Boris Johnson’s Prime Ministership Lies in Ruins

The UK Supreme Court has torpedoed Boris Johnson’s entire strategy for his prime ministership and likely sparked a civil war inside the Conservative Party. As elections approach, the danger now is a Tory lurch to the far right.

British prime minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street on September 26, 2019 in London, England. (Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images)

On Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom delivered its verdict on whether Boris Johnson’s move to shut down Parliament was justified. The case was brought after a Scottish court ruled the prorogation was unlawful: most people I spoke to at the Labour Party conference in Brighton assumed the verdict from the London court would be scathing but stop short of upholding the decision. Johnson had clearly felt the same, and he was in New York for a United Nations gathering and a meeting to discuss post-Brexit trade options with Donald Trump. British journalists in New York rushed across the city to the hear the prime minister’s reaction to the news that the court had delivered a unanimous decision declaring the move unlawful, and the fact that the speaker of the House of Commons, Conservative John Bercow, had told members of Parliament to prepare to return to work at 11:30 the following morning.

The Labour Party conference was hastily reorganized, with Jeremy Corbyn’s speech swiftly moved to that afternoon and his deputy Tom Watson’s speech canceled. Johnson lashed out several hours after the announcement, claiming it would make Brexit negotiations impossible despite also claiming the decision had nothing to do with Brexit. Opposition politicians and Conservatives alike queued up across broadcast media to attack the new prime minister and ask whether he would apologize to the queen after misleading her. The Tory Party conference next week was always likely to be difficult for Johnson and his party, but now civil war within the Conservatives is inevitable and questions remain over whether the conference can go ahead at all with Parliament back in session, as well as how Johnson will address the decision.

Corbyn’s speech reiterated the workers’ rights commitments that shadow chancellor John McDonnell had announced the day before: moving to a four-day workweek as standard; a higher minimum wage; abolishing Tory social security cuts, and investing in councils. He also backed the bold Labour decision, announced just as the Supreme Court ruling was delivered, to aim for zero carbon emissions by 2030, in a Green New Deal that promised to nationalize the six biggest energy firms, build a fleet of publicly owned electric cars, and build three publicly owned battery factories.

The speech was well received, but attention turned back to Parliament and the Conservatives as the attorney general Geoffrey Cox delivered his statement on the Supreme Court decision, shouting at the MPs opposite that the Parliament was “dead” and “had no right to sit,” furious after endless lost government votes and now a defeat in the highest court in the land. Johnson took an even more extreme tone when he finally addressed Parliament in the evening, repeatedly calling the bill to block a no-deal Brexit “the surrender act” that would “betray” voters.

Multiple MPs, both Labour and Conservative, asked him to tone down his language, pointing out that after the assassination of the Labour MP Jo Cox, many of them received daily death threats that used both the language of her killer — a member of the far right — and of Johnson himself. The prime minister caused uproar by replying he’d “never heard such absolute humbug in his life,” and claiming that the “best way” to honor the death of the Remain campaigner was to deliver Brexit. The following day he was asked to apologize and refused to do so. His aides and other MPs within the government doubled down on their language, briefing journalists anonymously with aggressive jokes.

It’s clear now what Johnson’s strategy and that of the Conservatives is: realizing they cannot win a single vote in Parliament, they have tossed away the idea of attempting to persuade Labour MPs to vote with them on any purported deal. Instead, they plan to drag their heels until the country crashes out on October 31, before they move to a general election. Johnson wants to go to the polls as The Man Who Delivered Brexit, and he is merely using Parliament and public appearances as a performance space, using the language of populists on the right to whip voters into a frenzy.

Time and again, the Conservatives have framed the deadlock in Parliament as “the People versus the Parliament.” Having completely lost control of Parliament, Johnson is deliberately aping the language of the far right in an attempt to frame himself as a savior of the people.

Asked on BBC Radio 4 why he was behaving so combatively and pushing toward a no-deal crash out of the European Union, his sister, Rachel Johnson, said it may be down to pressure from people who have “invested billions in shorting the pound in the event of a No Deal Brexit.” Asked if she thought he was enjoying being prime minister, Rachel said Johnson was likely “loving it.”

Rather than attempting to regain control, Boris Johnson is now chasing an organized chaos that promises to bring disaster capitalism. Many MPs in all parties are terrified that the rhetoric whipped up by Johnson and his allies will increase the number of death threats they receive and that any general election will be violent. A man was arrested trying to break into the Birmingham office of Labour MP Jess Phillips on Thursday afternoon, screaming that she was a “fascist.” Death threats are now a persistent fact of life for many MPs, and they remain in constant fear that another politician will be killed.

The Conservatives are completely stuck. With no majority in Parliament, and having lost every single vote they’ve proposed — including asking for a short recess so they could hold their conference — they can now only drag their heels until the UK crashes out of the EU on Halloween, then move to a general election immediately afterward. Until then, Johnson will continue to appeal to voters with the language of the far right and talk of “betrayal,” “surrender,” and “treason.” British politics has become a hellscape because the Conservatives are mired in parliamentary deadlock. And until an election is called, the political rhetoric in the country will remain terrifying and inflammatory.