Lies, purging and prorogation: two pivotal weeks in Brexit

  • >>Mark Landler, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-09-14 10:51:11 BdST

The Houses of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London on Sept 4, 2019. Britain is in a profound political crisis, as Parliament is paralyzed by the task of carrying out the fateful vote of the British public to leave the European Union. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

It started with claims that Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain lied to the people and ended with charges that he lied to the queen. In between, there was a political spectacle so gaudy and unheard-of in this country that it raised a stark question: Is Britain in a constitutional crisis?

The answer, by most accounts, is not yet. But Britain is in a profound political crisis, one that has brought with it a strange argot of upheaval — prorogation, purges, lying — and a Parliament paralyzed by the task of carrying out the fateful vote of the British public to leave the European Union.

After two dizzying weeks, Britain seems poised on a threshold, between the folkways and rituals of its past and a future of radical change, where conventions are turned upside down and old rules no longer apply. Past and future were both on vivid display during these fraught days, sometimes hand in hand.

On Monday evening, when Johnson’s government prorogued, or suspended, Parliament — an act widely condemned even by some of the prime minister’s fellow Conservatives as a ruthless silencing of debate — the ritual was nevertheless carried out with a ceremony of almost comical formality.

In accordance with tradition, the Lady Usher of the Black Rod, a stone-faced woman clad in a heavy gold chain and wielding a black-and-gold staff, marched into the chamber and petitioned the speaker of the House, John Bercow, to accompany her to the House of Lords to mark the end of the session.

But then, most untraditionally, members of Parliament, shouting “No!” and brandishing signs that said “Silenced,” draped themselves bodily over Bercow to prevent him from leaving the chamber. The Black Rod waited stoically for the speaker to comply.

“I will play my part,” Bercow said at last, raising his foghorn voice above the din. “This is not, however, a normal prorogation. It is not typical; it is not standard. It’s one of the longest for decades, and it represents, not just in the minds of many colleagues but huge numbers of people outside, an act of executive fiat.”

Performances like that had turned Bercow into one of the sensations of the Brexit debate. He became a thorn in the government’s side, gleefully defying Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, and manipulating parliamentary rules to give backbenchers control of the debate.

Yet the speaker announced the same day that he would step down from his post at the end of October, a decision that reflected, in part, the polarizing figure he had become. His departure will leave a void in Westminster, raising the question of who could possibly bellow “Order! Order!” with the same brio when a new Parliament reconvenes to debate the next phases of Brexit.

In his final weeks presiding over the House, Bercow seemed as much ringmaster as disciplinarian. With parts of the Conservative Party in open revolt against Johnson over the prorogue and his threat of taking Britain out of the European Union without a deal, and the opposition inflamed by his maneuver to cut off debate with the suspension, the House of Commons became a stage for political theater of a particularly British variety.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative leader whose upper-crust mannerisms are easy to parody, stretched out on the frontbench during an evening debate, his languorous pose launching a thousand Twitter memes and becoming a metaphor for Britain’s out-of-touch, Eton- and Oxford-educated elite.

Johnson lampooned the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, when he balked at the prime minister’s call for an early election, calling him a “chlorinated chicken” (his reference was to chemically-treated poultry from the United States, which many Britons fear would flood the country after Brexit).

One of the Conservative renegades, Phillip Lee, defected ostentatiously while Johnson was addressing the chamber, crossing the aisle to sit with the Liberal Democrats and depriving Johnson of his single-vote majority.

His act presaged a broader mutiny in Tory ranks. Twenty-one members voted with the opposition to tie their leader’s hands, passing a law that forbid Johnson from withdrawing Britain from the European Union on Oct 31 without a deal.

Johnson struck back by purging the 21 rebels from the Conservative Party. Emotional farewell speeches from party elders like Kenneth Clarke, a former chancellor of the Exchequer, and Nicholas Soames, a grandson of Winston Churchill, injected a somber note into the otherwise raucous proceedings, serving as a reminder of Brexit’s human cost on the political system.

There was a personal cost to Johnson, too. His brother, Jo Johnson, a member of Parliament and government minister, announced he would resign, saying he was “torn between family loyalty and the national interest.” An ashen-faced prime minister wished his brother the best but insisted he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask Brussels for another delay in Britain’s departure.

The broader picture was one of chaos. The opposition rebuffed Boris Johnson’s call for an election, declining to give him the necessary two-thirds backing of Parliament. They worried that Johnson would try to schedule a vote before the Oct 31 deadline to leave Europe, and use a new mandate, if he won at the polls, to leave without a deal.

“Parliament is divided, clueless, and doesn’t know what it wants,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. “Well, that’s also the British people. The political debate has changed beyond recognition because of Brexit.”

For all the stresses they have absorbed, Britain’s democratic institutions have held so far. But the country’s unwritten constitution has been a source of strength, giving members of Parliament flexibility in resisting the government but also weakness, as it has forced momentous decisions into the judicial and political spheres, with unpredictable outcomes.

“The line between a political crisis and a constitutional crisis in a country with an unwritten constitution simply isn’t a bright line,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at Oxford University.

“With an unwritten constitution,” he said, “you leave many of these questions to the political process. We are precisely on the ill-defined frontier between a political and constitutional crisis.”

With Parliament dispersed, the focus last week shifted to the courts. In Scotland, Johnson suffered a defeat from a panel of judges, who ruled that his suspension of the House of Commons breached the constitution. It was designed, they said, to squelch debate on Brexit, not merely to set the stage for his government’s new legislative agenda.

One of Johnson’s ministers suggested the court was biased. “Many people,” said the minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, using a vaguely worded formulation that could be drawn from President Donald Trump’s playbook, “are beginning to question the partiality of the judges.”

Since by law, the prime minister asks the queen to approve the proroguing of the Parliament, the ruling also raised the question of whether Johnson had misled Queen Elizabeth about his reasons.

“Absolutely not,” Johnson said in a television interview Thursday. He pointed out that an English court had sided with the government on the decision and that the legal dispute would ultimately be decided by Britain’s Supreme Court. “We need to get on and do all sorts of things at a national level,” he said.

That seems like a pipe dream.

In the coming days, as Johnson noted, the high court will decide whether he broke the law in suspending Parliament. Next month, he will attend a European Union meeting that will, in all likelihood, determine whether he can hammer out a deal to leave the union.

Beyond that lies the Oct 31 deadline, which Johnson insists he will meet, regardless of what Parliament says about his legal obligations.

Amid all those distractions, there were glimpses of a potential deal that would address the fiendishly complicated issue of Northern Ireland’s border with the south. Speaking in Yorkshire on Friday, Johnson said he was “cautiously optimistic” about a deal, even if he was determined to leave either way.

British audiences have heard this before, and after years of grinding debate over Brexit, their impatience with the whole topic is palpable. As Johnson paused to sip water in Yorkshire, a heckler interrupted his remarks to confront him about the mayhem in Parliament.

“Why are you not with them in Parliament,” the man asked, “sorting out the mess that you have created?”


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