Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament is an affront to democracy
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Boris Johnson has detonated a bomb under the constitutional apparatus of the United Kingdom. The prime minister’s request to the Queen to suspend parliament for up to five weeks, ostensibly to prepare a new legislative programme, is without modern precedent. It is an intolerable attempt to silence parliament until it can no longer halt a disastrous crash-out by the UK from the EU on October 31. The seat of British democracy, long admired worldwide, is being denied a say on the most consequential decision facing the country in more than four decades. So, too, are the British people — in whose name Mr Johnson claims to be acting. It is time for parliamentarians to bring down his government in a no-confidence vote, paving the way for an election in which the people can express their will.
Britain’s representative government is an exercise in deliberative democracy which involves discussion, negotiation and inevitable compromises. It vests the power to take decisions on behalf of voters in MPs, and allows them to deliberate on matters of detail — and in the case of Brexit, the most complex demerger in postwar history, detail matters. As John Stuart Mill wrote of representative democracy: “Their part is to indicate wants, to be an organ for popular demands, and a place of adverse discussion for all opinions relating to public matters . . . and, to check by criticism, and eventually by withdrawing their support, those high public officers who really conduct the public business.”
History has shown that charlatans, demagogues and would-be dictators have little time for representative government. They seek ways around parliament before concluding it is an inconvenience. Mr Johnson may not be a tyrant, but he has set a dangerous precedent. He and the cabal around him who have chosen this revolutionary path should be careful what they wish for.
The prime minister’s protestations that he is doing nothing abnormal are as disingenuous as the claims plastered across the bus from which he fronted the Leave campaign in 2016. Proroguing parliament ahead of a Queen’s Speech is established procedure, but for one or two weeks, not five. A temporary recess during September’s party conferences is normal — though some parliamentary business continues even then. A brief prorogation could have been timed to coincide with conference season.
There is no legal or administrative justification for a complete five-week cessation of parliament’s activities ahead of a Queen’s Speech. Mr Johnson is using constitutional chicanery to thwart a parliament that he knows has a majority against his chosen policy. The prime minister will argue that the credibility of his threat to leave the EU without an accord unless Brussels agrees to rewrite Britain’s withdrawal deal is undermined if MPs are doing their best to stop him. Yet to muzzle parliament as part of a reckless negotiating ploy is an act of constitutional vandalism.
While this newspaper is no supporter of plebiscites, it has maintained the view that the outcome of the 2016 referendum should be implemented, but in a way that limits as far as possible the harm to the UK’s economy, security and national standing. The referendum delivered no mandate to ram through the most extreme form of Brexit. The Conservative party’s 2017 election manifesto, while repeating the misguided mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, pledged to secure “the best possible deal for Britain . . . delivered by a smooth, orderly Brexit”. Mr Johnson became prime minister thanks only to the votes of 92,000 Tory party members. No premier who has assumed power outside a general election has ever deviated so radically from his party’s previous platform, nor sought to pursue a step with such grave implications.
If Mr Johnson’s prorogation ploy succeeds, Britain will forfeit any right to lecture other countries on their democratic shortcomings. The UK’s constitutional arrangements have long relied on conventions. The danger existed that an unscrupulous leader could trample on such conventions. That has not happened, in the modern era, until now.
Parliamentarians must seize their opportunity next week to assert the will of the Commons against that of the prime minister. The brief period for which they will sit may be too short to pass legislation demanding a delay to the UK’s EU departure. Those opposed to a no-deal Brexit must then cast aside their differences and pass a motion of no confidence in the government. This is unpalatable for even the most ardent Tory Remainers, and others such as the Liberal Democrats, since ousting Mr Johnson in time to affect the Brexit process may also require the creation of a caretaker government under Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn — an outcome they rightly fear. The overriding priority, however, must be to safeguard British democracy. Mr Johnson might seek to ignore such a vote and try to hang on until after Brexit. This would be an even greater constitutional affront than his actions this week. It would confirm that Britain has a despot in Downing Street.
The standard path for governments facing parliaments that prevent them from implementing their policies is to take the matter to the country. The prime minister might then stand on a “no deal” platform, potentially in a pact with the Brexit party. If he won, Britain would have to respect the result and live with the consequences. Opposition parties would have to use their own strenuous campaigning and electoral pacts to prevent such an outcome. Mr Johnson is framing the current battle as one between parliament and the people. If he is confident of the people’s backing, he should be ready to test this with voters in an election — rather than making a cavalier attempt to frustrate the parliamentary democracy that has been the foundation of Britain’s prosperity and stability.
Letters in response to this editorial comment:
British democracy in turmoil as Prime Minister Boris Johnson prorogues parliament for five weeks. Is a no-deal Brexit unavoidable or will MPs pass a no-confidence vote and trigger an election? Here’s the best of this week’s opinion and analysis