The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boris Johnson is taking British democracy to the brink

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Critics of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson picked up the gauntlet he threw down this week. Protesters massed outside 10 Downing Street and in cities across the country, decrying Johnson’s controversial decision to suspend Parliament as a “coup.” The planned prorogation, as it’s known, would begin in mid-September and last five weeks — in theory, allowing Johnson to bypass legislative blocks and possibly yank Britain out of the European Union in a “no-deal” Brexit by October’s end. The move, argued Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, was tantamount to “a smash-and-grab raid against our democracy.”

In normal times, there’d be nothing particularly controversial about Parliament being suspended for a few days and then reconvening as the prime minister attempts a new legislative agenda. But these are not normal times. Johnson is seeking a far longer gap during which Parliament will be unable to stymie his actions. And the smoldering divisions within Britain over the tangled path forward make the sidelining of its elected officials all the more alarming.

The British Parliament has been paralyzed by its inability to realize anything close to what Brexit’s proponents — including Johnson — promised voters in a 2016 referendum. A withdrawal agreement forged with the European Union by the previous prime minister, Theresa May, failed three times to get approval by lawmakers. Unlike many of his opponents and even rivals within his Conservative Party, Johnson is willing to take Britain headlong out of Europe without a divorce deal in place. That’s an outcome that remains widely unpopular and would have grave implications for travel, trade and much else in Britain — as well as sparking deep concerns over the status of Northern Ireland, where centuries-old sectarian tensions subsided in the shadow of an open border with Ireland.

Now, a prime minister who came to power with just over 92,000 votes in an internal party ballot may dismiss the country’s elected representatives to force through a no-deal reality that no one campaigned on in the initial push for Brexit. “If Johnson’s prorogation ploy succeeds, Britain will forfeit any right to lecture other countries on their democratic shortcomings,” noted an editorial in the Financial Times. “The UK’s constitutional arrangements have long relied on conventions. The danger existed that an unscrupulous leader could trample on such conventions. That has not happened, in the modern era, until now.”

Analysts placed his gambit as part of a wider trend of demagogic executive rule seizing democratic politics in the West. “Johnson’s ploy is legal, but it stretches the conventions of Britain’s constitution to their limits. His scheming is just one example of the cynicism that is gnawing at Western democracies,” wrote Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor in chief of the Economist, in an introductory note to her magazine’s latest issue. “These days, however, they are more likely to be strangled slowly in the name of the people. Old-established polities, such as Britain and America, are not about to become one-party states, but their democracy is already showing signs of decay. Once the rot sets in, it is formidably hard to stop.”

On Aug. 29, the British government remained defiant after Prime Minister Boris Johnson's move to suspend Parliament before Brexit sparked protests and outrage. (Video: Reuters)

Across the Atlantic, the parallels between Westminster’s chaos and the ferment in Washington grow all the more stark. “A ruthless executive is pushing the outer bounds of what is constitutionally possible to achieve unpopular outcomes,” observed Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum. “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.”

Richard Evans, writing in the left-leaning Prospect, invoked the always ominous analogy of Weimar Germany, where representative democracy collapsed amid infighting, political paralysis and the schemes of emboldened nationalists. “The ground rules of democratic politics in many countries, including Britain and the U.S., are more in danger than they have been at any time since the early 1930s,” Evans concluded.

For now, though, Johnson has left the ball in Parliament’s court. As my colleague Adam Taylor lays out, British members of Parliament will meet Tuesday and explore legislative steps that could possibly stall the prorogation. Failing that, Corbyn may call a vote of confidence in Johnson’s brief government. But that’s a complicated process, given the apparent unwillingness of Tory rebels and members of the other parties, including the resurgent Liberal Democrats, to rally behind the left-wing Labour leader.

“The big question that the no-confidence vote hinges on is whether the opposition parties are able to overcome their own internal politics and posturing for power to be able to have a unified position,” said Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, to Today’s WorldView.

If the no-confidence vote succeeds, Corbyn or a possible compromise candidate would have 14 days to form a new government. Opposition politicians have already made clear that the explicit purpose of this government would be to secure another Brexit extension from Brussels and then initiate fresh elections.

But a general election before Oct. 31 or one staged after a no-deal Brexit could still play into Johnson’s hands. In the first case, it would galvanize pro-Brexit voters fed up with Westminster’s inertia to come out and support Johnson — who is eager to campaign on a populist platform of “the people vs. the politicians” — and far-right gadfly Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which is jostling on Johnson’s right flank. In the second scenario, the upstart Brexit Party would have less raison d’etre, and Johnson could wheel around to directly take on the leftist Corbyn.

This sense of uncertainty and chaos has defined British politics ever since the 2016 referendum. For onlookers, though, Johnson’s new approach offers more evidence that the West’s oldest and most respected democracies are not immune to the dangerous impulses facing younger democracies elsewhere.

“Can you imagine what would happen if I shut down parliament?” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov told reporters Thursday. “Can you imagine the accusations of dictatorship?”

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