This week began the fight-back of representative parliamentary democracy against populism.
Those of us who believe in parliamentary democracy started off the week with trepidation as Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to be corralling his party and the country into a hard Brexit on 31 October. Even the Queen appeared to give in to his determination to prorogue Parliament and stifle debate and opposition to his “die in a ditch” crusade.
All seemed lost. But then Johnson overplayed his hand and suddenly an unlikely band of Tory rebels, including Winston Churchill’s grandson Nicolas Soames and father of the house Ken Clarke, faced down the threats of expulsion. Sanity and good sense returned to the House of Commons to thwart Johnson’s Trumpian ego and galvanised Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition, to shed his ambiguity over a hard Brexit.
Of course, there is still a long way to go to return to a sane and liberal world. But, with the Benn Bill passing both houses, at least crashing out of the EU on 31 October seems unlikely and then there is likely to be a new election when the ‘will of the people’ can be tested again in a calmer atmosphere.
Johnson will likely run this new election on a narrative demarcating Parliament and democracy. There is already a hashtag, boosted by online bots and social media companies, #ParliamentVsThePeople claiming that our political institutions are thwarting the people’s desire for Brexit. But a ‘no deal’ Brexit means extraordinary economic pain and disruption, and Britain reneging on its sworn international commitments.
The Leave campaigns three years ago promised that Britain’s exit from the EU would be “the easiest deal in the world” and most of their leading campaigners claimed that we would remain in the single market. None of the three major political parties mentioned a ‘no deal’ crash-out in their manifestos during the last general election in 2017.
Both Leave campaigns spoke highly of parliamentary democracy – and that is a very different thing, as we have seen, from a one-off, non-binding advisory referendum.
This week’s humiliation of Boris Johnson’s new administration shows that there is a limit to how far reasonable MPs on the moderate side of the Conservative Party will be pushed, and this bodes well for their party’s future post-Johnson. It also restores our faith in parliamentary democracy, which is central to a constitution-based on convention and reasonable debate.
If the monarchy can’t defend the interests of the people, as we learned during the English Civil War, it takes our representatives in Parliament to do so.
So as this tumultuous week closes, we have reasons to be cheerful but also reasons to be on our guard. All the methods that were used to game democracy through social media are still available to the far-right and foreign funders. Every day, Johnson’s Government is spending millions of pounds pumping out ads to justify a hard Brexit and who knows how many dark posts.
However, Prime Minister Johnson seems less of a threat when he flails around in the House of Commons, clumsily poses with police cadets and has not only lost his majority in the House of Commons, but also within his family.