke. (Ms. May later shared the legal advice.) Dominic Cummings, a sharp-tongued aide to Mr. Johnson and an architect of the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, was separately found in contempt of Parliament when he refused to testify about alleged irregularities.

“You have a government that is acting with contempt for Parliament,” says Thom Brooks, a professor of law and government at Durham University, England. While British leaders have long chafed at parliamentary scrutiny, they have also felt bound to make their case to MPs. A government that flouts norms to avoid scrutiny “is a real challenge for parliamentary democracy.”

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Mr. Johnson's decision to prorogue Parliament until shortly before the Brexit deadline was top news across the U.K.

The step of suspending, or proroguing, Parliament by royal command is a formality before starting a new legislative session. But the gap normally lasts days, not weeks, and the controversy turns on the timing: Opponents of Mr. Johnson, who took power in July, have been formulating a strategy to stop the United Kingdom leaving the EU without an agreement.

One option under discussion was to pass emergency legislation that tied Mr. Johnson’s hands, as was done to Ms. May. That now looks much harder to achieve on time. Any bills that don’t pass before the end of the session must start over after Oct. 14, when Parliament returns.

The other option to stop a no-deal Brexit is a no-confidence vote to bring down the government. But opposition MPs have struggled for weeks to agree on who should lead an alternative government and what to do about Brexit, beyond seeking another extension from EU leaders weary of British intransigence.

“There’s a clear majority against no deal in the House of Commons. But there isn’t a majority for anything else, and that’s why they’re stuck,” says Mr. Fielding.  

Preparing for no-deal Brexit?

How far Mr. Johnson’s opponents are prepared to go is an open question. So, too, is Mr. Johnson’s political endgame.

His defenders say he was backed into a corner by the scheming of norm-defying MPs determined to stop Brexit, which he has vowed to deliver on time. By neutralizing their schemes, he can go back to his EU counterparts and insist on concessions that Ms. May wasn’t able to win because she couldn’t credibly threaten to walk away.

“He can give the impression that in every sense he’s committed to no-deal Brexit in a way that Theresa May never was,” observes Dr. Brooks.

In his letter to MPs, Mr. Johnson said that a deal may be reached at a summit of European leaders on Oct. 17-18 and that Parliament would then be able to vote on it. He said that “only by showing unity and resolve” could the U.K. secure a deal “that can be passed by Parliament.” 

Still, the chances for such a revised deal appear slim given the gulf between the EU and U.K. on key elements, including intra-Ireland border trade that is under EU rules. Mr. Johnson has said that the so-called Irish backstop – a temporary customs arrangement to prevent the return of a hard border – must be struck from the deal. EU officials have repeatedly rejected this idea.

Rather, Mr. Johnson appears to be preparing for a no-deal Brexit and looking for a political upside, says Mr. Fielding. For millions of voters who want to leave the EU with or without a deal, the outrage over the suspension of Parliament burnishes Mr. Johnson’s image as a risk-taker who puts Brexit first, in contrast to Ms. May’s fitful efforts to build consensus for an orderly departure.

In an increasingly fractured party system, this could be enough to win a snap election that is widely expected after Britain leaves. “He will go to the country as the man who has taken on all these people who tried to stop Brexit,” says Mr. Fielding.

John Strafford, a Conservative activist and former party executive in Beaconsfield, a prosperous London suburb, says Mr. Johnson’s no-holds-bars leadership has fired up the base. “It’s such a difference. For three years we’ve been pessimistic and down in the dumps and getting nowhere. Now people have got hope,” he says. “They can see an end date.”

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