As Boris Johnson proceeded smoothly to victory in the Conservative leadership contest this summer, we warned that the party was electing a mendacious and morally reprehensible politician. His conduct in office has confirmed this judgement.
When asked before his election about the possibility of suspending parliament, Mr Johnson replied: “I am not attracted to archaic devices like proroguing. Let’s get this thing [Brexit] done as a proud representative democracy.” But urged on by his senior adviser Dominic Cummings (profiled by Harry Lambert in a long read starting on page 22), Mr Johnson predictably broke his word and announced the suspension of parliament for five weeks – the longest period since 1930. The Prime Minister’s motive was to curtail the time available to MPs to debate Brexit.
On 24 September, in a judgment that will resound through the ages, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Mr Johnson broke the law. “The decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue parliament was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification,” Lady Hale, the president of the Supreme Court, declared.
The ruling was a reaffirmation of the very principle that Brexiteers once revered: parliamentary sovereignty. MPs across all parties had bravely defied Mr Johnson by voting to prevent a no-deal Brexit on 31 October (one of six parliamentary defeats suffered by the Prime Minister). Now, Britain’s highest court has ruled that the original attempt to bypass them was unlawful. In normal circumstances, after such a humiliating judgment, Mr Johnson would have resigned. But that would have required a degree of respect for his office, as well as humility.
In the short period that he has been prime minister, Mr Johnson has transformed his party from a broad church into a narrow sect by removing the whip from 21 Conservative MPs, including two former chancellors, a former lord chancellor (David Gauke, who writes this week’s Diary on page 21) and nine former cabinet ministers. Those such as the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, who fatuously claimed that the Prime Minister stood in the One Nation tradition, have been exposed as either cynical or naive.
No one who has followed Mr Johnson’s career will be surprised by his serial dishonesty, disloyalty and incompetence. He misleadingly claimed during the 2016 referendum that Turkey would soon become an EU member state and that the UK would gain £350m a week from Brexit to spend on the NHS. During a disastrous tenure as foreign secretary, he wrongly told the foreign affairs select committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran to train journalists, unforgivably prolonging her imprisonment there. Most recently, he was revealed to have gifted his “close friend” Jennifer Arcuri, a US former model and tech entrepreneur, £126,000 in public money while mayor of London and allowed her to accompany him on overseas trade visits.
Despite craving the office of prime minister, Mr Johnson has offered nothing resembling an attractive or comprehensive vision of renewal for the country. After embracing Brexit on self-serving grounds, as David Cameron wrote in his memoirs (reviewed by Stephen Bush on page 46), he is prepared to pursue it regardless of the economic, social or diplomatic costs.
Britain’s centralised political model, unwritten constitution and arcane electoral system have long made it vulnerable to a reckless and authoritarian leader such as Mr Johnson. Rather than facing a strong opposition, the Prime Minister instead faces a divided and inept Labour Party, which has resolved to take no view on the defining political issue of the times. Brexiteers, who once celebrated parliament, have established an alternative centre of power: the people. Institutions are now judged not according to their loyalty to the constitution, but their loyalty to the demos (nearly half of whom voted to Remain).
Yet democracy and the rule of law have so far prevailed. MPs and judges have defied crude attempts to bypass or marginalise them, and this should be celebrated. Boris Johnson is a humbled and humiliated prime minister, although whether the House of Commons can summon a cross-party alliance to remove him remains to be seen.
This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace