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Boris Johnson. Photo/Getty Images

Boris Johnson is betting it all on Brexit

With his call for a general election, the new British Prime Minister risks all.

“Civil war”, “a coup”, “a dictatorship”: politicians and pundits have certainly not maintained the British tradition of understatement in describing Boris Johnson’s most recent attempt to thwart his opponents in Parliament. A master of hyperbole himself, the Prime Minister has been on the receiving end of some rather exaggerated accusations since he performed a controversial constitutional manoeuvre known as prorogation.

Most people in the UK have managed to live long and fulfilling lives without ever using the verb “to prorogue”. Not any more. You can barely get through a conversation on the weather without hearing it mentioned. Derived from the Latin word for prolong, in English it means, paradoxically, to bring a parliamentary session to a close. Parliament is usually prorogued – or suspended – once every year, before the head of state announces the government’s legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech.

The difference is that this year, Johnson, who, remember, is an unelected prime minister, has prorogued Parliament for a record five weeks, thus severely shortening the time available for his opponents to pass legislation preventing a “no deal” Brexit. His supporters claim that as Parliament would be adjourned for three weeks anyway for the party conference season, it’s no big deal.

But it is. Not a civil war, not a coup, but a rather cunning attempt by the PM to get his way without the hindrance of parliamentary oversight. Johnson’s bargaining method with the EU has been brinksmanship. If a trade and customs agreement is not reached, he says, the UK might suffer, but so will Europe, so it’s in Europe’s interest to accede to British demands. But they’ll do so only if they know the UK is serious about being prepared to leave without a deal.

His critics said he was gambling with the country’s economic future. And, as the Europeans have insisted many times that they won’t change the substance of the withdrawal deal agreed with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, then Parliament was determined to prevent Johnson from effectively walking the country off a cliff.

It was Johnson who famously said that May’s deal was like wrapping “a suicide vest around the British constitution”. He went one better and wrapped a suicide vest around the British economy and, with the prorogation, sent the bomb-disposal team away for five weeks, leaving an anxiously short time in which to defuse an explosive Brexit. But, at the time of writing, Parliament has voted to take over legislative procedures so as to block a “no deal” Brexit. Johnson responded by trying to call an election – the very thing he promised not to do. However the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn – who’s been demanding an election for the past year – withheld Labour’s assent. It’s Alice in Wonderland politics, in which everyone does the opposite of what they say.  The public is, on balance, against parliamentary suspension, but in support of Johnson. If that sounds like a contradiction, it is, and one that’s symbolic of a confused and conflicted nation that is exhausted by this never-ending drama.

Johnson has now declared war on Parliament. A man who repeatedly voted against May, he has ejected the 21 Tories – some major figures – who voted against him. His own brother, Jo Johnson has resigned in protest. The choice is now between “no deal” and the deeply unpopular Corbyn.

All of this does have echoes, however faint, of Charles I, who dissolved Parliament in the 17th century and then fell out with it over the issue of Ireland. Hence the English Civil War and Charles’ beheading.

Of course, Johnson is no king, and he’s rather cleverly hidden behind the Queen, who is officially responsible for the proroguing. Yet, although he’s in no danger of decapitation, many wonder if he has already lost his head. 

If Johnson somehow forces an election and wins, he’ll be portrayed – at least by himself – as a figure of Churchillian standing. If he loses, his political career is over. Either way Britain seems set to undergo a political and economic meltdown.

This article was first published in the September 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.