Boris Johnson and his political friends campaigned for the exit UK from the European Union in 2016, they issued a simple slogan of Taking back control from Brussels. The country should leave a Union in which it could be automatically overruled, have no veto against unwanted regulations and declared by the non elected judges more and more British laws void. That was the message of the “Vote Leave” campaign.
Today, Johnson is Prime Minister, and most of his associates are in his cabinet. You can now see what it means to regain control: the government uses all the means at its disposal to disempower its parliament. It orders the deputies in Westminster five weeks’ leave to break the resistance to an unregulated Brexit. Such a long compulsory break was most common in Queen Victoria’s day. The instrument of adjournment, the prorogation, is even older. The monarchs introduced it to lead the parliament on a short leash. Once it had fulfilled their wishes for money and taxes, it was sent home.
Conservative opponents now indignantly call “dictatorship” and “coup.” But Johnson has used only one way, which offers him the UK tradition. No written constitution in the UK regulates exactly how long a legislature lasts. The prime minister may even override a recent law that re-drafted a government. It provides for a successful vote of no confidence two weeks before, in which a new government can form. If a motion of no confidence were to be filed next week, only a few days remained – because of the forced leave. In every other country the European Union something like that would be inconceivable. In the United Kingdom, however, it is the expression of centuries of development in which the royal privileges were not abolished but passed to the government.
However, the indignation in the kingdom shows that this tradition no longer develops authority on its own. So the government wanted to declare the EU withdrawal without decision of the lower house – that prevented the highest British court. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, later dug up a rule dating from 1604 to stop new votes on the same withdrawal agreement; Tories held him “constitutional break” before. Now Bercow himself has called his forced leave an “affront to the Constitution”. The courts deal with it. And Johnson’s opponents in the House of Commons will do anything to prevent an unregulated Brexit in late October in the short time they have left.
No matter how it works out, the head of the state’s maneuver gives a foretaste of Britain’s future outside the European Union. The UK not only loses access to the single market, but also it’s anchored in a modern legal order. As an EU member, it was bound by European law. It had to keep contracts, follow regulations and policies like any other country. Although the British government was able to contribute to everything in Brussels, it was never able to decide on its own – unlike at home. A prime minister can send the lower house, but not the European Parliament. The British benefited from it. Today high standards of labor law, environmental protection, and consumer protection apply on the island.
European legislation is based on a built-in compulsion to compromise. By contrast, the Westminster system gives the government an almost monarchical power. The Prime Minister is appointed by the Queen without having to stand for election. He determines the agenda in Parliament and can postpone it at will. The British chose this because their system also allows rapid democratic change. But in the past five decades, they have not had to worry too much about power abuse because important issues have been decided in Brussels anyway.
On the other hand, the 2016 referendum did not just mean leaving the European legal order. It has also undermined representative parliamentary democracy. The Tories who defend the holiday coup by Johnson, rely on the will of the people.
The Prime Minister could thus also ward off any attempts to tie his hands in the House of Commons and to effect a postponement in Brussels of the withdrawal date. The populist Johnson is heading for an election in which he plays Parliament against the people. That would be the radical break with the British tradition.