An “outrage”, a “coup”, an “abomination”, a country tumbling into “failed state status”, Britain a “banana republic”, Boris Johnson a “dictator”. Parliamentarians stretch the limits of their vocabulary to express disbelief that this could happen in Britain, the “cradle of democracy”. Rewrite the history books, tear up Bagehot’s The English Constitution, as the Queen and privy council sign the prorogation, neither the “dignified parts” not the “efficient parts” function any longer.
This country that self-identified so smugly as stable, tolerant and moderate, with a crown to symbolise traditions honed down the centuries, is revealed as fissile, fragile and ferociously divided. A constitution that relied on gentlemanly governments’ willingness to bow to parliament has evaporated, blown away now it’s led by a man who doesn’t give a damn for parliamentary sovereignty: taking back control is for him alone. He is ready to destroy anything that threatens his ambition.
MPs will try to stop him proroguing them. Astonishingly, this unelected prime minister has so far only spent one day in the Commons under their scrutiny, and now, after five weeks away, he will face them for just one week before banishing them for an unprecedented further five weeks. They get just one tight week to rise up and rebel, when surely they will vote in great numbers against the prorogation the Speaker calls “a constitutional outrage … an offence against the democratic process and the rights of parliamentarians as the people’s elected representatives”. Johnson’s riposte will be, “So what?” Their vote has no legal standing. But as he sends MPs on their way with a flea in their ear, what will the public think of his insolent defiance of parliament? They will decide in the end – and they may not stand for it.
The sense of violation of democracy reverberates everywhere. But what should civil servants do when power is seized in front of their eyes? Do they carry on obeying orders to drive the country into a no-deal Brexit disaster when they see parliament barred from that nation-changing decision? I asked Bob Kerslake, former head of the civil service, where their duty lies in this unprecedented situation.
“We are reaching the point where the civil service must consider putting its stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day,” he said. That is a devastating verdict.
Mark Sedwill, the current head, should, along with all other senior civil servants indeed consider the democratic validity of any instruction to facilitate a no-deal Brexit without parliamentary assent. A no-deal Brexit was never proposed in the referendum, three-quarters of the public are against it, along with the overwhelming majority of MPs. Johnson has not been elected, commands no majority, avoids interviews and now sends parliament away. Consider, in her favour, how many times Theresa May was willing to stand in parliament taking the pain on Brexit statements for hour after hour, out of respect for parliament.
What prompted Johnson was Jeremy Corbyn convening opposition parties to agree a strategy against a no-deal Brexit. Their unwanted amicable solidarity looked suddenly threatening: they would agree a legislative procedure and call a vote of no confidence – which only the leader of the opposition can do – only if all else failed. That was the trigger. Johnson was hoping for a vote of no confidence so he could call an instant election. He could present himself as the martyr, forced to go the country by MPs hostile to the will of the people. All is ready to go for his election campaign. Next Wednesday brings the chancellor’s spending review, a cornucopia of promises on all those things the public notice, and none to repay the decade-long stripping out of benefits or to repair the services unseen by voters, where people suffer silently and the social fabric frays. Expect spending of an unmatched electoral cynicism.
Dominic Cummings, who runs Johnson as an iron puppet master, has a grid of people-pleasers to announce every day until election day. He told last Friday’s weekly advisers’ meeting that “there will be billions and billions and billions of pounds” for the Treasury to splash, reported the Sunday Times. He imitated Donald Trump: “It’s going to be the most beautiful spending round you’ve ever seen.” Then he boasted: “After this meeting I’m going to go and meet billionaire hedge fund managers and get a giant pot of cash from them” to build an election war chest of unfathomable depth.
Presumably these “private” briefings are leaked weekly to terrify the enemy, perhaps to warn off Corbyn from precipitating an election with a no-confidence vote. But insiders say that in the war room there is no such arrogant certainty that Johnson would win. Electoral calculations flash danger from the Brexit party if they take no more than 10% of the vote. But any electoral pact with hard-right Nigel Farage pledging a no-deal Brexit would risk horrifying moderate Tories, driving remaining anti-Brexiters into Liberal Democrat arms. Squeezed on two sides, seats may not fall according to the polls’ modest Boris bounce.
This aggressive provocation of parliament widens the great Brexit divide into a civil war state of mind. This is the battleground Johnson seeks – himself as roguish, freewheeling representative of the people’s will, defender of the referendum versus the Westminster establishment and the elite, as represented by MPs elected to parliament. Explosive, dangerous, unresolvable, David Cameron’s reckless, Tory-pleasing referendum cut right through the constitution, and now it lies badly damaged.
This assault on parliament is galvanising those soft Tory opponents who were prevaricating, the ones who preferred to wait until late October to give Johnson a chance to strike a new EU deal. Now, say Dominic Grieve and others, they all realise the one week before prorogation must be used to legislate against a no-deal Brexit. There is just time, there are manoeuvres, from seizing the timetable to a humble address and other ingenious devices murmured sotto voce lest the government hear their plans. It can be done, must be done, double quick, it’s too late to wait until they return in October.
The war for public hearts and minds has hardly begun. Which side will people lean, towards a sense their constitution and their parliament has been outraged by a revolutionary rightwinger? Or will they go with Johnson as the true representative of the people, leading angry Brexiters to their hearts’ desire? He has the advantage of the great claque of the 80% Tory press urging him on. This is only step one of Johnson’s “by any means necessary” threat. Expect more such “means” yet to come.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist