In a dramatic and unequivocal ruling on 24 September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to shut down Parliament for five weeks was overturned by the Supreme Court. Britain’s highest court ruled unanimously that Johnson’s advice to the Queen to prorogue Parliament between the second week of September and 14 October was ‘unlawful, void and of no effect’. A humiliated, yet defiant, Prime Minister was forced to cut short his visit to New York, after giving his speech at United Nations General Assembly, and fly back overnight to face calls for his resignation in a recalled Parliament the next day. The ruling class had made its move through the actions of its top judges. David Yaffe reports.
Johnson’s right-wing Tory government’s ‘do or die’ political strategy to deliver Brexit on 31 October ‘with or without a deal’ is in disarray. It has been blocked by Parliament and now the courts. The stage had been set for a stormy debate before Johnson’s return to the Commons to give a statement on the ruling of the Supreme Court. Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg was reported as calling the court judgement a ‘constitutional coup’ during a cabinet conference call. In the reconvened Parliament the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, answering an urgent question on his legal advice to the government on prorogation, set the tone for the rest of the session. He accused MPs of ‘setting their face against leaving [the European Union (EU)] at all’ and being ‘too cowardly’ to vote for an election. He said ‘this Parliament is a dead Parliament…It should no longer sit’.
Johnson continued with this theme in his statement to Parliament. In a bullish defence of his Brexit strategy, this wealthy and privileged demagogue opened the way for a ‘people versus Parliament’ general election. Cheered on by Conservative MPs, an unrepentant Johnson claimed that MPs had ‘run to the courts’ and lacked the courage to take him on in an election. ‘Instead of deciding to let the voters decide, they ran to the courts…it is absolutely no disrespect to the judiciary to say I think the court wrong.’ He dismissed fears that his use of language such as ‘surrender bill’ and ‘betrayal’ was dangerous in an acrimonious political climate. He rejected MPs’ demands that he moderate his language as ‘humbug’ and responded to an MP who raised the murder of Jo Cox by saying that the best way to honour Cox was to ‘get Brexit done’. The Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn responded in saying Johnson’s statement was ‘Ten minutes of bluster from a dangerous Prime Minister who thinks he is above the law but is not fit for the office he holds’. However, Johnson made it clear he no longer recognises the legitimacy of this Parliament. In his view the result of the 2016 EU Referendum supersedes all other considerations and justifies his methods, no matter what right-wing populist forces he could be setting in train.1
A divided ruling class
It is important, once again, to acknowledge the context of these events. As we argued a month before the 2016 EU Referendum,2 the imperialist character of Britain is decisive in determining all the major economic and political developments in this country. The parasitic character of British capitalism, its dependence on the earnings from its vast overseas assets and particularly those of its parasitic banking sector to sustain the British economy, made it extremely vulnerable to the global crisis precipitated by the financial crash of 2007/08. The continuing global crisis of the capitalist system, the growing conflicts between the imperialist powers, the destabilisation of entire regions of the world, forcing millions to flee to survive, has severely undermined Britain’s capacity to sustain its role as an independent imperialist power. These developments have brought Britain’s relationship with the EU to a head.
More than 13 years ago we argued that the parasitic character of British capitalism would sooner or later force the British ruling class to make a choice between Europe and the United States.3 Britain’s relationship with Europe and the impasse the British ruling class finds itself in over this question dominates political life in this country. Its eventual resolution will have dramatic consequences for the rivalry between European and US imperialism and for the future role of the City of London. The Brexit conflict is essentially a dispute between sections of the British ruling class over two necessarily, totally reactionary outcomes for British capitalism – staying as part of a European imperialist bloc or leaving and becoming an offshore centre for usury capital under the umbrella of US imperialism. The Brexit conflict is already creating serious obstacles to sustaining the City of London as a leading global financial centre and with it the material basis for the standard of living of the more privileged sections of the British working class.
On 23 January 2013, the then Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU and follow this with an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership by the end of 2017. He did this in a futile attempt to appease the Eurosceptics in his party, outflank Nigel Farage’s UKIP, and strike a populist pose to improve his party’s prospects in the next general election. It was a spectacular gamble which he lost when, against all his expectations, there was a small majority for those who wanted to leave the EU. This has created serious problems for the British ruling class, which more than three years later have not been resolved.
