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Analysis

We can fight Johnson’s devilish plans to gag democracy

by Hugo Dixon | 01.09.2019

The prime minister’s willingness to ride roughshod over our democracy may not stop at suspending Parliament. Boris Johnson may go deeper into heart of darkness in his desperation to drag us out of the EU on October 31 “do or die”. In an interview with the Sunday Times he refused to rule out various devilish schemes including advising Queen not to sign a new law intended to stop him dead in his tracks – and in an interview with the BBC, Michael Gove refused to rule out breaking the law if MPs passed new legislation.

The prime minister claims it would be “anti-democratic” to delay Brexit and have a new referendum. What nonsense. So much has changed since 2016 that it would be undemocratic to quit the EU without checking that the people really want the no-deal crash out Brexit Johnson is now offering.

It would be even worse to use the sort of devious tactics Johnson may now be contemplating to prevent Parliament having its say at this critical time. We live in a parliamentary democracy not a presidential system. The more Johnson seeks to gag MPs, the more he corrupts our constitution.

Suspending Parliament for five critical weeks is bad enough. But MPs still have a way of fighting back. They still have a week now to stop Johnson by passing emergency legislation or conceivably kicking him out of office. They also have two more weeks from October 14 before we crash out on October 31 to try to foil his plots. That’s barely enough to rein him in – but it should just do the trick.

Some of the new tactics being briefed by Downing Street – a few of which Johnson refused to rule out himself in his interview with the Sunday Times – could neuter parliament. Below we consider them.

Flood House of Lords with pro-Brexit peers

MPs are planning to pass a law requiring Johnson to ask the EU to delay Brexit. If they agree, the House of Lords will almost certainly agree. Johnson could only avoid this by advising the Queen to create hundreds of new pro-Brexit peers.

The last time anything remotely like this happened was in 1911 when the House of Commons wanted to rein in the House of Lords, but peers refused. The government then threatened to flood the House of Lords with supporters and peers backed down so it didn’t need to carry out its threat.

But this is a misleading precedent. It was only necessary to make this threat because the unelected House of Lords was seeking to block the will of MPs. If Johnson did something similar today, he would be seeking to overturn the will of the Commons not uphold it. The Queen would be extremely unwise to agree if Johnson made this request. She would be conniving in an anti-democratic manoeuvre.

Advise Queen not to give new law Royal Assent

If both Houses of Parliament pass a Bill, it still needs Royal Assent before it can become law. Johnson could advise the Queen not to sign it. If she agreed, she would be conspiring in a coup.

Disobey or sabotage new law

Johnson might also seek to sabotage any law telling him to ask the EU to delay Brexit – or even ignore it. One idea is he could ask an ally such as Hungary’s Victor Orban to veto the request for extra time. Since the decision has to be unanimous, there would be no extension. This is one of the few circumstances where it would be reasonable for Parliament to cancel Brexit by revoking Article 50 without first asking the people.

If Johnson just refused to follow the law, MPs and others could bring a lawsuit against him. The Queen should use then her reserve powers to dismiss him from office. It would be wrong to have as prime minister somebody who had just deliberately broken a law passed by Parliament.

Further suspension

If Johnson is worried that MPs might stop him when the “prorogation” ends on October 14, he could ask the Queen to suspend Parliament for longer – say until November 1. By then, we’d already have crashed out. If the prime minster were to suggest such a thing, the Queen should refuse. Otherwise, she will be accused of conspiring in a coup.

Refuse to resign

If MPs vote against Johnson in a vote of no confidence, he doesn’t have to resign unless it’s clear that somebody else can form a government. But how will MPs be able to show that they can back another prime minister if Parliament has been suspended? It’s possible to imagine various ways they could do this. But Johnson might then refuse to quit Downing Street and run down the clock until October 31. If he tries to do this, the Queen should sack him. Failing to do so would again amount to conspiring in a coup.

Call an election

Another idea is that Johnson could see the writing on the wall when MPs are about to pass a law forcing him to ask for extra time and call an election. He could only do this if Jeremy Corbyn agreed because two-thirds of MPs are needed to call a snap election. In order to win over the Labour leader, he could offer to hold the election on October 17.

Corbyn shouldn’t fall for such a ploy. Johnson is playing fast and loose with the constitution and can’t be trusted. Even if an election was held on October 17, it would be up to Johnson to advise the Queen when it should return – and it could be delayed until the end of October or even November. Unless Labour got an overall majority, which nobody thinks is remotely likely, Johnson wouldn’t be compelled to resign. He could just hang on until Parliament returned and by then we would have crashed out.

If Johnson tries such a ploy, Corbyn should say he doesn’t trust the prime minister and that it is first necessary to delay Brexit. Only then should they talk about an election. There’s a further advantage in playing things this way. Johnson could only get MPs’ approval for an early election if he advised the Queen to cancel prorogation.

These are very difficult moments for our democracy. But we can foil Johnson’s devilish plans. It’s not just the MPs who have to keep their discipline and fight him. The general public must do so too – by engaging in nonviolent protest.  MPs and the people fighting shoulder to shoulder can stop the madness.

Update: A reference to Gove’s BBC interview was added shortly after publication.

6 Responses to “We can fight Johnson’s devilish plans to gag democracy”

  • If you look at the headlines in today’s right wing newspapers (ie most of them), they are using words associated with war and referring to ‘Remainers’ as the enemy. It is outrageous that we have become so divided.
    However, I am encouraged by the loud reaction to the latest outbreak of bullying by Cummings, although I worry about the stability of this man. Basically, he is mad. That he should order the police to escort an employee out of Downing Street (and confiscate her phones to examine the calls made) would be considered abuse if it happened in any other place of work. I remember the hullabaloo in 2012 when Andrew Mitchell, a minister, swore at the police outside Downing Street and he lost his post. Why isn’t the same happening to the dictatorial, Cummings, who is plotting to erode democracy?
    There was much anger at my local ‘Stop the Coup’ demonstration. yesterday. We have to stick together but all those who oppose Brexit have to co-operate and put their parties second to saving the country from these madmen. The Speaker could be the key person in all of the parliamentary tumult. Let’s hope he plays a blinder.

  • Is all of this actually happening in England ? It is hard to believe that it is. But it goes to show what can happen even in a country like ours when the nationalist virus escapes and overcomes the traditional safeguards set to contain it and seeks to impose its will on the majority.

    And what to say about the right wing press in the hands of a few rich men who are distorting the news on a daily basis ( and have been doing so for years ).

    Johnson states that we need to move on from Brexit and embark on the glorious future awaiting us outside the EU. There has been no sign of any glorious future since the coalition government in 2010 and whether there is a deal or no deal, negotiations with the EU on trade and related questions will continue for 10 years or more

  • To Arnold (above). Corresponding to your comment there is a very apposite article in the New Statesman (28 August 2019) by Brendan Simms called ‘Hitler’s Long Shadow’.
    Simms argues that we thought Hitler and Nazism had been buried by 2000AD but, with recent events suggest otherwise with the erosion of democracy and the growth of populist parties. Simms argues that fissures are opening up ‘not just between north and south but east and west’.

  • We live in a parliamentary democracy with the rule of law. The Government is also subject to the law. If rumours are true that Johnson is considering not obeying a law passed by Parliament, what message would that send out to the general public?
    Why should any of us obey the law?

    Add that, to the new norms set by leading Brexit politicians, making ‘lying’ normal, or even respectable. Doesn’t bode well for the future values held in society.