The stability of the mother of democracy is suddenly shaken. It has most unusually a bull in a china shop as prime minister.
It was speculated from well before Boris Johnson was elected as leader of the ruling Conservative party – and consequently head of government – that he would prorogue parliament in order to ram through his agenda of a non-deal Brexit. But few believed he would actually disregard democracy in this manner. Yet it has happened.
Britain is not endowed with a written constitution. It operates on conventions and precedents and procedures thereby cast in stone. Prorogation of parliament is not unprecedented. It occurs for a few days before the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who is head of state, ceremonially opens parliament after a new administration enters office and delivers an address in the House of Lords to set out its programme. The extent of closure dictated by Johnson, though, is without example in modern times.
He has taken advantage of the three-week recess that takes place over September and October to accommodate annual political conferences of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to shut down parliament for five weeks.
This effectively provides MPs with possibly a six-day window in September and the same number of days in October – before the current scheduled exit from the European Union on 31 October - to either oust the Johnson regime with a vote of no confidence or pass binding legislation to prevent a no-deal scenario.
To achieve the latter even under emergency rules and an assertive Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, may be challenging, as Conservatives in the House of Lords could potentially filibuster and delay ratification. So, Johnson has somewhat cornered his opponents, who must now discover a way of checkmating him.
A no-confidence route is difficult to crystallise as well. The sticking point here being the Conservative remainers’ dilemma over backing a motion tabled by the opposition Labour party and their refusal to have the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as even caretaker prime minister.
The Conservatives supported by the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party MPs have a wafer-thin majority of one in the Commons. But to be confident of success, Labour, which can probably count on the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats and other smaller no-deal opponents, need rebel Conservatives to join it.
Also, Conservatives have to either lump Corbyn as skipper of an interim arrangement or persuade Labour to agree to either Harriet Harman, once acting leader of the Labour party, or the pro-European Conservative Kenneth Clarke, the senior-most MP, to fulfil the role. Other names could also crop up. Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Theresa May government, is among those who are determined to stop a no-deal Brexit.
A failure to form an alternative government within two weeks of bringing down Johnson will mean the prerogative of choosing a date of a mid-term election will revert to him. If he sets this after 31 October Britain could by default exit the EU without a deal.
There is of course the unthinkable. That he will ignore a Commons defeat and hang on to office until after a no-deal Brexit. This would be unimaginable adventurism; but considering his recent track record nothing can now be ruled out.
In a matter of 12 hours after the prorogation notice a million signatures were posted in an online petition to reverse the order. Legal challenges to the move were initiated in Edinburgh, Belfast and London. People took to the streets in front of the British prime minister’s office-cum-residence at 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament in nearby Westminster within hours of Johnson’s announcement. Such demonstrations could amplify extraordinarily in the days ahead. Violent clashes between leavers and remainers in public places could be in the offing.
From the Commons Speaker to a plethora of politicians, innumerable have expressed outrage at the clipping of parliament’s wings. But perhaps the most significant reaction came from a previous cabinet secretary, Robert Kerslake, who said: “We are reaching the point where the civil service must consider putting its stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day.”
Johnson began his prime ministership by blaming the EU for the lack of agreement on a withdrawal deal. But the seasoned German Chancellor Angela Merkel shrewdly threw the ball into his court by asking him publicly at a press conference to provide a technological solution to not having a hard border between Northern Ireland (which is a part of Britain) and the Republic of Ireland (which is a EU member country) within 30 days. To avoid a loss of face, he instantly agreed. Such a solution would preserve the 1998 Good Friday treaty between Britain and the Irish Republic and negate the need for the deal-breaking safeguard of a “back stop” (or customs control in the middle of the Irish Sea) proposed by the EU.
Britain’s representative democracy, viewed with admiration and respect globally, is being stymied at its most critical hour in decades.
For centuries, the British voters have vested powers in the MPs they elect to debate and decide in the best interests of the people. Johnson has used trickery to thwart parliament, which he knows is against a no-deal Brexit. Since he is not a directly elected prime minister and is in post simply because of an internal vote in the Conservative party, he is arguably obliged to abide by his party’s 2017 election manifesto promise of obtaining “the best possible deal for Britain” in Brexit negotiations with the EU.
Over the years, Britain has floated what it defines as “ethical foreign policy”. The billions of pounds it hands out as international aid is tied to compliance on democracy, freedom and human rights.
If Johnson gets away with his vandalism, the United Kingdom will no longer enjoy authority to tick off other nations on defects in their systems. It will, for instance, have no locus standi to criticise the Narendra Modi government on its recent debatable actions in respect of Jammu and Kashmir.