Ten aspects of the Johnson coup against the UK Parliament

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A protester depicting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson demonstrates during a protest outside the gates of Number 10 Downing Street in Westminster, London, Britain, 28 August 2019. [EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER]

Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament may have come as a shock to many but it has stripped away whatever remaining illusions there might have been that the Prime Minister was going to abide by British parliamentary traditions, writes Denis MacShane.

Denis MacShane is the UK former Minister for Europe.  

1)   This is a coup but not a coup. It is a coup de théâtre but not a coup de force. Johnson like any PM was in his legal rights to ask the Queen to grant a long suspension of parliament. There are demonstrators but no tanks in Parliament Square.

2)   There are three reasons for Johnson’s move. First, he has to keep up the momentum of almost manic activity we saw in August, making himself the front page story, day after day. This gives him endless media recognition which helps in the polls. Second, he has to drive Nigel Farage and his accusations that Johnson is ready to do a deal, not a No Deal amputation, off the news. Third, he gets back the initiative after a few days when it seemed as if opposition parties might get together – after 3 years of squabbling amongst themselves on Brexit.

3)   The over-the-top language makes Johnson’s opponents like Jeremy Corbyn, the LibDem leader, Jo Swinson, and the Scottish Nationalist, Nicola Sturgeon, look unbalanced, exaggerated, at times hysterical. The popular novelist, Philip Pullman, tweets about hanging Johnson. Ridiculous and foolish words from one of the most respected UK authors which plays into Johnson’s hands.

4)    There is no overall strategy. Johnson and his advisors like to throw boulders into the stagnant pond of the UK’s feeble disrespected Parliament to see how much a splash they can make. No 10 is spinning that his move will force the EU27 to make concessions, notably in terms of sacrificing Ireland or allowing the UK a ‘cake and eat it’ relationship with the Single Market.

5)    Others are announcing this is a first step to a new general election, the third in four years. But the public scorn for Johnson’s move – evidenced by more than a million voters signing an on-line petition urging the Commons to stand up for its rights – will not be a good start for any election campaign. All the opposition parties have to do is call for more fairness in the economy and society after 9 years of Conservative austerity, pledge to respect Parliament, and offer a final say to the people not the elites on Europe and Johnson’s hopes of increasing the number of Tory MPs disappears.

6)    The key figures are not Jeremy Corbyn or other opposition MPs. It is the number of Tory MPs willing to condemn Johnson, at this stage. So far the language from senior Conservatives, including the former prime minister, Sir John Major, has been openly condemnatory.  This does not mean a Corbyn initiated vote of no confidence will pass. In fact, he would be advised not to use this procedure and leave the Tory Party the sole proprietor of this latest Brexit attack on the UK’s parliamentary traditions.

7)    The Commons does return next week and the Speaker has made clear his opposition to Johnson’s move to stop the Commons scrutinising Brexit. It would have been easy to cancel the party conferences held in September and allow the Commons to sit. There is no excuse to suspend Parliament until the third week of October. The question is whether there will be procedural motions which allow a majority of all MPs, including many Tories, to take action that will amount to a defeat and  parliamentary humiliation for Johnson.

8)    It should not be forgotten that Johnson is a poor House of Commons man. He never shone in his early years as an MP before he went off to showboat as Mayor of London. His jokes, clowning, arm-waving and bonhomie, and vulgarity delight audiences from national television to Conservative militants’ fund-raising dinners. But they don’t work in the Commons which is where the conversational style of factual oratory, leavened with just one or two touches of humour and a well-turned phrase is what is necessary. Johnson fears the Commons. Unlike all new prime ministers he has done his best to avoid appearing in front of MPs, including this suspension of Parliament.

9)    Above all, Johnson is fearful that MPs can force ministers to publish ministerial estimations of the impact of a No Deal Brexit. The leak two weeks ago to the Sunday Times which printed five pages of the most explosive details about the lorry queues and food and medicine shortages a No Deal Brexit entails was hugely damaging to Johnson. If the Commons were to sit MPs could table questions, force Ministers to publish documents, and initiate debates and committee inquiries into No Deal Brexit. At all costs Johnson had to avoid more government information on the negative consequences of Brexit emerging. But civil servants are patriots and the chances of leaks arriving in newspaper offices are now much higher.

10) The suspension of Parliament has produced its immediate shock effect. But it has stripped away whatever remaining illusions there might have been that Boris Johnson was going to abide by British parliamentary traditions. He has acted out of fear not design. By the end of this week, the story will be different.

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