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It’s Not a Coup, It’s the Westminster System in Meltdown (But MPs Can Still Stop No Deal)

It was always likely that Boris Johnson would pursue the unthinkable. By seeking to suspend parliament for an additional week in September – rendering any attempt to stop No Deal unlikely – he has achieved precisely that.

It’s fitting that a political movement whose foundational myth was the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty is culminating in the precise opposite. With an unelected prime minister seeking to sideline parliament, these are perilous times for the very fabric of the Westminster system – more so than at any time in the last century.

In assessing how Brexit has unfolded so far, and how it will continue to play out, two facts need to be understood. Both are critical in understanding not only why Johnson is pursuing this strategy, but how.

The first is that, strictly speaking, Britain isn’t a democracy. Yes, that term is among the most nebulous in circulation, but consider this: if the United Kingdom applied for membership of the European Union today it would face a number of obstacles.

For one thing, our second chamber is entirely unelected, as is our head of state (less of an issue since this also applies to countries like Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands). According to the Copenhagen criteria, drawn up in 1993 to specify the requirements for EU membership, any candidate country must have “achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities”. If Hungary or Poland had an institutional framework similar to that of Britain today, their accession might not have been permitted 15 years ago. Neither our prime minister nor his platform for government have faced an election. Meanwhile one of the UK’s nations, Northern Ireland, hasn’t had a government since January 2017.

The second is an outgrowth of the first, and speaks to a political deformation of the British state which is now rapidly crumbling despite having endured for two centuries. That is the fact we don’t have a codified constitution.

For many years this aberration among advanced countries was a topic for the most conjectural of the chattering classes, an intellectual Rubik’s cube for political scientists, left-wing students and the vestiges of the SDP who are now columnists for the Guardian. Now, however, it is becoming the key explanation for how the country is falling so far, so fast.

In response to the news of the Johnson administration seeking to prorogue parliament, the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, replied that it was “a constitutional outrage”. Except that isn’t entirely true. By asking the Queen to extend parliamentary recess by a week, Johnson is proceeding in a manner entirely commensurate with our ‘constitution’, or rather absence of it.

One of the more specious claims of domestic politics, from A-level teachers to Westminster journalists, has been that Britain’s constitutional hodge-podge of convention, statute and common law can endure in the modern world. That appears increasingly ill-founded as Britain – mired in economic stagnation for a decade – endures ever stranger political outcomes. Add in our imminent departure from the EU and the fracturing of the union, and it’s clear our system of government is at breaking point. The ‘rough genius’ of the English constitution, as Walter Bagehot memorably phrased it more than a century ago, is starting to look like a deranged fairytale.

More preposterous than the speaker appealing to a political framework which is so incoherent as to not really exist was Conservative MP Dominic Grieve threatening to write a ‘humble address’ to the Queen. While such a measure does possess some legal weight it is analogous to writing a sternly-written letter to your landlord’s best friend after they have sent the bailiffs round with sledgehammers. Even Grieve himself highlighted the impotence of such a measure, conceding he doesn’t think parliament can stop prorogation. Fear not, however, because he thinks “there may be something that parliament can do to register its deep concern”.

Of course, it’s not entirely true that nothing can be done. Parliament can stop Johnson and stop No Deal, but it will require passing a motion of no confidence in the prime minister and supporting an interim government led by the leader of the opposition. Had Labour been marshalled by an anodyne establishment figure, rather than a socialist, it would likely have already happened.

Yet today’s move by the government means a Corbyn premiership is the only measure available to those who want to stop No Deal. A week will simply not be enough time to pursue the parliamentary route favoured by those generally fearful of an election, particularly the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson (who might lose her seat to the SNP) and the motley crew of former Labour and Tory MPs who founded Change UK.

In Grieve’s defence, he said as much when speaking on BBC Radio: “If the prime minister persists with this and doesn’t back off, then I think the chances are that his administration will collapse”. Importantly, he put meat on the bone by declaring he would vote against a Tory government seeking to suspend parliament.

But what is needed for that to transpire is Grieve and his fellow Conservative dissenters not just promising to vote, but organising with their fellow backbenchers while acting as prominent tribunes. For all the jokes thrown at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group, they held the rest of their party to ransom – and it worked. If the likes of Grieve, Philip Hammond and Justine Greening are serious, they will follow suit and explicitly back a Labour-led alternative government to stop No Deal.

It’s hard to see how alternative appeals to an uncodified constitution will prove fruitful, or whether a mass movement against a ‘coup’ is even plausible. I would imagine not, given that Johnson’s latest move represents the continuation and intensification of recent trends rather than a rupture with them. The state opening of parliament was cancelled not only in 2018 (because the government rightly knew it wouldn’t have a functioning majority), but also in 2011 to ease the introduction of legislation for fixed-term parliaments. The first occasion, under the Coalition government, was the first time such a measure had been taken since 1925. One has to wonder why a parliamentary suspension of less than a week is any more ‘unconstitutional’ than events which also took place within the context of hung parliaments and political deadlock.

The same people who last week spoke of having Ken Clarke as prime minister are presently trying to claim Boris Johnson is breaking all the rules. The reality is that the fluidity of the British constitution permits both. It does a disservice to socialist and progressive politics to say otherwise, insinuating the setup we inherited in any way merits passing on. It doesn’t, and a central part of Labour’s offer at the coming general election must be profound constitutional reform.

An abuse of power is not a coup. The truth is the British constitution is designed for precisely the former, placing extraordinary power in the hands of the executive while forsaking strong institutional checks elsewhere. The precise extent of our system is presently being tested by Johnson. And yet the response must be a simple one: the country needs not only economic renewal but a political revolution, with a bill of rights, the end to unelected legislators, and clear, specified protocol around things like referendums.

The Westminster system has evolved precisely so that the executive can act in a quasi-dictatorial manner. It is not a new feature but its default direction for decades. The first step to changing things is not deceiving ourselves.

Importantly for now, this can still be stopped – but calling Johnson’s latest move a coup absolves Tory ‘rebels’ and Liberal Democrats from their historic responsibility: to vote down this government and install Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister to stop No Deal.

Published 28th August 2019

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