Astoundingly, Britain no longer seems to have a functioning government because the prime minister has effectively been taken hostage by the House of Commons.
Last night, Boris Johnson was heavily defeated when the Commons voted by a majority of 27 to seize control of the legislative agenda, in order to debate a bill today introduced by Hillary Benn and backed by Remainer MPs.
This bill states that unless a deal is reached with the EU or Parliament approves a no-deal Brexit by October 19th (no chance), the government would be required to write to the EU seeking a further extension to the Article 50 Brexit departure date, currently October 31, until January 31st 2020. It goes on to state that if the European Council were to agree an extension to any other unspecified date, the Prime Minister would have to accept it within two days (unless the House of Commons rejected it.
This is the Remainer MPs’ last-ditch and most determined effort yet not just to thwart leaving the EU with no withdrawal deal but to stop Brexit in its tracks altogether. It is an unprecedented move to bind the government’s hands so that it does only what MPs tell it to do.
As Johnson has said, it undermines his negotiating position with Europe since the EU will continue to believe that, as parliament has shown it can stop a no-deal Brexit, there’s no need for the EU to make any concessions.
The proper course of action for a prime minister who has lost his majority and can no longer govern the country is to call a general election. But it looks as if he will be prevented from doing that too.
Because of the (deeply dubious) Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) introduced by David Cameron, an attempt to dissolve parliament must be backed by two-thirds of the Commons.
The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who until this point has been like a stuck record calling for a general election, now says Labour will not vote for one unless parliament has already ruled out a no-deal Brexit (which the Benn bill doesn’t do in explicit terms).
Johnson could try to dissolve parliament through another route than the FTPA which would require only a simple majority; but since he no longer has an overall majority, even this seems improbable.
So government paralysis is now on the cards. Johnson can’t use his authority as prime minister to govern on the most important issue of the day; nor can he put it to the electorate to decide whether they want him to continue to be their prime minister or not. No-one can be in any doubt about the momentous nature of what is happening. Remainer MPs have upended the British constitution.
Under this, the people are sovereign; they elect MPs who form a government; the government has the power to govern; Parliament holds the government to account through its consent to legislation which it passes.
But now parliament has effectively become the government. Thanks to the constitutional chicanery permitted by the Remainer Speaker of the House of Commons, MPs have seized the power to make legislation through which they intend to block Johnson’s Brexit strategy. Given that the Commons has three times voted down the only deal that has been on offer, they are therefore voting to block Brexit altogether.
The hypocrisy is stunning. These MPs are voting to thwart legislation they themselves have passed. They are doing so under the preposterous pretence that they are defending the historic rights of parliament against the government. In reality, they are destroying the historic constitutional balance between government and parliament.
They are doing so under the preposterous pretence that they are defending democracy. Yet they are not only denying the people a functioning government, but are poised to deny the people the right to elect a government that will function as such.
Thwarting the democratically expressed decision of the people to reclaim their sovereign democracy by leaving the EU – a decision these MPs themselves gave the people and promised to honour – they have now explicitly set parliament against the people.
The deep fissure that has threatened for so many years to tear apart the Conservative tribe has now finally split the party. Johnson is (rightly) withdrawing the whip from the Tory rebels so they will no longer be Conservative MPs and will not be able to stand as Conservative party candidates at the next general election.
This fissure has also convulsed the entire political landscape. In the wings lurks Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. It is ready to fight a general election with candidates in every constituency, a reportedly enormous war chest – and the ability to channel the electorate’s rage at a political establishment which has so devastatingly betrayed them.
But the country is itself split, with half of it having voted in the 2016 referendum to remain in the EU. The outcome in any general election is anyone’s guess.
The chasm between Remainers and Brexiteers is now the overriding division in British politics. This is the worst constitutional and political crisis at least since the Corn Laws split the Tories in the 19th century and arguably since the 17th century English Civil War.
That Civil War involved parliament’s battle against the crown, at the bloody end of which the British parliamentary settlement was sealed enshrining the ultimate sovereignty of the people. Now that settlement has been upended by Remainer MPs who have set parliament itself against the people – with the government, representing the will of the people, at war with parliament.
We are now shockingly deep into totally uncharted territory.