Above: British PM Boris Johnson in the House of Commons/Photo: UNI
The British parliament has been suspended for five weeks as MPs reject Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s calls for a snap election even as he digs his heels in over leaving the EU
By Sajeda Momin in London
Prime Minister Boris Johnson shut down the British parliament amid unprecedented chaotic scenes with Opposition MPs refusing to answer the Queen’s Summons to the House of Lords for the official proroguing ceremony. At the end of a tumultuous last day (September 9), Opposition MPs shouted “shame on you” at Conservative MPs as they filed out of the House of Commons to go to the Upper House, while others held up signs saying “silenced” and tried to prevent Speaker John Bercow from physically leaving his chair.
Opposition peers also boycotted the proroguing ceremony held just after midnight on September 10 with only a handful of Conservative Lords and some Tory MPs in attendance. Bercow, who had earlier in the day said he would be stepping down from his post on October 31, denounced Johnson’s decision to shut down parliament as “an act of executive fiat”. Showing his displeasure, Bercow, who had earlier called the proroguing a “constitutional outrage”, told the Commons that “this is not a standard or normal prorogation”, but added that he would do his duty and attend the ceremony in the House of Lords.
Johnson, who by his own admission, had been dreaming of becoming prime minister since he was a little boy, may actually win the record of holding the shortest period in office if the developments of his first six days in Parliament are anything to go by. He has lost six crucial votes in the House of Commons in as many days, including two attempts at calling for a general election.
More than that, Johnson, with his threats and actions, has created a schism within the grand old Tory Party that may be irreversible. Cabinet ministers including Johnson’s own younger brother Jo have resigned from their posts, while other Conservative MPs have crossed the floor of the House, joined other parties, voted with the Opposition, vowed not to contest the next election and 21 veteran MPs have been expelled from the parliamentary party and now sit as Independents. With all his shenanigans, Johnson has managed to lose the party’s slim majority in parliament and now runs a minority government.
Johnson became prime minister in July this year when 92,000 Conservative Party members chose a new leader after the last one, Theresa May, resigned mid-term. May’s resignation was forced mainly by Johnson and other Eurosceptics in the Tory Party who voted against her Brexit deal three times, arguing it did not go far enough.
A staunch Brexiteer, Johnson had led the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union during the referendum held in 2016. He always believed that he should have become the prime minister then, immediately after David Cameron resigned, but thanks to backstabbing by his core Brexit colleagues, he lost his chance. For three years, Johnson did everything he could to scuttle May’s chances of getting a Brexit deal passed through Parliament, waiting for the day he could take over.
The day finally came on July 24 when the Queen officially asked Johnson to form a government and the very next day, parliament went into recess for the summer. In his first speech outside 10 Downing Street as PM, Johnson had promised that Britain would leave the EU on October 31 whether they had secured good trade deals with its nearest and largest single trading partner or not. For him it was a “do or die” situation that would not accept any “ifs or buts”. The Opposition was agog as the new PM was all but announcing that the UK would crash out of the EU with no deals in place, leading an already depressed economy into further uncertainty.
Over the next month, Johnson surrounded himself with extremely right-wing ministers and made it clear that only “no-dealers” could be a part of his cabinet. Indian-origin Priti Patel and Pakistani-origin Sajid Javid were given the two most important portfolios, home and finance, respectively. Both are extremely conservative and on the far-right of the party.
Patel, a fan of Narendra Modi from his days as chief minister of Gujarat, was a staunch supporter of Johnson from the time he launched the “Leave” campaign in 2016. By making Patel the first Indian-origin home secretary, Johnson has paid her back for her loyalty, never mind the fact that the tenure may be short-lived.
In a shocking announcement on August 28, Johnson said that he would be proroguing parliament for five weeks from September 9 till October 14 when he would set out his legislative agenda in a Queen’s Speech. While there is precedent for parliament to close before the Queen’s Speech, the timing of this shutdown was suspect. It was obvious that Johnson did not want to give MPs enough time to debate Brexit before Britain’s departure on October 31.
Johnson came in for severe criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, including members of his own party. Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon called the move “outrageous” and “not democracy but a dictatorship”. “If MPs don’t come together next week to stop Boris Johnson, then I think today will go down in history as the day UK democracy died. This simply can’t be allowed to happen,” said Sturgeon.
Opposition MPs and Tory rebels waited for parliament to resume on September 3 and quickly moved a motion to bring in a bill the very next day that would block a no-deal Brexit. Johnson suffered a humiliating defeat in his first House of Commons vote as PM when MPs voted 328 to 301 to table the bill. The numbers showed that at least 21 Conservative MPs had voted against Johnson.
An enraged Johnson immediately expelled the rebels by removing the party whip from lifelong Conservatives, including former cabinet ministers Kenneth Clarke who is currently Father of the House, having served as a Conservative MP since 1970, and veteran MP Nicholas Soames who is Winston Churchill’s grandson.
Clarke called the current Conservative Party “the Brexit party, rebadged” and said he no longer recognised it. “It’s been taken over by a rather knockabout sort of character, who’s got this bizarre crash-it-through philosophy…a cabinet which is the most rightwing cabinet any Conservative government has ever produced,” said the 79-year-old rebel.
On September 4, Labour backbencher Hilary Benn tabled the bill which would force the PM to request an extension to Article 50 if he could not strike a reworked deal with the EU. To start with, the deadline to leave would be extended till January 31, 2020.
An adamant Johnson who dubbed it “Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill” said he would never request the delay mandated in the rebels’ bill as it amounted to “handing control of the negotiations to the EU”. He added that if MPs passed the bill he would seek a snap election scheduled for October 15 and let the people choose who they wanted to represent them as PM at the critical meeting with the European Council on October 17.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called the legislation a “last chance to stop this government riding roughshod over constitutional and democratic rights in this country, so that a cabal in Downing Street cannot crash us out without a deal, without any democratic mandate and against the majority of public opinion”. He accused Johnson of not winning friends in Europe and losing friends at home, referring to the Tory rebels. “His is a government with no mandate, no morals, and, as of today, no majority,” said Corbyn.
The Benn Bill cleared its second and third readings and Opposition MPs and Tory rebels ensured it was quickly passed by 327 votes to 299 the same day. Behaving like a “petulant man-child who has not got his way” as one MP described him, Johnson immediately tabled an emergency motion for an early general election.
The motion was fiercely debated for a few hours and then put to the vote at 9.20 pm (British Summer Time) the same day. It got 298 votes in favour and 56 against, which looked like a win for the government, but under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, a PM needs the support of two-thirds of UK’s 650 MPs before a snap poll can be called. Both the main opposition Labour Party and SNP abstained.
Having lied repeatedly, Johnson suffers from a trust deficit with most MPs not ready to accept what he says at face value. There was a fear among MPs that if they supported Johnson now on a snap poll, once parliament was dissolved, he would shift the election date to after October 31 and thereby push the no-deal Brexit through without parliament’s consent.
The Benn Bill was rushed through the House of Lords and after receiving the Queen’s assent, became law on September 9. An undeterred Johnson told the media he would rather “die in a ditch” than delay Brexit. He was also defiant about parliament’s vote to publish his government’s no deal Brexit plan named Operation Yellowhammer.
Johnson then launched his second attempt to get a general election, but this time only managed to get 293 MPs to vote in favour, with most of the Opposition again abstaining.
With parliament now suspended until October 14, the earliest that an election can be held is mid-November. Another new phase for Brexit?