Boris Johnson’s election by Conservative Party members as leader, and therefore Prime Minister, on 23 July this year is the latest twist in this saga. His vision of Britain after leaving the EU is of a low tax, lightly regulated economy on the edge of Europe – essentially an offshore centre for usury capital under the umbrella of the US imperialism. This was set out in a speech given on the fringes of the UN General Assembly and designed to encourage US and Canadian business leaders to invest in the UK. After Brexit, Johnson declared: ‘We are going to take advantage of all the freedoms that Brexit can give…We want a market that is open to the world, with the most competitive tax rates and the best skilled workforce in the hemisphere’ (Financial Times 24 September 2019).
How Johnson’s position evolved
By the end of July it was already clear that the government was heading towards a no deal Brexit. Johnson was playing down the likelihood of successful talks with the EU unless it agreed to abandon the existing withdrawal agreement and the Irish ‘backstop’. The withdrawal deal contains a default ‘backstop’ solution to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, put in at the request of the Irish Republic, under which the north of Ireland would maintain full alignment with the EU single market and customs union. Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, warned Johnson that a no deal Brexit could make people less happy with the status quo in Northern Ireland, ‘question the union’ and ‘look more towards a united Ireland’. By early August David Frost, the government’s chief adviser on the EU, is said to have sought discussions on how negotiations with the EU could be reset after the UK crashes out of the EU on 31 October.
On 28 August the Prime Minister announced that he intended to shut down Parliament for a critical five-week period in the run up to Brexit. This is aimed at frustrating the efforts of MPs to stop a no deal Brexit on 31 October. MPs were furious, the Commons Speaker John Bercow called it a ‘constitutional outrage’. Johnson asked the Queen to prorogue Parliament between the second week of September and 14 October – the longest suspension of Parliament since 1945. This was approved at a meeting of the Privy Council at Balmoral in Scotland, where the Queen was in residence. In a letter to MPs, Johnson claimed the suspension would allow him to focus on domestic priorities leading up to a new Queen’s speech on 14 October, setting out what he called ‘a bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda for the renewal of our country after Brexit’. MPs would be able to vote on any new deal without the Irish ‘backstop’ he could negotiate at the EU Council Meeting on 17 October, on 21 and 22 October - a little more than week before Brexit day. These measures were clearly a challenge to opponents of his Brexit strategy to take steps to vote down the government and force a General Election.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn protested against the prorogation in a letter to the Queen. He said opposition parties would move very quickly against the move: ‘The first thing we’ll do is attempt to prevent what he is doing, and secondly we’ll challenge him with a motion of confidence at some point.’ The Prime Minister soon made it clear that he was ready to destroy his own parliamentary majority and withdraw the whip from any Conservative MPs who back opposition plans to stop a no-deal Brexit, making them ineligible to stand for the party. He was as good as his word.
On 3 September a total of 21 Tory MPs joined forces with Labour and other opposition parties – a so-called ‘rebel alliance’ – and backed moves to take over the Commons agenda to pass an emergency law to stop a no deal Brexit. The Prime Minister lost the key vote by 328 to 301, a heavier defeat than expected. All the Tory rebels had the whip removed including ex-Chancellors Philip Hammond and Ken Clarke. Earlier during the debate Phillip Lee, a former Tory Health Minister, crossed the floor and joined the Liberal Democrats. Johnson said that the rebel Tories were signing up to Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘surrender bill’. On 5 September Johnson’s brother, the Universities Minister Jo Johnson, resigned from the Cabinet citing ‘irresolvable tensions’ between family loyalty and the national interest. Two days later the Work and Pension Secretary Amber Rudd quit the Cabinet accusing the Prime Minister of an act of ‘political vandalism’ in sacking 21 of her Tory colleagues. The Tory Party has lost its majority and is disintegrating, leaving Britain on the brink of a General Election.
