British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Wednesday that he would ask Queen Elizabeth to temporarily suspend (or “prorogue”) parliament sparked an uproar among many Members of Parliament, the commentariat, and parts of the general public.
Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow called it a “constitutional outrage.” First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon said that Johnson was acting no better than a “tin-pot dictator.” A YouGov poll published Wednesday night showed that Britons opposed the move by nearly a two-to-one margin, while more radical elements of the anti-Brexit movement called Johnson’s gambit a “coup.”
MPs will debate the issue when they return to parliament next week. Time will tell if this was a shrewd, if somewhat sneaky, move by Johnson, or whether it will backfire by coalescing disparate elements within parliament against him and his promise to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union by October 31 with or without a deal.
Move to Suspend Parliament
But what is the broader significance of this move? Does it portend a more brazenly assertive governing style for Johnson? Does it reveal an embrace of a more “Trumpian” approach to governing, which would include disdain for the rule of law, routine violation of constitutional norms and principles, and a willingness to disparage and attack vital institutions that are seen as impediments to policy goals or one’s own accumulation of power?
Some observers have already called Johnson the U.K.’s version of Donald J. Trump. Both men are brash, divisive, opportunistic, and self-aggrandizing. Both seek to scale back immigration and reassert their respective country’s position on the world stage. They even appear to have developed an affinity for each other, with Johnson praising Trump for his “many, many good qualities,” while Trump has said that Johnson is “exactly what the U.K. has been looking for.”
Would be very hard for Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, to seek a no-confidence vote against New Prime Minister Boris Johnson, especially in light of the fact that Boris is exactly what the U.K. has been looking for, & will prove to be “a great one!” Love U.K.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 28, 2019
Johnson’s prorogation lengthens the time parliament is suspended by about two weeks, for a total of 32 days. Johnson said that the suspension is necessary and appropriate because parliamentary business has been sparse and because the current session has gone on for a long time. Both claims have some merit. The current session has lasted more than 340 days, the longest in recorded history.
Johnson’s Governing Style
In some ways, Johnson’s governing style already shows some features of Trumpism. Through the use of misdirection or outright falsehood, both men are prone to gaslighting the public. Everyone knows, for example, that the real reason Johnson is suspending parliament is to try to narrow the chances the body will be able to derail his promise to leave the E.U. by October 31, even if there is no exit agreement – not for the innocuous and reasonable-sounding rationale he provided in his letter to MPs.
Also like Trump, he is taking advantage of how little attention the public pays to the nitty-gritty of parliamentary or constitutional dynamics. In the YouGov poll released on Wednesday night, more than a quarter of respondents said they were unsure whether Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament was acceptable or unacceptable.
But Johnson’s move to temporarily suspend parliament appears to be more of an opportunistic Trumpian tactic than the product of deeper authoritarian impulses many critics accuse Trump of harboring.
While the prorogation does shorten the time lawmakers will have to debate and possibly try to avoid a no-deal Brexit by the October 31 deadline, MPs will still have an opportunity to vote on the government’s Brexit approach following a crucial European Council summit on October 17-18.
And unlike many of Trump’s policies, which have been struck down in federal courts, legal experts in the U.K. have noted that Johnson’s move to suspend parliament is neither illegal nor unconstitutional.
Trumpism in Downing Street?
Still, while the move may be defensible on narrow legal grounds, it shows a disregard for long-standing parliamentary norms. It will be the longest prorogation of parliament since 1945.
And while Trump often acts on pure impulse, Johnson’s maneuver was more calculated. With the Remain camp divided over what to do next, Johnson sees a possible advantage. His move puts greater pressure on the opposition to coalesce around a viable strategy.
Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament was brazen, a little sneaky, and bends long-held parliamentary norms. As the Financial Times noted, the idea of a prime minister suspending parliament to avoid it thwarting his or her objectives is a potentially dangerous one.
But it does not indicate that full-on Trumpism has come to Downing Street – or at least not yet.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.