You could call it a constitutional crisis, and many are doing so. The speaker of the House of Commons has used the expression “constitutional outrage,” and some are going further: #stopthecoup is trending on British Twitter. Alternatively, you could dismiss it as nothing more than a bit of unattractive “parliamentary chicanery,” as a Brexiteer friend of mine just did over the phone. But however this saga ends — with Brexit or no Brexit, an election or no election — the British prime minister’s unusual and unprecedented five-week suspension of Parliament, announced Wednesday, will end by helping to discredit Parliament, and to discredit democracy, in one of the oldest democracies in the world.
Johnson’s team is playing down this decision, but there can be no pretense: He has called this suspension, which will begin Sept. 11, to avoid a parliamentary vote. His predecessor, Theresa May, was unable to get a Brexit treaty through Parliament — mostly because Brexiteers themselves could not face the ugly realities, so much worse than the paradise they had promised. Johnson probably can’t get May’s Brexit treaty through Parliament, either, and he hasn’t got very far in negotiating a new one.
At the same time, the majority in Parliament will not back a “no deal” Brexit — an abrupt withdrawal that would disrupt trade, commerce, travel and just about everything else that connects Britain to the outside world. The House of Commons already voted once against a “no deal Brexit,” in March. Earlier this week, the leaders of the opposition parties, plus some rebellious Conservatives, met and made a new legislative plan designed to delay Brexit to stop “no deal” once again.
Johnson does not have a parliamentary majority, or even a popular majority, for a “no deal” Brexit. Indeed, with a tiny majority of one, he barely has a parliamentary mandate at all. He certainly does not have a popular mandate: He was not chosen in a general election but was nominated, instead, by 92,000 members of the Conservative Party. Without Parliament, without the public, without real legitimacy, he nevertheless believes he has to make Brexit happen by the deadline, Oct. 31 — because that is what he promised during his leadership campaign and because otherwise his party might not survive to the end of this decade.
There could be democratic solutions to this dilemma. One of them would be a new referendum. Johnson doesn’t want that, however, because most polls show the public would probably not back Brexit a second time. An election would also be a solution, and we might get to that: One of the effects of Wednesday’s announcement might be a vote of no confidence in the government during the few days Parliament meets next week before suspension — a vote that some Conservatives will now reluctantly support.
But an election in these circumstances, following Wednesday’s dramatic parliamentary suspension, would also be ugly. One of Johnson’s advisers has hinted that the campaign slogan will be “The People vs. The Politicians” — that is, illogically the People vs. Parliament. Many also seem to think Johnson might let Brexit happen, by default, while the campaign is going on and Parliament is not sitting. If that’s the case, it almost doesn’t matter who wins: That kind of campaign, with that kind of slogan, amid that kind of chaos, will deepen the profound divisions in the country, convince whoever loses that they have been cheated, and make life for the next government nearly impossible.
If the Conservatives win after such a campaign, a rebellious opposition will do everything, constitutional and unconstitutional, to thwart their rule. If members of the Labour Party win, they will be tempted to use some of the same tricks, including the suspension of Parliament, to push through their own unpopular agenda. If there is a hung Parliament, nothing of any kind will be decided at all. The scars will last. “We aren’t killing one another,” Lord Jonathan Marks, a Liberal Democrat constitutional scholar, told me, “but it’s as bad as the 17th century in many ways.” For those who don’t remember, in the 17th century, Britain had a civil war.
I’ve so far resisted these comparisons, but now Britain’s political crisis really does resemble the parallel crisis in the United States. A ruthless executive is pushing the outer bounds of what is constitutionally possible in order to achieve unpopular outcomes. A ruling party that is afraid for its own electoral future is shamefacedly supporting him. A divided opposition seeks to block him but doesn’t have a popular leader itself. A conservative party is using populist slogans that undermine national institutions. Old precedents and customs are being abandoned at great speed, leaving only a vacuum in their wake.
It is, if you like, the ultimate irony. Brexit, allegedly, was meant to return “sovereignty” to the British Parliament. Instead, Brexit might end up discrediting the British Parliament, and British politicians, well into the future — just like their American cousins.