Few British prime ministers have suffered such public humiliation. Summoned back overnight from the United Nations General Assembly, Boris Johnson had to explain to a hostile parliament in London why he had flagrantly broken the law in suspending its sittings, why he had misled the Queen and why he tried to ride rough-shod over Britain’s constitution.
Only a day earlier, Britain’s Supreme Court had issued one of the most devastating judgments in British political history. Its 11 judges found, unanimously, that Johnson had deliberately tried to prevent Parliament from doing its work in holding the government to account. His decision last month to send members of parliament home at the height of the political crisis over Brexit was invalid. His stated reason for doing so was a lie. Queen Elizabeth had been deceived in issuing the formal order. And the suspension was therefore no more than a “blank sheet of paper” that was null and void. Parliament resumed its work the very next morning.
It was an angry and chaotic session. There were shouts and accusations, denunciations and name-calling. Time and again Opposition members of Parliament traded insults, as Labour party members ridiculed Boris Johnson for his attempt to suspend Parliament and he denounced what he called their “cowardice” in refusing to agree to a new general election. The insults and the name-calling shocked many political observers and disgusted television viewers watching the heated debate. Commentators went as far as asking whether British democracy had lost its way.
At the heart of the row is the mounting political tension over Brexit. Boris Johnson has promised that he will take Britain out of the European Union on October 31st – whatever the consequences (“do or die”, as he expressed it). He and his advisers are ready to quit the EU even if there is no agreement reached in time. Almost all British industry has warned that this would be disastrous for Britain’s economy, paralysing all trade with Europe, interrupting vital transport and communications links and affecting almost every agreement with Britain’s neighbours, including the import of medicines and nuclear material as well as scientific research and student exchanges.
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Britain’s Parliament is therefore determined to stop any no-deal Brexit, and has already passed a law making it illegal for Britain to leave the EU without an agreement, and forcing Johnson to ask for a further extension of British membership if negotiations have not led to success by October 19th. That leaves almost no time to negotiate the outstanding difficult issues, especially what to do about the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic. And EU negotiators say Britain has put forward no new proposals that have any chance of being accepted by the rest of Europe. They say that the Johnson government is simply pretending to negotiate with the intention of “crashing out” of Europe without a deal at the end of the month.
The Supreme Court ruling, however, will make it difficult for Johnson now to ignore Parliament and the new law on Brexit. If he does, he faces arrest and criminal charges. Politically he is in a very weak position. He has been forced to apologise to the Queen for misleading her over the suspension of Parliament. He no longer has a majority in Parliament after expelling 21 rebel Conservatives from the party. He has lost all seven of the recent votes in Parliament on Brexit. And he cannot call an election to try to rebuild a Conservative majority unless the Opposition agrees to hold one. So far all the opposition parties – Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists - have said they will not agree to new elections until Johnson either has negotiated a new agreement with the EU or has asked for a further extension to Britain’s membership.
Johnson’s tactics are now to be as confrontational as possible. He is now ready to fight an election as the champion of the people’s wish for Brexit and the opponent of Parliament’s wish to delay Brexit. He has been extraordinarily aggressive – in his language, in his actions and in his treatment of those who disagree with him. This has pleased his supporters, but it has alarmed a growing number of ordinary Britons who are worried that the traditions of British democracy – moderation, balance, stability – seem now to be vanishing. All 118 of the bishops and archbishops of the Church of England – Britain’s state church – last week signed an open letter calling for an end to the insults and aggressive behaviour in Parliament, which they called “unacceptable”.
Johnson, however, is hoping that the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing Labour opposition leader, and the growing anger among many voters over the delay in leaving the EU will lead to a sweeping victory for his government in any coming election. So he is trying to sharpen the confrontation with Parliament and woo public opinion with promises of huge new sums of money for Britain’s health service, for schools, transport and local authority budgets.
But at the very moment that he is hoping to appeal to the party faithful at the annual conference of the Conservative party, he has suddenly been dragged into a new scandal. Newspapers have revealed that when he was mayor of London six years ago, he gave large sums of public money to a blonde American former model who claimed she was helping him to sponsor new business in London. It is said that she received large sums of unauthorised public money, and he changed the rules to take her with him to social events and on three overseas trips. At the weekend, newspapers also alleged that she was his mistress and that he was sleeping with her – although he was still married at the time.
Johnson has denied all the allegations. But they have damaged his image at a time when he is still fighting accusations that he is a philanderer, a liar and a man prepared to ignore Parliament and break the law for his own political ambitions.
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Opposition parties are now proposing to impeach him, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. This would be an extraordinary political irony as it would come at the same time as Congress is proposing to impeach President Trump, Johnson’s close political ally. The impeachment proceedings have only rarely been used in Britain and not for many years and they would involve a public trial in the House of Commons. The last time a minister was impeached was in 1848, when Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, was impeached for entering into a secret treaty with Russia.
The impeachment proposal, on the grounds of “gross misconduct” in suspending Parliament, is unlikely to succeed. And Johnson still has considerable support in the country among those who voted for Brexit, who are increasingly angry with what they see as deliberate delaying tactics in Parliament. But the Conservative party is now split between moderates, who are alarmed at the lunge to the political right, and the hardline Brexiteers who are ready to kick out any disloyal members from the party and pursue an openly right-wing agenda.
Polls show that no party could win an overall majority in any coming election – which may come in November. Unless Johnson is able to conclude a Brexit deal before that time, the stalemate and the anger and frustrations will continue. Britain will neither be in the EU nor out of it. Britain’s allies are looking with bewilderment at what is going on. They are asking: what on earth has happened to a country that was once well-known for its stability and political moderation?