Britain’s political system, long regarded as a model of stable parliamentary democracy, was thrown into turmoil by the 2016 referendum on European Union membership and has become ever more erratic. As the country nears the 31 October date set to leave the EU with no agreement on the terms of departure or future arrangements (a ‘no-deal Brexit’), the government suspended, or prorogued, parliament for five weeks – the longest period for decades – amid accusations of a ‘coup’. To bring about the election that Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has sought (but claimed not to want), there has been speculation that he might call – and try to lose – a vote of confidence in his own government, with the Labour opposition paradoxically then voting in support of him. And the famously loyal Conservative Party has become split in a manner not seen since the Corn Laws divided the Tories in 1846. So it seemed wholly appropriate that the BBC’s leading radio news programme, Today, introduced a report on British politics by quoting Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, who ‘believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’
Johnson had a difficult start to his premiership as he suffered humiliating defeats in all six votes he has faced in the House of Commons, losing the support of leading Conservatives, who were then expelled, and being forced to reveal internal memos that reveal how dire life in Britain could become if, as seems likely, it leaves without a deal. Speculation mounted over whether he would become the shortest-serving PM in British history.
Johnson succeeded Theresa May in July with the overwhelming support of party members (and the US president, Donald Trump) but immediately faced a wave of resignations by ministers over his promise to leave the EU, ‘do or die’, by 31 October with or without a deal. As politicians returned to Westminster after the summer recess with a battle looming over Brexit, he was opposed by the ‘rebel alliance’ (a half-joking term borrowed from Star Wars) of Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, the sole Green Party MP, and a mutiny from centre-right ‘One Nation’ Tory MPs, who included Philip Hammond, the previous chancellor, and Ken Clarke, the Commons’ longest-serving MP and a Tory minister for 24 years.
Bolstered by 21 rebel Tories, the united opposition pushed a bill to block a no-deal Brexit, proposed by the Labour MP Hilary Benn, through the Commons to seize control of parliamentary procedure and force Johnson to seek a four-month extension of Article 50, which governs Britain’s exit from the EU.Despite a plea for support from Johnson, who claimed they would destroy his negotiating position with the EU, and threats from Tory whips, who warned rebel MPs that they would not be able to stand for the party in an election (even though most of the present cabinet had voted against the party line when May was PM), the Benn bill was voted through the Commons and then passed by the House of Lords after pro-Brexit peers dropped their opposition to it (many had been ready to block it through a filibuster). As the 21 Tory MPs were expelled, the former party leader and foreign secretary William Hague called it a ‘disgusting act of hypocrisy’ from former renegades who had seized control of the party and expected loyalty when they had given none.
Clarke, a former chancellor of the Exchequer and home secretary, accused the prime minister of trying ‘to set conditions which make no-deal inevitable, to make sure as much blame as possible is attached to the EU and to this House for that consequence, and then as quickly as he can fight a flag-waving general election before the consequences of no-deal become too obvious to the public.’ The former Tory prime minister John Major warned that the government would be seen as a ‘mean-minded sect’ and would help break up the UK by hastening the end of England’s union with Scotland. The work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, not only resigned from the cabinet but renounced the party, accusing Johnson of misleading the public about trying to achieve a deal with the EU. Hammond, a quiet man once nicknamed ‘Spreadsheet Phil’, condemned the ‘unelected people’ pulling the strings in an attack on Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, and promised No 10 ‘the fight of a lifetime’, saying: ‘I am going to defend my party against incomers, entryists, who are trying to turn it from a broad church into a narrow faction.’
Perhaps most devastating for the prime minister was the resignation from the cabinet of his brother Jo, who said he could no longer resolve the tensions between ‘family loyalty and the national interest’. As one headline put it: ‘BoJo’s bro Jo deals him a blow.’ Nick Boles, another MP who left the Conservatives to sit as an independent, tweeted: ‘Boris Johnson is willing to sacrifice anyone and anything on the altar of his ego and ambition.’ Days before, another former minister, Phillip Lee, quit the party over what he called the ‘manipulation, bullying and lies’. Defecting to the Liberal Democrats, and thereby wiping out Johnson’s majority in the Commons, the former justice minister issued a scathing statement after crossing the floor, declaring: ‘This Conservative government is aggressively pursuing a damaging Brexit in unprincipled ways. It is putting lives and livelihoods at risk unnecessarily and it is wantonly endangering the integrity of the UK. More widely, it is undermining our country’s economy, democracy and role in the world. It is using political manipulation, bullying and lies … in a deliberate and considered way.’
