His unlawful suspension of Parliament in 2019 is now informing the Prime Minister’s last-ditch attempt to save his political career, argues Sam Bright

Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue – suspend – Parliament in late August 2019 was short-lived, but it dominated the news agenda through to 24 September, when the Supreme Court ruled that it was unlawful.

There was a palpable sense at the time among political observers that Johnson could feasibly resign, having instructed the Queen (she, after all, is the person who orders the prorogation of Parliament) to effectively break the law.

It was a moment that shook our constitutional consensus. By trying to shut down Parliament for a month, Johnson was attempting to bend democracy to his individual will – a means through which to limit scrutiny of his Brexit plans and force them through a divided legislature.

Johnson did not resign and his plan was eventually rationalised as the act of a Prime Minister trying to break a parliamentary impasse – one that had dominated democratic debate for the previous three years. Exceptional circumstances justified a radical response, some argued.

However, especially in recent days, it has become evident that prorogation was not a one-off event – it is now Johnson’s governing playbook.

The Prime Minister – guided by his former chief aide Dominic Cummings – gleaned a valuable political lesson from the prorogation affair: he could attempt to break the law, ultimately fail, and win political favour among crucial constituents of potential supporters.

In July 2019, Johnson took over a Conservative Party in office but not in power. Party unity had dissolved, with new Brexit alliances forged between Labour and Conservative MPs seeking to prevent a hard departure from the EU, while the DUP and the Tory-Brexit ideologues pulled in the opposite direction – taking down Theresa May in the process.

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To survive in office, Johnson needed to create a new political settlement – and, just a few months after unlawfully proroguing Parliament (and suspending 21 rebel MPs who tried to stop a no deal Brexit), he won an 80-seat majority at the 2019 General Election.

Prorogation undoubtedly played a role in this outcome. Johnson is a wrecking ball – he destroys personal relationships, conventions and often his political opponents. His innate sense of superiority bestows a belief that destruction is justified, because the world is designed to serve his interests, and if institutions or individuals don’t serve this higher purpose, he can simply reorder them.

Fortunately for Johnson, this instinct seems to resonate among Brexit voters in more deprived parts of the country – forgotten people who’ve seen the political system strip their towns of jobs and decent services, all while pumping money into metropolitan lodestars such as London and seemingly burgeoning the bank accounts of those at the top, including MPs.

People want a wrecking ball to dismantle the established order, which they see as financially corrupt and morally bankrupt, and they have been willing to look past Johnson’s elite background if he can achieve this.

Last Chance Saloon

Yet Johnson has betrayed that trust. ‘Partygate’ exposed his charade – showing his willingness to lie to protect his personal fame and political fortune. He’s not the messiah, as said Monty Python, he’s just a very naughty boy.

And so, the Prime Minister is walking the same political tightrope as in 2019.

His parliamentary majority has dissipated, with 148 Conservative MPs voting for him to stand down. He’s clinging onto power thanks to a rump of support among hardline Brexiters, who – in alliance with the DUP – are pushing him to effectively scrap a key component of the Brexit deal that Johnson negotiated and signed after the 2019 victory.

Therefore, once again, he needs to manufacture a new political settlement – to win over the public and stop his slide into political oblivion.

To do this, he appears to be reapplying the principles of prorogation – summoning his powers of demolition and aiming them at institutions of power, in order to regain his anti-establishment aura.

Britain may withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, he has suggested, after a judge in Strasbourg blocked the Government’s attempt to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. And the EU is threatening legal action, after the Government sought to introduce legislation that will unilaterally amend the trading relationship between Northern Ireland, the EU, and Britain.

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As in the case of prorogation, it’s not actually important to him that he succeeds – Johnson is simply trying to generate enough political heat to prove to his 2019 constituents that his Partygate transgressions were a one-off; a terrible, regrettable mistake.

But he is a repeat offender – a man seemingly captured by his own cult of personality – and it’s unclear whether voters will buy his bluster.

A test case will be the Wakefield by-election on 23 June – a ‘Red Wall’, pro-Brexit seat won by the Conservatives in 2019 for the first time since 1931. The polls currently show the Tories trailing Labour in the constituency by 20 points – which is perhaps why Johnson has grasped the nuclear option. He knows, as in 2019, that he has little to lose.

Meanwhile, as our fatally wounded Prime Minister tries to play king for a few more weeks, people and political institutions will suffer. The desperate asylum seekers threatened with deportation to Rwanda will be traumatised – scarred by the prospect of being trapped in a foreign country, away from their families, potentially subject to human rights abuses.

And while our democracy may rebuff many of Boris Johnson’s assaults, he is showing how the desecration of rules, standards and conventions is a politically lucrative profession – one to which future generations of power-hungry plutocrats may well subscribe.


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