Politics in the mother of democracies has splintered into pieces. Britain’s government is paralysed because it doesn’t possess a parliamentary majority and yet it cannot summon an election because of a 2015 Act which promulgated a five-year fixed term for an administration unless overturned by a two-thirds majority. The country is witnessing a fractious face-off between the executive and the legislature. There is serious talk of an imperative need to embrace a written, clear-cut constitution to replace the current system of operating by convention and precedent.
This week the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court will adjudicate on a challenge to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s controversial prorogation of parliament. Hitherto the High Court in England ruled in his favour, but the Constitutional Court in Scotland, which is higher than the former, adjudged his action to be illegal. If the highest court verdict goes against him, his future as head of government could be in jeopardy or at a minimum his moral authority would be eroded, for what would emerge is, the reason given by him to suspend parliament was suspect or he misled Britain’s head of state Queen Elizabeth II in obtaining her assent for the purpose (which Johnson has strenuously denied).
Morality, though, has become a casualty in modern day British public life. The outcome of the 2016 referendum which determined that a majority of Britons wanted to leave the European Union, where it has been a member since 1973, has deeply divided and destabilised one of the most orderly democracies in the world and generated a by-hook-or-by-crook approach among its politicians. The attitude adopted by Johnson to fulfil his burning (admittedly legitimate) ambition to be prime minister compelled him to promise an arguably reckless deal or no-deal exit from the EU. With the latter the preferred option of his primary backers, he pursued this, without any corresponding endeavour to negotiate an agreement and by apparently sending parliament packing for an uncommon five-week break to thwart it blocking a crash out on 31 October – the deadline for the UK and the EU to secure a settlement or divorce without it by default.
But MPs and peers opposed to Johnson’s no-deal inclination, including senior and respected lawmakers of his own party, and his tactics to achieve this, were remarkably nimble footed in inflicting six parliamentary defeats on him, which incorporated instituting into law the illegality of a no-deal, extending the Brexit deadline to at least 31 January 2020 and denying the prime minister a snap general election. From the moment he took charge at Downing Street, Johnson has conspicuously been in a polling rather than prime ministerial persona.
He has maintained he will not extend the Brexit deadline beyond 31 October. The consequences of such disobedience are unforeseen. Breaking the law in this manner could indeed land him in prison. Therefore, the only respectable solution for him is a deal.
After a chastening week in course of which his brother Jo resigned from the government (Boris reportedly cried when he heard this), a senior cabinet minister Amber Rudd did the same and the half-Indian Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar conveyed to him in no uncertain terms that cast iron arrangements not promises must characterise Britain’s consensual withdrawal from the EU, there is a noticeable change of tone in Johnson’s language. Motherly advice during his dinner with Queen Elizabeth during the same period could also have instigated his new tack.
Johnson and his hard-line fellow travellers may now be willing to compromise if the inflammatory term “back-stop” does not figure in the agreement. This might mean a special economic zone between the Republic of Ireland (a member state of the EU) and Northern Ireland (which is a part of the UK), but no customs barrier between the latter and the rest of the UK. A boxed in Johnson now envisages a deal as an escape and face saver.
Of course, while Johnson has been cornered by political opponents and his circumstances could deteriorate further if the UK Supreme Court deems prorogation of parliament to be unlawful, the Conservatives since his takeover have rapidly recovered in opinion polls, to the extent of them being ahead of their nearest challengers the Labour party by more than 10%. This lead may narrow in a run-up to an election, but what seems to be true is he has taken the wind off the sails of the Brexit party – the most anti-EU political formation in Britain.
In other words, notwithstanding the setback Johnson has suffered in parliament and in the Scottish judiciary, he has undoubtedly consolidated his popularity with Brexiteers; and any election in the near future is likely throw up the Conservatives as at least the largest single party. Even 35% of remainers want an end to the unending uncertainty.