Read: How Britain came to accept a ‘no-deal Brexit’
Johnson bases his legitimacy on an appeal to direct democracy, delivering the result of the 2016 referendum, in which Britain voted to leave the European Union. The result did not tell us what kind of Brexit the people wanted or whether they preferred any kind of Brexit to remaining in the bloc. But Johnson—like his predecessor, Theresa May—treats the referendum as a mandate, claiming immense executive power to interpret “the will of the people.” Unlike May, however, Johnson also seems to be determined to take the U.K. out of the EU on October 31 “with or without a deal.” To reach that goal, he is giving all indications that he intends to bypass elected representatives.
Here in Britain, enormous constitutional questions, previously believed to have been agreed on, are now up for debate again, and these are but a few of them. The British constitution has begun to seem more and more like an elaborate, high-stakes parlor game. Moves that were thought to be impossible have begun to seem merely improbable. Conventions that once looked like certainties are becoming unsettled. Issues ranging from the might of the executive, the power of MPs, and even the role of the queen are—almost all at once—being fought over.
There was a fear, throughout the Conservative-leadership campaign, that Johnson would force through a no-deal Brexit—in which Britain would leave the EU without any withdrawal agreement, something the government’s own analysis says would cause chaos—by advising the queen to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament. He consistently refused to rule that out, although in June he did say he was “not attracted to archaic devices like proroguing.” Just this month, the government’s lawyers said the issue of prorogation was “entirely academic.” Then, on Wednesday morning, to everyone’s surprise, Johnson made the move anyway.
Read: Boris Johnson is suspending Parliament. What’s next for Brexit?
Prorogation itself is a normal part of the parliamentary process. It’s a necessary step before a Queen’s Speech, when the government sets out its legislative agenda, which Johnson has set for October 14. What’s extraordinary about this instance is its purpose and length. It’s not quite as bad as proroguing Parliament until it’s too late to stop a no-deal Brexit—or to avoid a vote of no confidence, as happened in Canada in 2008—but it’s still bad. John Bercow, the outspoken speaker of the House of Commons, called it a “constitutional outrage.” It was probably not unconstitutional for the queen to agree to the request, but it may have been unconstitutional for Johnson to make the request. It’s certainly an abuse of power, designed to make it more difficult for MPs to stop a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson seems to believe that constraining lawmakers is a vote winner for a future People v. Parliament election in which he takes the side of the people. If he believes his supporters care so little about representative democracy, might he countenance even more egregious instances of executive power?