Opinion

Boris Johnson and the circumvention of democracy

Boris Johnson and the circumvention of democracy
What Boris Johnson did in Britain last week is symptomatic of a growing trend in Western politics of demagogic executive rule.

Trump set the pace with his raft of executive orders and undermining the US Congress in order to ram through policies that would not have garnered sufficient consensus. The new, ruthless brand of undemocratic populist politics is being pursued by Prime Minister Johnson to railroad his policies through, come hell or high water.

If it means breaking democratic norms so that parliament is unable to stymie his actions, then so be it.

When Johnson asked the queen to approve the suspension of parliament for 23 days, he might have sugar-coated the motivation as the need to focus on his domestic agenda, but in reality it was obvious that he was exploiting the rules for political advantage. By suspending parliament, there would be no opportunity for MPs to debate Brexit until October 21, leaving only nine parliamentary working days until the deadline for Britain to leave the EU on October 31.

That would enable Johnson to ensure a no-deal Brexit, which is his goal. All his talk about negotiations continuing with the EU has been a farce. The EU has confirmed there have been no new negotiations, and Johnson has not proposed any alternative to the Irish backstop - he hasn’t consulted Ireland or Northern Ireland.

Johnson’s strategy has been to avoid parliament engaging in a robust Brexit debate which he would probably lose, and so he chose “a nuclear option” of suspending parliament in order to force a no-deal Brexit.

As opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said, Johnson has no mandate from the public for a damaging no-deal Brexit. By suspending parliament, the voters are being deprived of the opportunity for their representatives to hold the government accountable.

The suspension, or “proroguing”, of parliament has been done before, in 1997 and in 1948, but in those instances it was not in order to avoid critical scrutiny and debate by members of parliament on an issue of national importance.

Johnson is being called a threat to British democracy and a dictator by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell.

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow has called Johnson’s moves a constitutional outrage that undermines his democratic credentials.

Even Johnson’s brother, Jo, resigned as minister for business and education last week, saying that he had been torn between family loyalty and the national interest, and decided he could no longer stay.

Highly problematic is the prime minister’s penchant for playing fast and loose with the truth, which is diplomatic-speak for lying. Johnson had given assurances to his Conservative colleagues that he would not countenance suspending parliament.

Exchequer Chancellor Sajid Javid, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Works and Pensions Minister Amber Rudd have been against a no-deal Brexit, and Johnson had assured them he would not entertain proroguing parliament.

Johnson had given the same assurance to the Conservative Party leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, who was against suspending parliament, which she saw as a divisive move. But Johnson violated his own promise in a betrayal of trust.

Davidson subsequently resigned, which could lead to the crushing defeat of the Scottish Conservatives at the next election. It has also brought back to life the independence movement in Scotland.

In a remarkable show of protest against Johnson’s undemocratic im- pulses, 21 MPs from his party rebelled against his decision to suspend parliament and force through a no-deal Brexit, among them former prime minister Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, as well as former chancellors Kenneth Clark and Philip Hammond.

True to his dictatorial style, Johnson purged them from the Conservative Party in retaliation.

Johnson is looking weak and isolated after parliament rose up against him and his party revolted. First, Johnson did not get the two-thirds majority needed to call a snap election, which he wanted given that he has lost his governing majority.

In addition, MPs backed a bill to delay Brexit, forcing Johnson to request another three-month extension from the EU. This has painted him into a corner, given that his response to the developments was he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask the EU for an extension.

Johnson has characterised the latest moves by MPs as a dereliction of duty, and insisted he wouldn’t request a Brexit extension from Brussels, which would set him up against legislation probably to be passed by a democratically elected parliament. Johnson is considered an unelected prime minister as he was chosen by Conservative party MPs in the wake of Theresa May stepping down.

The Tory party membership is 160000 out of a population of 67.6million. The composition of Tory MPs is also not representative of the population, given that 70% are male, and most are white and middle class.

The pushback against Johnson’s no-deal Brexit will increase in ferocity as the grave implications for such an outcome become more widely publicised and the public is more aware of how this would affect their lives.

The government’s contingency planning for a hard no-deal Brexit is encapsulated in Operation Yellowhammer, which outlines the likelihood of shortages of food, fuel, medicine, and a three-month meltdown at the ports. As most medicines are imported from the EU, it is estimated there could be serious shortages for six months; there is a possibility people could die.

A no-deal Brexit means that all agreements Britain has with its European partners will evaporate, which means there will be tariffs on UK imports that will increase the cost of food and fuel.

There would also be tariffs imposed on British exports, which would mean that British manufacturing would take a hit.

The baseline prediction is that there would be a contraction of the British economy of 8%, an estimated half-a-million job losses, all of which would hit the disaffected middle and lower classes.

A no-deal Brexit would also mean a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which would violate the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland. The agreement was calibrated so that a hard border would not happen, and its violation risks the return of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

Johnson wants the EU to ditch the backstop agreed with May, which would require Britain to obey EU rules until another mechanism can be found to avoid checkpoints on the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Johnson’s positions are reckless, considering what is at stake.

In Johnson’s corner is the Trump administration, which is champing at the bit for a no-deal Brexit to be realised so that it can immediately step into the vacuum and negotiate a trade deal with Britain. US Vice-President Mike Pence said as much when he visited Downing Street in the middle of the political firestorm that erupted.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jetted in to pledge his support for the Johnson administration. Johnson’s success is considered key to those championing the Trump doctrine of “draining the swamp”, and the narrative of pitting “the people against the politicians”.

The consequences of allowing such populist politics to succeed is dire for Britain’s economy and the standard of living of ordinary people. A millionaire, Eton-educated Johnson has little regard for that reality.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.