Johnson's nuclear option could blow apart our unwritten constitution

The PM is attempting to suspend Parliament in order to force through a no deal. Our ex No 10 insider sees dark times ahead.

by The Secret Brexiter
Last Updated: 06 Sep 2019
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Food for thought

If reporting is correct and the PM is attempting to suspend Parliament, we are witnessing the start of historic constitutional and potential security challenges. The struggle between the executive and legislature could turn genuinely hostile.

With few options left - no compromises likely from the EU and a (relatively) unified position to block no deal by the opposition parties - Johnson has taken the nuclear option. For the PM it’s too soon for an election victory, and he may fear that if Parliament can sit, it will succeed in forcing him to ask for an extension. Keeping hold of power is what matters in a crisis.

We do need a new sitting of Parliament, having not had one for over two years. Typically we have a dissolution and a Queens’ Speech every year but, fearful of rebellion, May set out a two year programme in 2017. 

The issue here is the timing - a new session and a Queen’s Speech are supposed to be neutral actions to lay out the Government’s programme and seek a vote on it; doing so now makes the closing of Parliament an overt political act to stop disagreeable elected members offering dissent to the actions of the executive on the most important issue of the day.

I believe the executive has made a calculation based on strong polling that the population will accept the move - though there is a good chance of civil disobedience of the type not seen since the Poll Tax.

The story goes that the people have had enough and will accept an end to hostilities between executive and MPs, even if it is brutal and anti-democratic. Parliament after all has spent the last three years disagreeing about everything, and the public are ready for a strong leader to break the impasse.

We’ve been here before. In 1642, Charles I attempted to enter Parliament with an armed guard to arrest five truculent MPs. The idea was to assert his authority, but it failed - a London mob formed barricades to protect their plucky representatives from the king’s supporters; a brutal armed conflict followed, leading eventually to the King’s execution. It was the 17th century equivalent of the nuclear option, only the trigger failed.

The monarch is once again at the centre of the storm. The Queen has been trying to stay out of the Brexit conflict, but now finds herself in the invidious position of being pulled in on the side of the executive, obliged by convention to follow its instruction against the desire of the elected representatives. 

It’s especially difficult given that the current PM has no electoral mandate from the country. The Queen and her advisers will know that the action demonstrates the relative impotence of a constitutional monarch versus an elected president, who by virtue of their own mandate in a popular vote, rather than by dint of birth, has more leverage to challenge or veto overtly hostile actions between our two democratically legitimate parts of the government.

Expect counter-manoeuvres from Remainers seeking to ask the Queen directly to request an extension from the EU, ironically using the Humble Petition of the 17th century - our second written constitution aiming to curtail the power of Cromwell, by then a military dictator. 

The Queen may have to choose whose advice to follow - will she follow her advisers (the Prime Minister and his cabinet) or the MPs in Parliament and their speaker?

John Bercow is himself in an historic position, as the UK's unwritten constitution begins to fray.

In the Middle Ages, the speaker was the most important voice of the electorate - a counter-balance to the monarch’s appointed advisers, many speakers were murdered going about their business.

In recent centuries, the role of speaker has become more procedural. But these are different times. Bercow may need to decide what form of opposition Parliament will take. Though far fetched in normal conditions, I wouldn’t rule out Parliament, under this bombastic Remainer speaker, refusing to dissolve or continuing to sit in the Queen Elizabeth II Centre perhaps, as the locus for civil disruption and a new London mob.

At the root of this, the Brexit dispute has demonstrated that when the public is divided, when branches of government are at odds and when both sides dig in, claiming to speak for the masses, there is no satisfactory mechanism to resolve a dispute.

The unwritten - i.e. make it up as you go along - constitution can be pushed and poked to any end and the monarch, tied by historic precedent, is unable to intervene with the same decisiveness as an elected president.

Out of the rubble of this frightening moment may come a new political order, but equally it may be that at times of extreme stress and deep division, all our systems will struggle to cope.  In any case, expect significant disruption and bubbling tensions at home to add to the uncertainty over our relations with Europe - history students will look back on 2019 as a portentious year in years to come.

Image credit: EU2017 EE Estonian Presidency/Flickr (Creative Commons)

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