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Boris Johnson Enters Democracy’s Twilight Zone

Summary:
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's power grab, in which he has suspended the UK Parliament for five weeks from September 9, 2019, has recklessly undermined democracy at a time of historic decision making on the future of the United Kingdom. Because of his actions, the parliament cannot formally debate government policies, submit legislation, raise parliamentary questions, or scrutinize government activity while the executive can continue to govern in the face of questions about its command over a majority in parliament and its own legitimacy. Johnson's supporters argue that he is merely playing two games simultaneously: trying to renegotiate the Brexit deal with the EU-27 and trying to prevent hardline anti-Brexiteers from weakening his negotiating leverage. Under this argument,

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's power grab, in which he has suspended the UK Parliament for five weeks from September 9, 2019, has recklessly undermined democracy at a time of historic decision making on the future of the United Kingdom. Because of his actions, the parliament cannot formally debate government policies, submit legislation, raise parliamentary questions, or scrutinize government activity while the executive can continue to govern in the face of questions about its command over a majority in parliament and its own legitimacy.

Johnson's supporters argue that he is merely playing two games simultaneously: trying to renegotiate the Brexit deal with the EU-27 and trying to prevent hardline anti-Brexiteers from weakening his negotiating leverage. Under this argument, Johnson's goal would be to present to the UK Parliament a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement with the EU-27 in late October 2019, in which the Northern Ireland border arrangement, known as a "backstop," has been settled to Johnson's satisfaction. The parliament would then face a final up or down vote to choose between the prime minister's new Brexit deal and a no deal Brexit on October 31. Conveniently for Johnson in this interpretation of his designs, suspending parliament under the so-called prorogation procedure would lead to a new session of parliament, enabling him to resubmit the Withdrawal Agreement for a vote despite its having been defeated multiple times earlier in 2019. If the parliament rejects his own deal, Johnson would, in theory, escape blame for a no deal Brexit.

But this interpretation of Johnson's supposed strategy is farfetched. The prime minister has failed to present any new ideas for how to replace the Irish backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement. Instead, his new negotiating strategy with the EU-27 can be boiled down to increasing the pressure on Brussels to offer concessions. Such pressure is unlikely to sway the EU-27, however. And in the absence of new credible proposals to address the Irish backstop, Johnson is merely doubling down on a no deal outcome.

It is thus hard not to see the suspension of the parliament as a cynical attempt to make it harder for members of parliament to force Johnson to request another extension in the negotiations, postponing Brexit yet again, which would make a mockery of his "Out by October 31 do or die" Brexit pledge. He seems equally determined to make an early vote of no confidence impossible, a vote that would enable the United Kingdom to hold another early election before October 31, exposing Johnson's Conservatives to strong political competition from Nigel Farage's Brexit Party. Crucially, if there is a vote of no confidence, the prime minister—who has some political room for maneuver in choosing the early election date—could try to call an election after October 31, when no deal Brexit becomes a fait accompli and the challenge from Farage fades. In either scenario though, prorogation is a blatant attempt at preventing a majority in the UK Parliament from having their final say over one of the most important issues in recent British history. In a nation where parliamentary sovereignty was invented 800 years ago, this is an extraordinary turn of events.

Johnson seems to fancy himself as campaigning in any early election in Trumpian fashion, standing against the establishment in parliament as the sole voice of the people bent on delivering the Brexit they voted for. Whether such a strategy can succeed is questionable. The British people may instead reject Johnson's gambit as quasi-authoritarian and a damaging blow to the British political system. Moreover, the long-term future of the United Kingdom will face new risks. Scotland may decide quickly to secede from this new constitutional order, while the rest of Europe—whose leaders Johnson needs to persuade to grant him a new Brexit deal—sees a man claiming to speak alone for the people and what has happened to parliamentary democracy in the place where it was born. Johnson's political stunt will make it harder to strike a new deal in Brussels.

Jacob Funk Kirkegaard
Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow, has been associated with the Institute since 2002. Before joining the Institute, he worked with the Danish Ministry of Defense, the United Nations in Iraq, and in the private financial sector. He is a graduate of the Danish Army's Special School of Intelligence and Linguistics with the rank of first lieutenant; the University of Aarhus in Aarhus, Denmark; the Columbia University in New York; and received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies.

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