Even Parliament Must Make Way for Brexit

Brexiteers are willing to suspend parliamentary democracy if that’s what it takes to leave the EU.

The statue of Richard the Lionheart and the Palace of Westminster in London, England, August 12, 2014
The statue of Richard the Lionheart and the Palace of Westminster in London, England, August 12, 2014 (Shutterstock)

To its supporters, Brexit is all that matters. If it means plunging the country into deep uncertainty, undermining the public’s trust in institutions, trashing Britain’s alliances, causing Northern Ireland and Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, even destroying the Conservative Party — so be it.

The latest victim of this obsession is parliamentary democracy.

In the battle between popular and parliamentary sovereignty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has sided with the former and suspended Parliament, so it will have almost no time to prevent the United Kingdom from crashing out of the European Union without an exit agreement.

“Outrage”

Political scientist Yascha Mounk calls it the most blatant assault on democracy in Britain’s living memory, and one of the most serious any Western country has faced in this populist era:

Johnson has demonstrated that he considers himself a more legitimate spokesperson for the will of his countrymen than the institution that has been charged with this task for the past three centuries.

John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, has called it a “constitutional outrage”. Opposition parties have condemned the move. So have prominent members of Johnson’s own party. Ken Clarke, chancellor of the exchequer under John Major, has accused the prime minister of “outrageous conduct”. Ruth Davidson has quit as leader of the Scottish Conservatives.

Bad losers

Johnson’s defenders argue these are merely the laments of bad losers. As if the opinions of the 48 percent who voted to remain in the EU no longer matter.

It is true many of the suspension’s critics voted to remain in the 2016 referendum.

However, their hope is not to stop Brexit, but to stop a no-deal Brexit that would put everything from air travel to medical supplies at risk.

Without the withdrawal agreement, the legal status of millions of British residents in Europe and EU residents in the UK would be thrown into limbo. Trade would be disrupted. Customs checks would need to be introduced on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The consequences, at least in the short term, could be chaotic.

This is not normal

The Financial Times — which agrees with the critics that suspending Parliament is “an affront to democracy” — points out that “proroguing” the legislature at the end of its yearly session is established procedure, “but for one or two weeks, not five.”

A temporary recess during the September party conference season is also normal — but a brief prorogation could have been timed to coincide with it. There is nothing normal about suspending Parliament from September 9 to October 14.

Britain is due to leave the European Union on October 31.