The prime minister is effectively at war with the Parliament for which he once promised to “take back control.”
LONDON — Boris Johnson has begun with defeat.
Legislators voted last night to seize control of Parliament, alarmed by the prime minister’s insistence that he will take Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31, even if no deal with the bloc has been reached. On Wednesday, opposition legislators and rebels from Mr. Johnson’s own party will try to pass a law mandating the prime minister to ask for an extension to the deadline if he still has no deal.
It promises to be a week of high political drama in Westminster — and the culmination of over two years of intricate tactical maneuvers and procedural minutiae that have marked British politics.
Time is so short because Mr. Johnson last Wednesday “prorogued” parliament, mothballing it for five weeks from next week: If the bill fails to become law by that point, it automatically falls. The unusual length of the suspension has already occasioned protests across Britain. Demonstrators called it a “coup,” and the speaker of the House of Commons called it a “constitutional outrage.”
Yet on Tuesday night, with Parliament having again flexed its long dormant democratic muscle, it was Mr. Johnson who looked isolated. Furious, he vowed to seek new elections, and stripped the whip from all his rebels — including prominent party grandees — effectively barring them from running again as Conservative candidates.
The conflict has laid bare deep tensions in Britain’s democracy — between the prime minister and Parliament, and between the people and the politics that claims to represent them.
Britain’s Parliament is anomalous. Having failed to sustain its 17th-century deposition of the monarchy, and having been the imperial power rather than the colonized one, Britain has never had a founding constitutional moment. Instead its democracy has evolved within an accreted mass of archaic institutions, including an unelected upper chamber that was until the late 20th century composed of hereditary aristocrats. This grandeur itself has sometimes been thought to be a powerful conservative influence: The Labour politician Nye Bevan once wrote it “lies like an Alp” on the mind of a new member of Parliament.
Under its ritual pomp, Parliament’s curious evolution has made it unusually powerful. A prime minister with a substantial majority has broad latitude to remake the country, as Margaret Thatcher and to a lesser extent Tony Blair did. But without a solid majority, Parliament has great power to resist even the most ambitious leader.
Legislators’ tactics this week are not entirely new: A similar procedure was used to take control and force Theresa May, Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, to seek an extension in April. But the complexity of the new bill — which intends to prescribe Mr. Johnson’s approach to the European Union in exacting detail — reflects the total breakdown in trust between executive and legislature.
April’s version of the bill passed partly because Mrs. May recognized she had lost; Mr. Johnson will use every means at his disposal to frustrate the new bill, including attempts to filibuster its progress in the unelected upper house. Promising a scorched earth, the prime minister is effectively at war with the Parliament for which he once promised to “take back control.”
Despite the throng of demonstrators outside Parliament — roared slogans and vast European Union flags are a daily backdrop to news broadcasts — the political progress of Brexit has been a markedly institutional affair, conducted through arcane procedural instruments and prominent court battles. The alien language of parliamentary procedure — “prorogation,” “humble addresses,” “paving motions” — is parsed for an unfamiliar public by constitutional experts who have rarely been in such demand.
The interviews with members of the public that dot the news vary from bafflement to outright loathing of politics; enthusiasm is a rare beast. According to Hansard Society research, civic trust is threadbare: Only a third of people trust politicians to act in the public interest, and just under half feel they have no influence at all on decision-making.
Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union was always likely to be a vastly complex technical matter, and the bloc’s tendency to conduct politics through intricate sequencing lends itself to squabbles over procedural minutiae. But the cause of the proliferating conflict in British politics has always been domestic: Despite losing her majority in 2017, Mrs. May’s conduct of Brexit was distinguished by her autocratic instincts and determination to avoid parliamentary consultation.
The same highhanded conduct saw her first dragged to the Supreme Court to assert Parliament’s right of a “meaningful vote,” and then locked in a battle with Parliament over the disclosure of the attorney general’s legal advice. That battle saw her censured for “contempt of Parliament.” The phrase epitomizes her successor’s entire attitude.
One consequence of the prominence of procedural conflicts since the Brexit referendum has been to transfer the political questions which drove it into arguments about legal permissibility. Questions about
- the kind of state the Britain wishes to be,
- relations among its constituent nations, its
- draconian attitudes to migrants, its
- vexed history in Ireland,
- how it makes domestic political choices and
- how far it wishes economic integration with other European states —
all are folded into, and sometimes disappear in, conflicts over parliamentary rights and legal obligations.
It is then no wonder that apparently arid matters suddenly take on intense but displaced political energy — the kind that saw High Court judges branded “enemies of the people” on the front pages of the tabloid press and that turned usually pacific sections of society into ardent protesters.
The institutional confinement of the Brexit process has been seized on by Dominic Cummings, the former director of Vote Leave, now Mr. Johnson’s chief adviser and architect of his hard-line strategy. Mr. Cummings recognizes a fault line in Britain’s democratic structure: between an exercise conducted by plebiscite — the Brexit referendum — and the conventional, deliberative methods used to interpret and deliver the consequences of that vote.
By painting the referendum as the sole truly democratic exercise, with all subsequent debates and concerns over rights a matter of cynical pettifogging and anti-Brexit trickery, he believes he can deliver a reconfigured political landscape, straddled by Mr. Johnson as a flaxen-haired avatar of the popular will.
Perhaps Mr. Cummings has in mind that half the people surveyed by Hansard claimed they longed for a strong leader to “break the rules” of politics. Yet the strongman has feet of clay. If suspending Parliament was intended to demonstrate Mr. Johnson’s credentials as a champion of the people, it managed to unite only 27 percent of them. Further overreach as the prime minister attempts to break Parliament to his will is unlikely to improve that number.
Nobody doubts new elections are on the horizon, the central issues of which will be shaped in the next weeks. It will be an election that Mr. Johnson intends to fight on a narrow Brexit question. To beat him, the Labour Party, which has been as troubled by division between the two Brexit camps as the country as a whole, will not only need a clear message on Brexit but also some means of bridging its divide. Democracy could be a powerful theme: not just its defense in Parliament but its extension beyond Parliament’s feudal residues and monarchical hangovers, into Britain’s regions and its antiquated electoral system.
It is widely known that Mr. Johnson wants a “people versus politicians” election. Perhaps it is time for the opposition to push for “the country versus Boris Johnson.”