Boris Johnson's calculated disregard for parliamentary democracy

There is no equivalence between constitutional manoeuvres to block no deal and Johnson’s contempt for our democratic traditions

August 28, 2019
Photo: Michael Kappeler/DPA/PA Images
Photo: Michael Kappeler/DPA/PA Images

Imagine, if you will, an authoritarian government which decided to shut up the parliamentary shop so that it could carry out, unobstructed, a policy for which it had no parliamentary support. It had never sought any electoral mandate for that policy. It had no working majority and there was no wider parliamentary support behind the scheme. Indeed, it knew that parliament would use every tool available to block that policy on the basis that, even on the government’s own assessments, it would cause irreversible damage to the country it purported to rule. So it shut down parliament, in effect, to seek to silence it and to prevent it from taking steps to change course.

Everything about this description offends both the substance and the spirit of democratic principle. Yet today we learned that Boris Johnson will suspend parliament for five weeks to prevent MPs carrying out their proper constitutional function. Respect for parliament, and the electorate, dictates that the government should allow as much time as possible for MPs to debate and scrutinise its actions in the run up to an ever-more-likely crash out. In taking this decision Johnson has shown a flagrant disregard for the most fundamental of our democratic traditions.

The strategy from No 10 has been to change the description. Supported by a well-rehearsed line coming out of Tory Twitter, they pretend this is business as normal and the real problem lies with the MPs trying to use parliamentary procedure to block no deal. But contrary to the claims from some quarters, this is not about a routine crafting of the Queen’s Speech. The suspension of parliament for an unprecedented length of time, in the context of one the most divisive and damaging policies of any British government, pushed by an unelected prime minister, is not business as normal. One cannot just ignore the most controversial policy in memory, in the middle of a negotiating period with the EU and claim prorogation of parliament is a mere practicality.

False equivalence has been a dangerous narrative of the Brexit years. It posits the idea that both sides are really as bad as each other. No sooner are the prorogation papers out of the bag than the false equivalence flags emerge again. They complain of double standards, that Remain MPs (who are now said to include those who voted for May’s Withdrawal Agreement but want to prevent no deal) are allowed to use any constitutional tool at their disposal to block a no deal, indeed to block Brexit, while Brexiters are criticised for the same tactics. This, though, is the cult of victimhood which Brexiters rely on so successfully, using it to build the foundations with which false equivalence confuses a divided nation. Those assertions need to be dismantled.

Parliamentary sovereignty was one of the soundtracks of the Leave campaign. Some might recall that May’s 2017 Brexit White Paper actually admitted that “Parliament ha[d] remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU,” but that “it has not always felt like that.” It’s a long way from the assertion that parliament did not feel sovereign in the EU to sidestepping parliament because an unelected prime minister does not like being exposed to its scrutiny.

If the referendum took a small bite out of parliamentary democracy, subsequently it is the government itself which has sought to constrain, limit and defeat parliament at every turn. The Miller Article 50 case, in the Supreme Court, came about precisely because May tried to deny parliament a voice. Red lines were drawn without the broad consultation both the vagueness of the referendum question and the close nature of the result so obviously demanded. May then called the 2017 election, expressly claiming that parliament’s opposition was the problem besetting Brexit Britain: “The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.” Though May failed miserably in her bid to “crush the saboteurs,” that did not prevent her claiming that she was still carrying out the “will of the people,” a phrase used so successfully it had terrified MPs into voting for the Article 50 clock to be commenced in the first place.

Meanwhile, the government resorted to attempting Brexit through maximum secrecy, which included shutting out parliament wherever possible. It played games with parliamentary timetables and refused to participate in one day motions, seeking to avoid embarrassing defeats by telling its MPs not to vote; it was even found in contempt of parliament because it refused to publish the attorney general’s advice on the Northern Ireland backstop. MPs had to resort to elaborate procedures to compel the Brexit department to publish its impact assessments. Transparency became a government charade as the executive sought to prevent scrutiny even of May’s deal itself, through pulling debates and underhand procedures. MPs were forced to resort to trying to find constitutional ways to hold the government to account on the most controversial overhaul of Britain’s political, economic and social framework in modern history.

Johnson’s government now aims to dispense even with the pretence that it values the scrutiny provided by parliamentary democracy. Its defenders seek to do so by drawing equivalence with the use of parliamentary procedures which have been deployed only to hold the slipperiest of governments to account, and now in relation to a catastrophic policy which has no mandate.

This, though, is the narrative of Brexit. A blame game. A narrative spun by those without real confidence in their own assertions because they have been based always on bluster and misrepresentation. It started with othering foreigners, and “citizens of nowhere,” but as Brexiters were forced to justify the whole venture with actual detail, they have demonised judges, civil servants, the 48 per cent who voted Remain, business, the Bank of England and now parliament itself. Brexit has relied on shifting the Overton window so constantly to the right that parliamentarians are now suggesting it is entirely normal for MPs to be excluded from the most fundamental policy issue which will affect our country for years to come.There is no equivalence between those who try to engage with democracy—by scrutinising the actions of a government, now without a working majority, and trying to hold its feet to the fire—and those responsible for seeking to implement the Brexit they promised, without accountability.

If this government has confidence that its no-deal policy is indeed representative of the people’s will, it should not be frightened of transparency. In practical terms, it must publish the no-deal assessments for all to read. Nor should it be frightened of being accountable to parliament or the people, from whom its legitimacy as a government is derived. If Brexit really is the cause of such jolly hockey sticks optimism, it’s been a very long time since we have heard evidence-based, reliable reasons for why we should trust the government messenger.

As the Conservative Party hops around, trying to claim that its new timetable for parliament is business as normal, the pound plummets and confidence in Britain’s democracy weakens. Johnson has cast himself as the emperor wrapped in the will of the people. But his egotistical stunts damage the fabric of our divided society, even as people increasingly see that the emperor has no clothes.