The next day the Commons passed by 327 votes to 299 a bill proposed by Hilary Benn, which forces the Prime Minister to seek an extension of Article 50 until 31 January 2020, if no new exit deal is agreed by 19 October. Johnson said he would never request the delay mandated in the bill as it would ‘hand control of negotiations to the EU’. The Commons also blocked an attempt by the Prime Minister to call a General Election which requires a two-thirds majority of MPs – 434 votes. His motion received 298 Yes votes with 56 No votes and so fell. On the morning Johnson shut down Parliament he suffered his sixth parliamentary defeat in six days, after MPs voted again to block a snap General Election and by 311 votes to 302 to force him to publish Operation Yellowhammer documents detailing his no deal Brexit plans, after a leaked version from early August warned of months of chaos at ports, food and medicine shortages, nationwide unrest and a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the businesswoman Gina Miller, who had won a previous case against government over Brexit, made an application to the High Court for a judicial review of the Prime Ministers move. On 6 September the case was rejected as non-justiciable. In Scotland, during the Parliamentary recess in August, a Scottish judge had already fast-tracked a legal challenge led by the Scottish National Party MP Joanna Cherry QC and backed by 75 MPs and peers to prevent Johnson proroguing parliament. On 11 September, the three-judge appellate panel at the Court of Session unanimously found the prorogation was unlawful. Both the Miller and Cherry cases were appealed to the Supreme Court of the UK. It was that court which gave its ruling on 24 September.
The ruling class is forced to move
Brexit has exposed the deep divisions in the ruling class and their parliamentary representatives. From the beginning of the 1990s it had become increasingly clear to growing sections of the Labour Party that Britain could no longer sustain a social democratic welfare state on a national basis as an independent imperialist power. This could only be achieved on a European-wide basis, with British imperialism becoming a significant player within a European imperialist bloc. This is reflected in the overwhelmingly pro-remain position of Labour MPs and a majority of Labour voters. The current difficulty for the Labour Party is the fact that its leader Jeremy Corbyn and a number of Labour MPs in leave voting areas cannot come to terms with the obvious consequences of this reality. To do so would split the party. That is why Corbyn refuses to take a stand, saying instead that he will stay neutral on the issue of Brexit and let the people decide. He would go into an election offering to negotiate a Brexit deal involving a customs union and stay out of campaigning in a second Referendum on any Labour negotiated Brexit deal, with remain on the ballot paper. This position makes the Labour Party unable to play a decisive role in a disintegrating Parliament with the Liberal Democratic Party, the Scottish National Party and the Green Party solidly for remain.
Johnson still claims he is attempting to strike a deal with the EU. It has to be agreed at the EU Council Meeting on 17 October and brought back to the Commons for ratification before 31 October. EU officials, however, are totally pessimistic that the Irish ‘backstop’ problem can be resolved with the ‘half-baked’ and ‘legally inoperable’ solutions put forward by the British negotiators. Johnson knows this. That is why he has laid the ground for an acrimonious ‘people versus Parliament’ General Election. As we go to press, unmoved by the widespread condemnation of his inflammatory rhetoric, the Prime Minister is making preparations for a populist election campaign against opponents who, he will say, have ‘surrendered’ to the EU. It will become the dominant theme of the Conservative Party conference. It will mirror the tactics of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, which was led by his current adviser Dominic Cummings, with its very effective slogan ‘take back control’.
The opposition parties know that they have to have to plan a united strategy if they are going to defeat Johnson and force through an extension to Article 50 before calling a General Election. A vote of no confidence can only be effective if they can agree who will lead an interim administration for the short period of time needed to carry forward their demands. The Liberal Democratic Party, with its new leader Jo Swinson, so far refuses to give support to Corbyn, the leader of by far the largest opposition party. Something has to change. The next two weeks will be decisive.
The judgement of the Supreme Court was designed to sustain the sovereignty of Parliament in the face of a right-wing nationalist Tory Party that is attempting to destroy it and with a divided opposition unable to unite on an agreed strategy for resolving the increasingly divisive issue of Brexit. The ruling class knows that adequately functioning Parliamentary institutions remain the guarantee of its power and control. That is why it has laid down the law.
- Factual information taken from the Financial Times and The Guardian 24 to 27 September 2019.
- David Yaffe ‘EU referendum: the position of communists’ in FRFI 251 June/July 2016, on our website at http://tinyurl.com/z7cpcz7
- See David Yaffe ‘Britain: parasitic and decaying capitalism’ FRFI 194 December 2006/January at http://tinyurl.com/88po6dx for a discussion on the parasitic character of British capitalism and the importance of the City of London for the British economy.
- For a discussion of the Irish ‘backstop’ see David Yaffe ‘Brexit Chaos: No end in sight’ FRFI 267 December 2018/January 2019 on our website at https://tinyurl.com/y8jm7pgw
FIGHT RACISM! FIGHT IMPERIALISM! 272 October/November 2019