Andrew Coyne: Boris Johnson’s defeat is a victory for the power of Parliament

In his short time as prime minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson has been defeated in Parliament on three consecutive votes. His attempt to bluff members of his Conservative party into accepting a ruinous “no-deal” Brexit, the better to bluff the European Union into offering a deal on his terms, has failed, leaving his party in tatters, his premiership in doubt, and the very unity of the kingdom in peril. Naturally he is the favourite to win the coming election.

This is the cul-de-sac into which Britain has backed itself since the narrow 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union. Precisely how or on what terms was never specified at the time, nor has any consensus emerged since, as the Europeans could not have failed to notice: the closest thing to an achievable proposal, the deal negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was roundly rejected by the British House of Commons, as were a raft of other options of varying degrees of fantasy.

The only point on which both country and Parliament have been clear is that they did not want to leave the EU without some sort of agreement, both on the terms of separation and, especially, on what sort of trading relationship would replace it. The consequences of leaving without one — of the current free movement of goods, services, capital and people between the U.K. and the continent simply ending, literally overnight — are widely, and rightly, judged as horrific.

So the notion that Johnson could somehow impose this prospect on Parliament was always a stretch, not least given the demonstrable willingness of members on all sides, under May, to defy the government. Johnson’s determination to do so only led his opponents to prepare legislation binding his hands; his tactic, announced last week, of proroguing Parliament long enough to prevent such a bill from passing only strengthened their resolve, and accelerated their timetable.

Still, the failure of the campaign to intimidate Tory MPs into line is remarkable, and devastating. All were warned a failure to back the government would result in their expulsion from the party and “deselection” as candidates at the next election, effectively ending their political careers. Yet 21 of them voted Wednesday in favour of the bill instructing the prime minister to seek a three-month extension of the Brexit negotiating period beyond its current Oct. 31 deadline.

To a Canadian observer, the whole spectacle is simply amazing — not only that so many would be willing to put principle before personal advancement, but the particular question on which they were prepared to stand and fight: not only the fate of Brexit, but the rights of Parliament, and of members of Parliament, against the government of the day.

That British MPs, even of the governing party, dared to defy the whip, rather than rolling over as their Canadian counterparts would typically do, is in part because in Britain, Parliament still matters: it is much harder, practically and spiritually, to mount a defence of prerogatives that have long since been conceded.

Had MPs not repelled the government’s advances, the damage to British democracy would have been as immense

It is novel, to be sure, to see Parliament taking the reins from the government that nominally enjoys its confidence. But the defence of necessity, given the enormous harm a no-deal Brexit threatened, surely applies. Had MPs not repelled the government’s advances, the damage to British democracy would have been as immense.

The damage is great enough as it is. Among the conventions of any successful democracy is the idea that its conventions will not be tested to the limits. Push too far, staying inside the law but outside of previously accepted norms, and you invite responses in kind, eroding by turns the foundations of trust and accommodation on which a civilized politics depends.

It is reassuring that some of the more desperate options that had earlier been floated seem — for now — to have been set to one side. The government will not, it appears, simply ignore the law Parliament has just passed, or refuse to send it to the Queen for her assent. Conservatives in the House of Lords may try to slow the bill’s passage for a few days, but likely do not have the votes to defeat it.

Instead, Britain seems headed for a general election, if not on the government’s timetable — a vote to dissolve Parliament, required since 2011 under British law, also failed — then as early as next week. Johnson has proposed it be held Oct. 15, and Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, seems prepared to support him, once the extension bill has safely passed into law — to the dismay of some in his party.


Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons in London on Sept. 4, 2019.

PRU/AFP/Getty Images

Not only does Labour trail badly in the polls, but the way is open to Johnson to frame the election to his advantage: as a choice between Parliament, unable or unwilling to proceed with Brexit, and “the people,” who voted for it. Send me, not the hapless Corbyn, to negotiate with the Europeans, he will plead — and arm me with the threat of a no-deal Brexit to extract concessions.

It’s nonsense, of course. It isn’t the lack of a no-deal “knife at the throat” that has undermined Britain’s bargaining position — it’s the realities of its situation: divided, uncertain and much more dependent on Europe than the reverse. A no-deal Brexit would be bad for Europe, but it would be catastrophic for the U.K., and Europe knows it. Even if it were inclined to blink, moreover, it cannot, or risk setting a precedent for other breakaway states.

And of course, “the people” didn’t vote for anything, let alone a no-deal Brexit. Fifty-two per cent of them voted to leave the European Union, but how many would vote the same in a second referendum is an open question. It was always a bad idea to attempt so large a project as Brexit, with such irrevocable consequences, on so ambiguous a mandate. It is an even worse idea to do so on the strength of a multi-party, first-past-the-post election.

Perhaps Johnson knows this. Perhaps that was always the point: to ride Brexit to power, as he did to win the party leadership, rather than to use power to deliver Brexit. Here’s hoping. Johnson’s bluff of his own members achieved nothing but the loss of his majority. A failure to bluff Europe would have incalculably worse consequences.