Boris Johnson vs. Donald Trump: Why the British prime minister is worse for democracy

The PM is encouraging Brexit supporters to see the system of checks and balances as an impediment to democracy rather than its cornerstone.
Image: Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson speaks in the House of Commons in London on Sept. 25.Jessica Taylor / AFP - Getty Images
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By Tim Bale, professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London

Who knows whether it was merely a coincidence that, just a few hours after flying home from meeting President Donald Trump in New York, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put on one of the most insidiously poisonous performances I have ever had the misfortune to witness from a British prime minister.

But now no one can possibly doubt that Johnson is following the American president’s divide-and-rule populist playbook. Nor that, in so doing, he is playing with fire, creating an atmosphere so dangerously toxic that politics — indeed democracy — in the U.K. may never fully recover.

In the U.S., the separation of powers sharply cut by the Constitution provides at least some protection from executive overreach.

Johnson is in a tight spot. He won the Conservative Party leadership and therefore the premiership this summer by promising to take the U.K. out of the European Union by the E.U.’s Oct. 31 deadline come what may — in other words, with or without a deal with the E.U. on the terms of divorce, even though the lack of one could lead to major disruptions in the economy and national security.

However, although his party runs the government, it does not enjoy a majority in Parliament, and most members do not want the country simply to exit the E.U. without a negotiated agreement. Fearing the body could take the decision out of his hands, Johnson made the extraordinary decision to suspend (or prorogue) Parliament to prevent it from doing so. But his maneuver turned out to be too clever by half.

On Tuesday morning, in surely the most dramatic decision it has ever made in its short existence (it was only established 10 years ago), the U.K.’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously that government’s prorogation of parliament was not only unlawful but null and void. Accordingly, Parliament (which prior to its suspension managed to fast-track legislation obliging Johnson to ask for an extension from the E.U. if he doesn’t get a deal by mid-October) was free to resume.

It’s hard to imagine that, faced with such a rebuff, any other prime minister — at least since Britain became a full-fledged democracy in 1928 — would not consider resigning. It is even harder to imagine them showing no contrition whatsoever. Not Johnson. Instead he doubled down, in true Trump fashion.

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On Wednesday, the PM lowered the tone even below that set by his Conservative Cabinet colleague who called the Supreme Court’s judgment “a constitutional coup” and his attorney general, who declared: “This parliament is a dead parliament. It has no moral right to sit on these green benches.”

Addressing the House of Commons, Johnson declared that, since Parliament is refusing to let him ram through the “no-deal” Brexit he wants or to grant him the early election he thinks would give him the majority to do so, the chamber was, “out of sheer political selfishness and political cowardice, … refusing [to] deliver on the priorities of the people.”

Moreover, by referring on no less than 15 occasions during his appearance Wednesday to the legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit as “the surrender act,” he was effectively normalizing the inflammatory rhetoric that many worry will encourage further political polarization and even lead to violence.

His words triggered tears of anger from female opposition MPs mortified that a prime minister was legitimizing the vitriolic language to which, since Brexit, they have been subjected to almost daily— not just from social media trolls but inreal-life death threats.

Johnson’s dismissive reaction was truly breathtaking: “I have never,” he declared, “heard such humbug in all my life,” clearly implying that they were faking their emotional reaction when, as he well knows, MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death three years ago by a right-wing nationalist supporting Brexit who considered her a “traitor.”

The prime minister’s aim — à la Trump — was clearly to provoke fury rather than forensic argument from his opponents; to hammer home prepared soundbites that would grab headlines and so mobilize his base; and to frame any imminent election, in true populist fashion, as “the people” against the out-of-touch elites.

He succeeded, but at what cost? If Johnson were merely making front-page news — a vaudeville villain to cosmopolitan liberals, but a superhero to Brexit supporters — that would be bad enough. We are, after all, already polarized.

But he is also encouraging the part of the country that still wants desperately to leave the E.U. to view the checks and balances we’ve long taken for granted — most obviously government constrained by Parliament and the rule of law — as some sort of impediment to, rather than vital ingredient of, British democracy.

Even worse, it’s not just him. As well as being backed by an increasingly hysterical pro-Brexit print media (One tabloid headline on Wednesday blared “Unlawful? What’s Lawful About Denying 17.4M Brexit?”), the majority of his Conservative colleagues seem to have completely forgotten their party’s historic commitment to upholding the conventional restraints on executive power.

These restraints are all the more vital in a country that lacks a codified founding document setting explicit limits on whoever is in charge, relying instead on a cobbled-together constitution of sometimes confusing and potentially contradictory laws, guidebooks, customs and practice.

If Conservative MPs carry on this way, they surely risk, as do their Republican counterparts, finding themselves defending what in their heart of hearts they must know (or at least worry) is the increasingly indefensible.

The majority of his Conservative colleagues seem to have completely forgotten their party’s historic commitment to upholding the conventional restraints on executive power.

In the U.S., the separation of powers sharply cut by the Constitution provides at least some protection from executive overreach, and the two-term limit it imposes on any presidency affords some light at the end of the tunnel.

But in the U.K., our constitution, such as it is, is much more malleable, since it relies as much on gentlemen’s agreements as on written rules, and prime ministers can serve for as long as they can keep getting people to vote for them. Meanwhile, the very novelty of, and widespread unfamiliarity with, our only recently created Supreme Court may render it more vulnerable than its American counterpart to structural reforms by politicians unhappy with what many of them regard as unwarranted interference.

All that means that those of us on this side of the pond could be in for an even longer and bumpier ride than everyone on the other side — and it could take us down an even more slippery slope.