The fight is now against something even more horrifying than Brexit

We must stop this descent into demagoguery before it is too late

August 29, 2019
"Stop the coup" protests in Westminster on Wednesday night. Photo:  Lexie Harrison-cripps/EMPICS Entertainment
"Stop the coup" protests in Westminster on Wednesday night. Photo: Lexie Harrison-cripps/EMPICS Entertainment

The tension over August had been building, but nobody knew exactly what was happening. Boris Johnson was full of bluster but not substance. The papers were reporting speculation rather than events. Everyone was distracted. And then there came enough news to fill an entire year.

At lunchtime on Wednesday, three ministers flew up to Balmoral for a hastily arranged meeting with the Queen, and asked her to suspend parliament so she could deliver a Queen’s Speech. This was not to be any normal prorogation lasting a few days, but one spanning five full weeks. It would take place during the greatest peacetime crisis in modern British history, and seven weeks before a crash-out Brexit which, by the government’s own estimation, would paralyse the country’s economy and infrastructure.

Entreaties by Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson to conduct meetings and withhold royal consent arrived too late. The Queen was compelled to follow the advice of her government, and she had already agreed to the request. Never say that Britain is inherently more democratic or immune to tyranny than any of the countries we have condemned or invaded in the name of upholding our values. This is how you pull off a coup, and it is barely an exaggeration to say that is what just happened.

It is hard to know where to begin. We saw, with each passing hour, the all-out assault on democracy from an unelected prime minister lacking any majority; the explicit politicisation of the monarchy; and the hollowing-out of parliamentary sovereignty under the auspices of giving parliament control. We realised that Johnson genuinely does want to force food and medicine shortages on his own country in the name of the people. With Ruth Davidson’s resignation came the final elimination of any vestiges of one nation Toryism and the implicit acknowledgement that the Union would no longer be saved. We warned in 2016 that Brexit would spell unintended consequences. Not in our worst nightmares did we imagine what they would actually turn out to be.

Of course, the referendum changed everything in British politics. We had begun to see this coming. Theresa May repeatedly attempted to sideline parliament. Anti-Brexit politicians, the media and civil service have come under constant attack. Still, we naively assumed that there could be limits. Shutting parliament down seemed a step too far even for this government. Cabinet ministers such as Amber Rudd, Matt Hancock and Nicky Morgan previously condemned it, while Johnson himself dismissed the notion during the Tory leadership campaign. The problem is that our entire political system has for decades operated according to gentlemen’s conventions, assuming that the boys who passed through England’s elite schools would play fairly in public life without recourse to anything so vulgar as a codified rulebook—or, as it is otherwise known, a written constitution.

Because everything in our politics is open to abuse, everything is now in danger. There are of course people who seek to explain the government’s actions away. They protest that prorogation always precedes a Queen’s speech, and that parliament was due to go into recess for three weeks over conference season anyway. That is nakedly disingenuous. Parliament had the right to stop that recess, and may well have done—but it cannot stop prorogation.

This is about seizing power from the people’s representatives and handing it to a prime minister elected by 0.14 per cent of the population. The government, in reality, has learnt carefully from Trump and authoritarians elsewhere. Nothing is about principle, but rather wrong-footing opponents, briefing false lines, and focusing not on the ethics of what you are doing, but how you can win. All actions are designed to sow confusion, while claiming to a disoriented public that everything is perfectly normal.

This is what happens when you treat all politics as a game. When sensible parliamentary democracy becomes just another obstacle to defeat, for reasons you can’t be bothered to explore.

If we ever inhabited an era of selfless public service, we certainly don’t any longer. Johnson’s No 10 team represents government by the start-up generation, where the “smartest guys in the room” compete to outdo each other in ego, zeal and innovation. The world must be remoulded to satisfy a half-forgotten model of ideological purity, and nobody cares how much they need to break in order to accomplish it. This is the dirtiest game modern British politics has ever seen, and its opponents need to be ready to fight back.

So what happens now? Legal challenges to the prorogation have already been lodged, but success is far from guaranteed. Legislation to stop no-deal will therefore need to be enacted in a matter of days. That will be complex. Opposition parties need to unite on a strategy and figurehead, ensure watertight drafting, find the time in the Commons to debate, then try to tackle the filibustering in the Lords. The prorogation date acts as a hard deadline, after which they will need to start all over again.

It may be easier to call a vote of no confidence in the government. This must be done in a pragmatic way. Once the government falls, the opposition will have 14 days to assemble an alternative government. The Tory Remainers have indicated that they would rather have no-deal than a temporary government led by Jeremy Corbyn. That may be obscene, but it is also the reality. Labour had every right to insist on Corbyn, but it has been held to a successful ransom. If MPs engage in a stand-off, we will all fall over the cliff-edge together. Meanwhile, if politicians cannot assemble the numbers for any alternative government, they must go to court to stop Johnson calling an election—as he has threatened—for after 31st October.

The moment is bleak, but there is no reason to despair. MPs have shown that they oppose no deal, oppose being blamed for it, and are prepared to stop it. Just as importantly, few politicians will want to go down in history for enabling both a crashed economy and a coup d’état. But it can only happen if they mobilise, coordinate and fight back. MPs must set aside tribalism, their careers and even their personal opinions on Brexit. They can no longer bring pencils to a gun-fight. This is an attack on the foundations of our democracy, and if our elected representatives do not stand up for us now, there will soon be no more democracy left for them to defend at all. Today we do not fight Brexit, but the slow slide into something resembling dictatorship.