Opinion

People vs Boris Johnson

People vs Boris Johnson

Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to justify the proroguing of the UK Parliament for over a month by claiming it is “normal procedure”. It is not. The most that Johnson — a prime minister who was selected by a section of the Conservative Party and who hasn’t faced a general election — can claim is that he has not technically broken the law. In fact, by asking the Queen to suspend the House of Commons till just 10-12 days before the October 31 Brexit deadline, Johnson has shown complete disdain for the British people, the forum in which their representatives make their voice heard, and for Westminster-style democracy itself. Ironically, among the issues that Johnson and other “leavers” had cited as reasons for Britain leaving the European Union three years ago was that the EU curtailed the powers of the country’s parliament and the will of the British people.

Since June 2016, when the people of Britain voted by a slender majority to leave the EU, the country’s political class has been unable to form a consensus on the modalities of the exit. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, resigned after she was unable to convince parliament of her Brexit plan. By all accounts, a no-deal Brexit will be an economic disaster for the UK. Johnson claims he will negotiate a new deal at the EU council in September and secure a parliamentary majority for a withdrawal bill before October 31. Either PM Johnson can magically forge agreement in eight weeks on an issue that vexed his predecessor for two years or, as is far more likely, he is doing his best to circumvent a much-needed debate and the messy compromises it would entail.

Britain does not have a formal, written constitution. But its laws and parliamentary customs have served it well because they are respected across political and ideological divides. In the Westminster model, parliament is not just a procedural necessity. It frames the will of the people, the source of political legitimacy. If Johnson wishes to suggest that the mandate for his version of Brexit is greater than the voice of all the MPs that oppose it, he must call a general election. The Opposition must ask for a vote of confidence in the government. Meanwhile, across the globe, as strongmen claiming a direct understanding of the will of the people undermine institutions that act as a check on executive power, how the first parliamentary system holds its own against this assault will be closely watched.