Tories cackling at Boris Johnson’s Brexit wheeze should beware
Sometimes it is the cleverest wheezes that come back to haunt you. Boris Johnson’s daring move to suspend the UK parliament, to limit the time for opponents to frustrate his Brexit strategy, has delighted his supporters. Yet even if it proves decisive, Conservatives may still come to rue his contentious but legal gambit.
Among Mr Johnson’s allies there are those — his chief strategist Dominic Cummings, for example — who take a revolutionary approach to politics, yearning to refashion the old institutions of state. Rather more of Team Johnson, though, including the prime minister himself, believe in those institutions. Once the fight is won, they imagine normal political service will resume. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, insists that the British constitution “can bend to a passing storm”. This may be a fond hope. Parliamentary democracy has been irrevocably altered by the Brexit battle.
Politics has become so polarised that reaction has largely divided along Leave and Remain lines. A constitutional outrage is now something only the other side commits. Mr Johnson’s opponents see an unelected leader of a minority government suspending parliament for fear that it may block his plan to leave the EU on October 31, with or without a deal. For them this is an egregious and populist assault on democracy to drive through an extreme Brexit that was never on the ballot paper.
Leavers argue, with some justification, that many Remain-minded MPs have abandoned the principle of “losers’ consent” and are using parliamentary guerrilla warfare to block Brexit entirely. For Mr Johnson, the extended suspension is simply a fighting of fire with fire. Perhaps as important is that he believes he cannot secure fresh terms from the EU unless the threat of parliamentary sabotage is removed.
The reality is more nuanced, but then nuance was an early casualty of Brexit. Many of those Tories now dismissed as wreckers actually voted three times for Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Many of those now assailing parliament for blocking Brexit were those who fought most ferociously against that deal.
Underpinning everything, though, is one fundamental fact. This government has no majority. In the 2017 election, voters made clear they expected Brexit to be delivered while denying the Tories sole custody of the policy. Yet both Mrs May and Mr Johnson have tried to govern as if they had the kind of majorities enjoyed by previous Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Rather than bow to the arithmetic and seek consensus, both have tried to defy the numbers. In response, Remainers became equally belligerent. Many of those now fulminating against no deal helped bring this moment to pass by voting down Mrs May’s deal and failing to back any alternative.
Conflict between the legislature and the executive is the essence of parliament. What is unusual is the extent of the indifference both sides have shown to convention. With Conservative rebels unwilling to countenance voting down their own government, anti no-dealers sought other paths. They have seized control of the House of Commons’ timetable, aided by an activist Speaker overturning conventions apparently to assist their struggle. These breaches matter less. A government with a solid majority would not be stopped in this way.
But Mr Johnson has now responded in a far more heavy-handed manner, using prorogation — the normal suspension of parliament between the sessions — to deny opponents up to five weeks of time. Curtailing a tiresome parliament is a serious escalation of the constitutional warfare. The right response for a government unable to secure its key policy is an election.
Sometimes breaking a code can have greater consequences than breaking a rule. Future governments will consider the unwritten codes to have changed. Elections for Speaker will become more partisan and premiers may feel less queasy about suspending an obstructive legislature. Mr Johnson’s move may not be a “coup” but Tories cackling over this wheeze might ponder how they would view a leftwing government under Jeremy Corbyn taking the same step.
For a sense of how this can play out, one can look to the US. Enraged by opposition blocking of Democratic judicial nominees, the party’s Senate majority leader abandoned the convention that 60 votes were needed to push through appointments. His change applied only to posts below the Supreme Court. But when Republicans reclaimed control of the Senate they gleefully took the precedent and extended it, so that a simple majority is now enough for that court too. The most recent of US President Donald Trump’s picks, Brett Kavanaugh, was confirmed by 50 votes to 48.
The Brexit battle and Mr Johnson’s move in particular have upended parliamentary conventions. Conservatives might like to think politics can return to normal but there is no reset button. Conventions, like virginity, are not easily reclaimed once surrendered.
With the boundaries pushed, who can predict what the next premier might wish to disregard? In our increasingly polarised politics, the principle of “whatever it takes” is gaining supremacy. Politics is reduced to the zero-sum game of two sides with ever less common ground. (Some will use this to push for a written constitution, though codification contains its own shortcomings.)
There are reasons conventions survive. All sides know that the boot will one day be on the other foot. Conservatives should remember that what goes around comes around.