U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson would have resigned by now, if politics were operating like normal in Britain. But Brexit has so shattered the country’s standard political protocols and norms that – rather than resigning — Johnson has taken last week’s Supreme Court ruling as license to go rogue.
The decision by 11 members of the U.K.’s Supreme Court ruled that Prime Minister Johnson’s “prorogation” of Parliament — the shutting down of Parliament for five weeks in the run-up to the Brexit deadline — was unlawful. In scathing comments, Chief Justice Lady Hale wrote that, “It had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification.”
It was a truly extraordinary ruling, in a country where, historically, the courts have given the executive tremendous discretion to manage the mechanisms of governance as they see fit. In normal times, it would have instantly forced the resignation of the prime minister and triggered the collapse of his or her government.
Instead of resigning, on the night of September 24-25, Johnson flew back from New York, where he had been attending the general assembly of the United Nations, and headed straight to Westminster — into one of the stormiest parliamentary debates in living memory. Perhaps inspired by his meetings earlier in the week with Trump, he immediately went on a blisteringly unsavory attack, along with his henchman, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Mogg accused the Supreme Court of implementing a “constitutional coup.” Johnson repeatedly accused parliamentarians who had voted before the prorogation to bar him from implementing a no-deal Brexit of supporting a “surrender act.” In his telling, one might have thought Britain was fighting World War II all over again instead of trying to negotiate a new working relationship with a group of countries that have been counted among the U.K.’s closest allies for decades. He barracked his opponents, all but accusing them of treason. He also attempted to present himself as a tribune of the people against an out-of-touch elite, despite internal government documents — repeatedly referenced by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn during the debate — indicating that the impacts of a no-deal Brexit would fall peculiarly hard on the poor.
There was an element of the surreal to his ghastly performance. His language was a mix of puerile British boarding school humor, larded with references to the classical literature that he studied at Oxford, and barbed nationalist rhetoric that would have been more suited to a 1970s fascist rally in punk-era England than to the august setting of the legislative chamber of the House of Commons.
As the day developed, the acrimony spread throughout the chamber, with one opposition politician after the next responding with increasing fury to Johnson’s taunts. Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party’s Westminster contingent was, perhaps, the most piquant:
Where law ends, tyranny begins. [Johnson] cannot pick and choose when it comes to the law; he must obey the law…. He quite simply is not fit for office. When I hear the prime minister talking about a “surrender act,” how despicable. It is language that is not suitable from the prime minister of any country. His position is no longer tenable. His failure to resign is an embarrassment.
But Johnson has no intention of resigning — and the opposition, divided among several political parties and groupings, and without a single unitary alternative position on Brexit, is wary of triggering a vote of no-confidence in Johnson until they have forced him to agree not to take the U.K. out of the European Union without a deal in place that clarifies how the exit from the European Union (EU) will proceed.
Thus the paradox: In some ways, Johnson is a prime minister in name only at this point. He has lost control of the parliamentary process — Speaker John Bercow now controls what is debated and when. He has lost the ability to prorogue Parliament — the Supreme Court has unanimously decided that. He has lost his parliamentary majority through expelling members of Parliament who voted against the possibility of a no-deal Brexit from the Conservative Party. And he has lost the ability to pick and choose the date of the next election, as the opposition won’t agree to vote in favor of calling one until no deal is off the table.
Yet despite Johnson’s parliamentary weakness, no other leader seems capable of mustering majority support to form a caretaker government. And Johnson himself seems to be relishing the possibility of taking the fight outside of Parliament and onto the streets.
The British leader has, in the week since the parliamentary debate, grotesquely claimed that the memory of assassinated Member of Parliament Jo Cox, who was stabbed and shot to death by a fanatical nationalist for her opposition to exiting the EU, would be best served by exiting the EU come hell or highwater by October 31. The comments were widely ridiculed, including by the prime minister’s own sister, but Johnson refused to back down. Subsequently, he and his minions have implied that a failure to leave the EU would result in street fighting and riots — leading critics to claim he was prepping his supporters for violence. Johnson then could exploit civic unrest as a reason to invoke the Civil Contingencies Act, which was passed in 2004 at the height of the war on terror, as a way to bypass Parliament again and try to force through a no-deal Brexit.
Meanwhile, the October 31 deadline fast approaches. French President Emmanuel Macron indicated he wanted to pull the plug on extensions to Brexit if there’s no concrete proposal from the U.K. by the end of September — which there apparently hasn’t been. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel has tried to keep the EU flexible, signifying she’s waiting on new proposals as an alternative to the Irish backstop, which has, for the past year-plus, proved a stumbling block preventing a parliamentary majority from supporting a negotiated Brexit deal. Neither continental leader is getting much love from Johnson at this point; his supposed negotiating points have not been published, and EU officials are expressing increasing exasperation with a British government they believe is only paying lip-service to the idea of working out a new relationship with the union.
All of these conditions create urgency within the fragmented opposition, which now outnumbers Johnson-loyalist Conservatives by about 40 members of Parliament, to unite around a figure they can nominate as a “caretaker prime minister” in the event that Johnson tries to do an end-run around Parliament again. Johnson’s do-or-die end-of-October deadline is now only four weeks away, and all indications suggest the prime minister hasn’t learned from the recent past and hasn’t changed his political priorities or noxious methods in his dealings with the European Union and with his domestic political opponents.