Boris Johnson has no public mandate and was chosen to be Tory party leader by just 0.14% of Britain’s population. A previous Tory politician, the former lord chancellor Lord Hailsham, thought governments with small majorities did not reflect wide enough support in the country and hence were undemocratic. His phrase was “elective dictatorship”. Mr Johnson hasn’t even got that. He threatens an unelective dictatorship, with a majority of one – which relies on 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party.
The prime minister has been undeterred by this democratic deficit and his lack of parliamentary strength, though his defence secretary was caught on camera frankly conceding the weakness of the government grip’s on power. However much he pretends otherwise, Mr Johnson doesn’t have the votes for a “bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda” or for any kind of Brexit bill. The UK’s “unwritten” constitution relies heavily on self-regulation, on understandings and assumptions more than hard rules. However, Mr Johnson is playing the part of a populist politician, one characterised not just by a lack of regard for the more traditional conventions of the political system, but one who aims to make a positive virtue out of this disdain.
Hence this week the prime minister exercised royal prerogative powers to diminish parliamentary sovereignty. These powers are not extraordinary but the manner and the timing of their use are. A large part of the power of the executive is its control of parliamentary business, including the timing of a Queen’s speech. But in acting to prorogue parliament for five weeks, Mr Johnson removes the opportunity for parliament to hold the government to account on the brink of a momentous constitutional change. Brexit, if not done in a constitutionally correct and reflective manner, risks undermining the relationship between the component nations of the UK as well as irreparably damaging the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Mr Johnson says he aims to negotiate a new deal at next month’s EU council, then introduce a withdrawal agreement bill and secure its parliamentary passage before 31 October. The prime minister is fooling no one in claiming that he can do in two months what Theresa May could not do in two years. More plausible is that he’ll press ahead, if necessary, with a no-deal Brexit against the express wishes of the Commons. This is an affront to democracy.
The sovereignty of parliament ought to be upheld, not least because it is the principle Brexiters said they wanted to preserve. Mr Johnson’s move has united his opponents in righteous indignation. Since arriving in office he has not shown he can command a Commons majority. He ought to prove he can do so. Perhaps he can. It would be hard for MPs to displace the prime minister. If Mr Johnson lost a confidence motion, he could abandon no-deal to try to regain MPs’ confidence. Failing that, unless an alternative government is formed, a general election would follow. There are other options. Parliament could legislate to require the government to seek and accept a further extension to the article 50 period. The government’s opponents have been committed – in theory – to stopping no-deal by any parliamentary means necessary. In practice, their opposition is often found deep in the political long grass, kicked there by a lack of enthusiasm for working across ideological divides and party lines. To stop no-deal, MPs must adopt some Johnsonian ruthlessness and be ready to bring down the prime minister and put someone else, probably Jeremy Corbyn, in his place.