Boris Johnson’s Parliamentary Runaround
Back on April 11th, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, said that he had a message for his “British friends”: “Please, do not waste this time.” The European Union had just given the United Kingdom an extension, until Halloween, to get its act together about Brexit. At that point, the U.K. was on the verge of crashing out of the E.U. without basic rules in place, having treated the world to a spectacular display of self-delusion and parliamentary dysfunction. And yet it turns out that all of that was only a warmup. Boris Johnson, who replaced Theresa May as Prime Minister last month, has applied all of his cleverness to move the definition and practice of time-wasting to new extremes. In a particularly patience-smashing move, earlier this week, he requested and received Queen Elizabeth II’s consent for a “prorogation” of the current session of the House of Commons, which means that it would be suspended as soon as September 9th, with no parliamentary business to be conducted between then and October 14th. The practical effect is that Parliament will have even less time to do anything before the October 31st deadline, such as blocking a no-deal Brexit. And some of the scarce remaining time will be filled with the centuries-old rituals that attend the reopening of Parliament—waste camouflaged by ceremonial frippery.
Johnson claimed that proroguing Parliament was just an efficient way to get the government organized regarding its domestic agenda, such as new plans for the National Health Service and strategies for fighting crime. It had nothing to do, he claimed, with his stated intention to take the U.K. out of the E.U. on October 31st, “come what may.” Very few people buy this explanation (only about thirteen per cent of the public, according to an Ipsos MORI poll). And so a certain amount of time is also due to be expended arguing a point that is already clear: Boris Johnson is a liar. This is not simply a matter of honor. Prime Ministers have a lot of latitude in proroguing Parliament, but doing so in bad faith, for false reasons that hide the true goal of evading Parliament in order to carry out a program that runs against the wishes of a majority of M.P.s, may well violate the strictures of British constitutionalism. (Johnson’s cynical maneuver parallels the Trump Administration’s attempt to use a made-up pretext to insert a citizenship question from the census, which the Supreme Court rejected.)
John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has called the move a “constitutional outrage”; Jacob Rees-Mogg, an arch Brexiteer who is now the leader of the House of Commons, said that Bercow and others were “crying Constitutional wolf,” whatever that means. Because the U.K.’s constitution is largely uncodified, and reliant on practice and precedent, there is some genuine uncertainty about what is being set in motion. The Prime Minister’s power relies on the presumption that he can, when it comes down to it, muster a majority in Parliament, and it’s not at all clear that Johnson does. Possible outcomes include a no-confidence vote or a new general election, at some point—but, meanwhile, October 31st is getting closer.
Three major court challenges to the prorogation have already been launched in separate courts in three of the U.K.’s constituent parts: England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The case in Scotland was brought by Joanna Cherry, an M.P. with the Scottish National Party, who was joined by dozens of other legislators. On Friday, a judge denied them an immediate injunction but set a further hearing for Tuesday, saying that it was “in the interest of justice that it proceeds sooner rather than later.” The English plaintiffs include John Major, a former Prime Minister from Johnson’s own party, and Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats; they’ll have a hearing on Thursday. And there will be yet another hearing on Friday, in Belfast; there, the case has been brought by Raymond McCord, a peace activist who argues that a no-deal Brexit would violate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. (He has a point.)
Ireland remains at the heart of the problem, because Brexiteers can’t seem to accept that leaving the E.U. will also change the U.K.’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland, which will remain an E.U. member, and thus change the nature of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The agreement that Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, negotiated with the E.U. included what is called the “Irish backstop”—basically, it allowed time to figure out how the border would work, and put in place what amounted to an insurance policy to make sure it would get done. This would involve keeping the U.K. in line with the E.U.’s customs regime and rules until a final deal is worked out. Johnson insists that the backstop be scrapped but has no plan to replace it with anything but an assurance that, with a little time, he’ll figure it all out. On Friday, Ireland’s deputy Prime Minister observed that this was not a serious suggestion. Johnson, he said, had yet to offer “any credible” alternative to the backstop.
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The Johnson government protests that it has lots of proposals and plans and negotiations in the works. The Transportation Secretary, Grant Shapps, though, undercut that message, on Friday, by saying that he doubted there would be “something new” for M.P.s to discuss until the next summit of E.U. leaders, on October 17th—and so proroguing Parliament was no big deal. Members of Parliament, in both parties, are likely to disagree. The House of Commons reconvenes next week, after its summer recess, and the days it has left are likely to be furious ones. Will they, too, be wasted?