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Then what?

August 29th, 2019

When I was younger, I casually enjoyed those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. For those of you that were not nerdy male teenagers in the 1980s, these were books with non-linear structures where you were presented with a series of choices with page numbers.  You made your choice and you turned to the relevant page. The story unfolded accordingly. Similar books, loosely based on Dungeons & Dragons, required you to roll a die to choose your fate. You might find yourself having to fight a jaguar or to satisfy numerous buxom seductresses, all of whom were unaccountably keen to bed a spotty teenager. Your chances of a happy ending would depend on your aleatory abilities.

Boris Johnson, a man who would no doubt fancy his chances of satisfying numerous buxom seductresses, has been rolling the dice recently. Having endured just over a day of Parliamentary scrutiny, he has evidently had enough of the ordeal and has arranged for Parliament to be prorogued for five weeks in September and October on the pretext that his government is going to regroup to draw up policies for the Queen’s Speech. This pretext did not even convince his own Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, who was filmed explaining that it was an attempt to deal with the government’s lack of control of Parliament.  

Many Leavers have erupted in ecstasy at this suspension of democracy, taking an Augustinian view of the matter (“God give me Parliamentary sovereignty, but not yet!”). A Cabinet stuffed full of ministers who had campaigned against the idea of prorogation in the recent Conservative party leadership election has yet to see a resignation. So much for their integrity.

But those, not just Remain supporters, who are bothered about constitutional niceties are appalled. Court cases are being brought in Edinburgh, Belfast and London to challenge this decision. There is the distinct possibility that at least one of these cases might be successful: the Royal prerogative is at least in theory subject to judicial review and Ben Wallace’s indiscretion is not going to be helpful in persuading judges of the purity of the government’s intentions.  It’s one thing to make bold if autocratic swoops. It’s another thing entirely to see those bold and autocratic swoops struck down as unlawful. That picture of Boris Johnson suspended haplessly in mid-air would be everywhere.

Let’s assume that the government throws a four or higher and the courts let this pass. The next obstacle lies in a Parliament that has been assaulted but not immobilised. By its actions, roughly 30 more Conservative MPs have moved decisively into the anti-no deal camp and stand ready to act immediately. It was already probable that the government had a majority racked up against it. It is now certain.

The government’s success now rests on its opponents being too disorganised to stop it. This is possible. Time is tight for the constitutionalists but despite the considerable derision poured on them by Leave commentators, they appear to have used the summer break effectively, identifying a preferred way forward of seeking to legislate their way out of no deal (rather than defenestrate the Prime Minister and set up a wobbly government of their own).

With a Speaker who is so incandescent about the government’s actions that he could double up as a spotlight at Wembley, they can expect abundant assistance from the chair. The House of Lords seems to be on side as well. From here, it looks like the government needs to throw a six if it is not going to be defeated by Parliament.

There are rumours of Boris Johnson pulling other stunts – the declaring of bank holidays to eat up Parliamentary time, refusing to leave Downing Street if there is a vote of no confidence even if a clear successor is established with the intention of forcing a general election and even refusing to send to the Queen for her approval a bill that had been passed by both Houses of Parliament.  These suggestions are verging on the laughable – the courts would not stand for such transparent abuses and such rumours show weakness rather than strength.

But let’s assume that somehow Boris Johnson throws all those sixes and gets Brexit over the line (almost certainly on a no-deal basis because how is he going to get a deal approved with Parliament so decisively against him?). Then what?

A Britain that had Brexited in such a way would be hopelessly and irremediably riven.  The decision would be seen by what in all probability would be a clear majority as illegitimate and unconstitutional. A policy that no one had voted for would have been imposed by an unelected Prime Minister leading a government that was opposed in Parliament by a clear majority, and only because the Prime Minister had abandoned all democratic norms.

In such circumstances, you could easily envisage widespread civil unrest, the more so because there might well be tangible disruption as a result of the Brexit process itself.  And you cannot easily envisage the country ever coming back together to forge a new consensus. Boris Johnson would be a hero to his elderly support base but a hate figure for future generations. Scotland and Northern Ireland would both be eyeing the exit door from the United Kingdom in very short order. What was left would inevitably rejoin the EU at some point, with many no doubt resentful but out of options.

For supposedly-clever men, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are being remarkably dumb. They’ve spent ages looking at the mechanics and no time at all looking at the aim of the game that they are trying to play. 28 August 2019 was the day that the dream of Brexit died.  

Alastair Meeks