All the laws, rules and procedures that govern our politics cannot disguise a simple truth. Democracy can’t simply be enforced by the courts, imposed with ballot boxes, fulfilled by the marking of a cross. It relies on an honour code: the tacit agreement by those who take part that they will cherish and abide by its principles; that the majority, if not all, of its participants will act in good faith, criticising their opponents on points of substance but not seeking to undermine democracy’s constitutional underpinnings.
What is happening in Britain today shows how extraordinarily quickly the rot can set in. Our political honour code is breaking down, unleashing a race to the bottom that the good men and women who sit in parliament can only watch unfold with horror. The most frightening thing is that we do not yet know where this road ends; it is entirely conceivable that things will get worse before they get better. What started with the 2016 European referendum campaign, which unleashed a decades-long Conservative civil war into the open, has culminated in that party imposing a prime minister on Britain who thinks nothing of adopting the delegitimisation of our sovereign parliament as a political campaign strategy.
The Leave campaigns were infected with an insidious populism right from the start. Leave politicians denied there would be any trade-offs in leaving the EU and voters were told they could have it all: a more sovereign UK, a burgeoning economy, revitalised public services funded by a cash injection from the money saved on EU membership and lower levels of immigration. Boris Johnson put his name to a letter that spoke of the “rapidly accelerating pace” of Turkey’s accession negotiations, despite the fact it is no closer to joining the EU than it was 10 years ago, while the Vote Leave campaign, of which he was a key figurehead, produced a poster claiming “Turkey, population 76 million, is joining the EU”. Earlier this year, he told the barefaced lie that he did not mention Turkey in the campaign. Vote Leave also broke the law on campaign funding.
That campaign has had serious and lasting consequences for the conduct of British politics. It is responsible for the political mess we now find ourselves in; Leave politicians have over the past three years conclusively demonstrated the extent to which what they promised voters was a unicorn and they have been unable to negotiate a deal that can win the support of our elected representatives in parliament. And it also seeded a political culture in which our prime minister seeks to avoid taking any responsibility for this situation by blaming all his misfortunes on parliament.
Anonymous government sources have stooped as low as briefing that there would be lynchings and killings if there were a confirmatory referendum. They have briefed out blatant untruths that have been reported as government lines, including that No 10 had ordered an investigation into collusion with foreign powers by MPs such as Hilary Benn and Oliver Letwin (it had not); that Operation Yellowhammer documents had been leaked by a former minister, implicitly pointing the finger at Philip Hammond (the documents were dated after he left government); and that Amber Rudd was given ample opportunity to see the government’s legal advice on the prorogation of parliament before she resigned (she was not).
The prime minister and his official spokesperson have also been responsible for misleading parliament and voters. Johnson has claimed that parliament approved his deal, which he knows it has not. He said he would not prorogue parliament and then tried to shut it down for five weeks. He said he would deliver Brexit “do or die” by 31 October, but almost certainly will not. He said he would pull the withdrawal agreement bill altogether if MPs voted against his ridiculous three-day timetable for scrutiny of hugely complex legislation, and he did not. He has proffered pledges to Labour MPs and to voters that he will maintain worker rights, consumer protections and environmental standards, even as leaked government documents reveal that he plans to do no such thing, as his stated public position of wanting the UK to diverge in a regulatory sense from the EU always implied.
Johnson is openly undermining parliament in order to avoid democratic scrutiny for his actions. He cancelled his appearance in front of select committee chairs at the House of Commons liaison committee for a third time in a row last week. When MPs voted for more time to scrutinise the withdrawal agreement bill, he accused them of acting in bad faith to scupper his plans. And on Thursday his spokesperson made a childish threat that the government would go “on strike” and withhold all legislation if MPs did not back his call for a general election, only to withdraw it hours later. He has threatened to table an election motion every day that parliament sits until MPs accede, even though this would not be allowed under parliamentary conventions. The prime minister is making a petulant joke of our democratic institutions. Instead of answering to parliament, he makes announcements in short media clips that offer little opportunity for grilling him on the inconsistencies in what he says.
This goes beyond Brexit. Every committed democrat should be appalled at the prime minister’s tactics. They risk undermining trust in democracy far more than the implementation of a bad Brexit deal that lacks a democratic mandate because it is supposedly what the country voted for in 2016. Unless we somehow pull ourselves back from the brink and find a way to rekindle a respect for the democratic norms and constitutional principles we once held dear, who knows where this will end?