190802 Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson Image Credit: AFP

The ebullient British prime minister’s ‘do-or-die’ determination to deliver Brexit on October 31 with or without a deal has serious repercussions for the UK’s political fabric. The country is a parliamentary democracy with an unwritten constitution that relies on precedent and if Boris Johnson succeeds in his bid to prorogue Parliament for an exceptionally long duration when the nation is undergoing its biggest crisis since the Second World War II, a dangerous precedent will be set.

The idea that an unelected incumbent of Number 10 whose party has a parliamentary majority of one can ride roughshod over lawmakers and get away with it would have been unthinkable in times gone by when Britain’s democracy was generally seen as the gold standard.

If he succeeds in thwarting parliamentarians who have voted overwhelmingly against leaving without a deal albeit such votes were non-binding, there is nothing to prevent future prime ministers from unilaterally pushing through their own agendas without parliament’s checks and balances. There would be no barrier preventing any PM from silencing parliament for months, the slippery slope to authoritarianism.

In an invidious position

Worse, his shenanigans, aimed at holding EU negotiators and British parliamentarians over a barrel as the clock ticks before the UK automatically drops out of the EU have put the monarch in an invidious position. Queen Elizabeth is officially Head of State with a royal prerogative but she is also ‘a constitutional monarch’ whose powers are subject to the will of her prime minister and parliamentary laws.

Her Majesty has faithfully stayed out of politics throughout her reign and has always abided by advice proffered by the prime minster of the day. On the question of suspending parliament she couldn’t win either way. Her refusal would have resulted in a constitutional crisis pitting the monarchy against the government. Shamefully, Johnson’s dragging the Queen into the mess has resulted in an anti-monarchy campaign with calls for an elected Head of State.

Ironically, Johnson and his hardline Brexiteer cabinet insist they are defending the British people’s democratic will in accordance with the 2016 referendum. However, they have no appetite to take the nation’s temperature anew with a people’s vote in light of new realities.

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The government’s own leaked ‘official-sensitive’ document predicts a walkout will result in shortages of fuel, food, medicines, disruptions at ports and the imposition of a hard border in Ireland. It also highlights the potential of Britons living in the EU being stripped of their residency. The Governor of the Bank of England has warned of inflationary prices and job losses but diehard leavers turn a deaf ear citing ‘project fear’ conspiracies.

A substantial section of the public sick and tired of the Brexit saga want out and are willing to accept the pain as well as the government’s trickery towards that end. Others egged on by opposition parties as well as some Tory rebels are protesting on the streets of London, Birmingham and Manchester chanting “Boris Johnson, shame on you” and “Stop the Coup”.

One thing is undeniable. The British people have been let down by former prime ministers David Cameron who started it all and Theresa May whose missteps prolonged the agony as well as a hung parliament to the extent their future hangs on a cliff edge.

Despite Johnson’s undemocratic practices, if his gamble pays off and Brussels agrees to tinker with the withdrawal agreement once its back is against the wall, his unorthodoxy may be forgiven but the likelihood of the EU caving is close to zero. That is unless he can come up with a viable alternative to the problematic Irish backstop which thus far he has failed to do.

Vote of no confidence

One thing he has spectacularly achieved is to galvanise formerly fractious opposition parties to unite in an effort to unseat his government. This week is crucial to their endeavours reliant on the embattled Speaker to permit lawmakers to take charge of the parliamentary timetable. That will allow a series of votes to force the PM to extend the Brexit deadline, failing which a vote of no confidence in the government resulting in a caretaker government until a general election can be held.

The problem they face, however, is the lack of time at their disposal given that parliament is due to be shut down from September 9 to October 14. Even supposing the government loses a no-confidence vote, the prime minister can refuse to go and, in fact, he says he will. Instead, he will call for an election which by that time, his Brexit plans will be done and dusted.

Some 50 MPs from all sides of the aisle vow to set-up an alternative parliament. John Bercow insists he will fight with every breath in his body to prevent a parliamentary suspension. “We are a democratic society and Parliament will be heard”, he said. In the meantime, Tory MPs are scheming to take him down.

Whatever transpires in the coming weeks, Britain’s democratic credentials have been knocked on the head, hopefully not fatally. We Brits should be thankful for our legendary stiff upper lips to endure one of the most harrowing rollercoaster rides in recent history with no end in sight.

— Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.