In yet another twist, the Conservatives, who traditionally campaign as the party of law and order, saw their leader promise to break the law. ‘They just passed a law that would force me to beg Brussels for an extension to the Brexit deadline. This is something I will never do,’ he declared. Iain Duncan Smith, a former party leader, even encouraged the PM to break the law, saying he would be seen would be in contempt of court and trigger a legal and constitutional crisis if he did not obey the law.
Johnson’s response was to prorogue parliament almost immediately to curtail debate and force through the ‘no-deal Brexit’. Though prorogation is used to formally end a session of parliament, the prime minister was widely accused of flouting the British constitution – even by the customarily neutral Speaker of the Commons, who called it ‘a constitutional outrage’. Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the Exchequer only a few weeks before, called the move ‘profoundly undemocratic’.
Even by recent standards, there were extraordinary scenes during the arcane parliamentary ritual that begins prorogation. When the official known as Black Rod summoned the Speaker, there were scuffles as opposition MPs restrained the Speaker to stop him leaving the Commons (an echo of MPs trying to prevent prorogation in 1629) and others held up signs saying ‘silenced’. Bercow declared: ‘This is not a standard or normal prorogation. It’s one of the longest for decades and it represents an act of executive fiat.’ Tory MPs then left to chants of ‘shame on you’, Scottish and Welsh nationalist MPs sang patriotic anthems and Labour sang the Red Flag. Days later, Scotland’s highest civil court ruled that the prorogation had been illegal. Sources in No 10 accused the Scottish judges of bias, though this was quickly played down by the prime minister’s official spokesman. Johnson denied that he had lied to the Queen over his advice to her before she formally agreed to the prorogation.
There was much scorn and not a little schadenfreude in the reaction to Johnson’s difficulties among politicians and newspapers on the continent. Referring to the Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini’s attempt to install himself as premier by bringing down the government, the former PM Matteo Renzi tweeted: ‘Parliaments 2 – Populists 0.’ Le Monde began its report: ‘Another crazy day in Brexitland.’ Libération noted that the last PM to lose their first vote was Lord Rosebery in 1894, whose government only lasted 15 months (though he did give us the phrase ‘Commonwealth of Nations’). Die Zeit declared: ‘[Labour leader] Corbyn has done well, was temperate, almost statesmanlike, much better than the short-tempered Boris Johnson, who stumbles through his arguments.’ Handelsblatt said Johnson was ‘already fighting for his political survival’. The Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad said: ‘Johnson is not yet a month and a half prime minister and he dangles, struggles [and] has already lost his political credit.’ El País said MPs were not impressed with Johnson’s popularity or ‘intimidated by his bravado’, accusing him of ‘babbling and elusive responses’.
Lewis Goodall, Sky’s political correspondent, said: ‘Boris Johnson really is a record breaker. He lost a by-election faster than any other prime minister in modern history and now he has the worst voting record too … [he is] in office but not in power … Johnson’s personality has made the crisis worse. His pugnaciousness, his insistence on confronting parliament, has led to a conflagration this week which would not have occurred had he been more conciliatory … His famous slipperiness, his reputation for mendacity, has made prime ministerial assurances (such as over an election date) worthless, similarly unimaginable under any of his predecessors.’
Tom Kibasi, director of a thinktank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, said: ‘From proroguing parliament to furiously provoking rebels on his own side, Johnson created this moment of crisis. That’s because his political strategy aims to force a general election before Britain leaves the EU – and to use Brexit to win it. In a single day, Johnson managed to drive one Tory MP to walk across the chamber to join the Liberal Democrats, others to announce they would not seek re-election, and more to walk through the opposition lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn. It is quite the political feat.’
Riots, food shortages and price rises, a scarcity of medicines and the growth of the black market are among the scenarios envisaged in the government’s contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit, Operation Yellowhammer, a summary of which it was forced to release by MPs. Amid calls for the newly prorogued parliament to be recalled, Dr David Nicholl, a medical expert who advised on Yellowhammer, asked the government: ‘What level of mortality are you willing to accept in a no-deal Brexit?’
Britain is heading towards a general election, though when is as yet unclear after MPs blocked his attempt to call one. The legislation requiring an extension to the departure date unless he had obtained support from parliament for either no-deal Brexit or a new agreement, which Johnson had dismissed as a ‘surrender bill’, has become law. This means it is highly unlikely that the prime minister will be able to leave the EU by 31 October ‘come what may’, as he had promised. Speculation swirls over whether he might try to lose a vote of confidence or resign to force an election. When the election does happen, the result is hard to predict as both the Tories and Labour are set to lose votes to the Lib Dems from their remain-minded supporters and lose votes to the Brexit party among their ‘leavers’. And yet, almost incredibly considering Johnson’s difficulties, the Tories had a lead of 10 to 14 percentage points over Labour in two opinion polls. As Alice might have said: ‘Curiouser and curiouser!’