Boris Johnson’s Latest Ploy Prompts Political Chaos That’s Extreme Even By Brexit Standards

August 29, 2019, 2:10 PM UTC

Brexit has been an outright fiasco since a voter referendum set it in motion three years ago. Unpredictability has long been the order of the day.

But now the Brexit saga seems to be entering a new, heightened stage of chaos even by its own extreme standards. The U.K. is experiencing a full-blown constitutional crisis featuring high-profile resignations, accusations of “dictatorial” behavior, and the prospect of mass protests.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s shock decision Wednesday to suspend Parliament for around five weeks starting September 9th swiftly provoked an enormous backlash from lawmakers—whose ability to ward off a no-deal Brexit has suddenly been curtailed—and it spurred public petitions and calls for protests. 

A person wearing a Boris Johnson 'head' digs a grave at the foot of a tombstone during a protest organised by Avaaz and Best for Britain, outside Downing Street in London. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
A person wearing a Boris Johnson ‘head’ digs a grave at the foot of a tombstone during a protest organised by Avaaz and Best for Britain, outside Downing Street in London.
Stefan Rousseau—PA Images via Getty Images

Political resignations

If Wednesday morning brought a wave of condemnation from politicians, Thursday morning brought two signifiant resignations from within the Conservative Party itself. 

Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, quit citing both family responsibilities and her inner “conflict” over Brexit. Davidson, who had campaigned for the U.K. to remain in the European Union, had previously refused to play along with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. However, she insisted that she made her decision to resign before Johnson’s prorogation move, and her spokesperson even told media that Davidson agreed with the prime minister’s strategy.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson announces her resignation as party leader, on August 29, 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Ruth Davidson has quit as leader of the Scottish Conservatives after 8 years. Ken Jack—Getty Images.
Ken Jack—Getty Images

Either way, her departure could boost the narrative of politicians pushing for Scotland to leave the U.K. Davidson was highly regarded in the country among Conservatives, and the removal of her voice from the debate over Scottish independence (she’s against it) will surely provide a boost to the Scottish National Party, which backs Scotland’s exit from the U.K.

The other resignation was explicitly in protest of Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament: George Young, a Conservative Party whip in the House of Lords.

What’s remarkable about Lord Young’s resignation is that he had previously backed using the threat of a no-deal Brexit as a way of extracting a better deal out of the EU. Young said he had believed Johnson when the prime minister said he was not attracted to the idea of suspending Parliament. Johnson’s ultimate decision to take that route, he said, “risks undermining the fundamental role of Parliament at a critical time in our history.”

Public anger

If your impression of the British is informed by genteel icons such as Hugh Grant, then you might blanche at this aggressively foul-mouthed tweet from the actor, directed at Johnson.

Grant was not alone in his vivid response, however. A petition against the “prorogation” of Parliament—the formal term for the planned suspension—was launched Wednesday, and is currently approaching 1.4 million signatures. Specifically, the petition states that Parliament must not be prorogued or dissolved without a delay to or cancellation of Brexit, which is currently scheduled for October 31st.

It’s unlikely that the petition will make much of a difference in itself. Almost 6 million people signed an anti-Brexit petition earlier this year, and the government simply rejected it. And in any case, Parliament is likely to debate the issue next week anyway. The opposition Labour Party will move to initiate the debate on Monday, and the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, will almost certainly give the green light—he has called the move a “constitutional outrage” perpetrated by the prime minister.

Protests and demonstrations 

The British government has long been anticipating some sort of civil unrest in the event of a no-deal Brexit—the recently-leaked “Operation Yellowhammer” plans showed martial law and curfews were being considered as mitigation. But it now seems likely that people will take to the streets sooner rather than later.

Anti-Brexit protesters dressed up as a clown version of Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside the Downing Street in Westminster as it is announced that Boris Johnson has had his request to suspend Parliament approved by the Queen on 28th August 2019 in London. Mike Kemp—In Pictures via Getty Images

Wednesday evening already saw impromptu protests in cities around the country, but some are demanding large-scale demonstrations.

Labour lawmaker Lloyd Russell-Moyle has called for a “mass movement of resistance” using “any peaceful means” available, in response to “an anti-democratic coup worthy of a tin-pot dictator.” Calls for civil disobedience have also come from Labour MPs Clive Lewis and David Lammy.

Now what?

As for what happens next, political predictability is a long-distant memory in the U.K. However, what can be said is that Johnson is on very, very thin ice.

Johnson’s government has a majority of one, so any further defections would leave him unable to govern. Several Conservative lawmakers threatened to leave the party ahead of his election, over concerns that he would gun for a no-deal, but they decided to stick around and give him a chance. He has now done what they feared.

Meanwhile, some commentators are arguing that Johnson may have played his hand too soon. One of Johnson’s biggest advantages has been the splintered nature of the Remainer forces, who have been unable to agree on who should lead a caretaker government if they manage to oust the Conservatives. It may turn out that outrage over his undermining of Parliament was the glue required to bring them together.

What’s more, legal battles are looming. On Thursday, lawyers in both Edinburgh and Belfast in Northern Ireland filed injunctions attempting to either block Johnson’s suspension itself or his advice to the Queen, who is traditionally bound to follow the advice of the prime minister.

Next week, we will see how those forces strike back, with the limited time available to them. The chances of a no-deal Brexit may have just increased, but so have those of Johnson’s government being brought to an early close through a no-confidence vote.

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