After a summer lull, political chaos over Brexit has resumed. Boris Johnson's plan to quickly call an election and commit to leaving the EU on 31 October was undercut by his decision to prorogue parliament. The manoeuvre cost the government its majority and prompted parliament to legislate against leaving the EU without an agreement. The supreme court then ruled that the prorogation was unlawful and void.
With his hands tied, the prime minister faces unpalatable options: comply with the law and undercut his pledge to leave on Halloween; break the law and risk re-unifying the fractured opposition (and prosecution); or resign and surrender control of the process. Strategic dilemmas also loom for his Conservative party, which is trialling a ‘people vs parliament’ election campaign aimed at Labour-held seats that voted to leave. This narrow nationalist agenda and rhetoric may alienate its Scottish and remain-leaning constituencies. Like Theresa May, Johnson's hyped but electorally untested personal appeal might not survive the rigours of a general election.
Even if a general election can deliver a stable majority for any party or coalition, it will not end the uncertainty that has frustrated businesses and the public. The binary referendum result fractured and polarised the British party system, unmooring many voters from their traditional partisan identities. May and Johnson’s frustrations with reconciling demands for ideological purity with a precariously balanced parliament placed the machinery of government and the justice system in the firing line. After three years of rhetoric against institutions and disregard for conventions of the uncodified British constitution, the government's refusal to confirm that it would follow parliament’s statute marked an escalation of threats to the rule of law. This ambiguity would be the centrepiece of a ‘people vs parliament’ campaign. If it succeeds, the UK’s political class will be more likely to resort to disruptive populist tactics in the future, whatever the course of the Brexit crisis.
This article first appeared in the Axco Flashpoints newsletter, which provides monthly analysis on emerging risks and geopolitics from our Global Risk Intelligence and Data (GRID) team. You can sign up at https://www.axcoinfo.com/axco-flashpoints-signup.aspx