‘Boris the dictator’: World’s press reacts to suspension of British parliment

Most papers sternly opposed to move but more right-leaning outlets more supportive

Reaction in the world’s press to prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament was predictably strong on Thursday, with most papers sternly opposed to the radical manoeuvre and more right-leaning rivals more supportive.

With some papers emphasising the "rogue" in "prorogue", the UK's Independent captured the mood for several titles under a stark headline, on an otherwise white top half of its front page, dubbing the episode "The Johnson Coup".

“With just 63 days until the 31 October deadline,” the paper’s lead story began, “an unelected prime minister has made himself unaccountable to MPs for five weeks.”

"Not only does Boris Johnson want to deny voters the Final Say, he is now silencing their representatives. All in the name of democracy."

In its editorial, the Independent said the move was a “devious” and “underhand” attempt to override democracy and that it must be defeated in parliament, which sits again next week.

The Guardian’s editorial called Mr Johnson’s step, which required Queen Elizabeth’s assent, “an act of wanton constitutional vandalism”.

Despite the prime minister claiming it was designed to allow him to enact a "bold and ambitious legislative agenda", the paper said it was undoubtedly a device to silence parliament before the October 31st Brexit deadline.

“Mr Johnson is hijacking powers symbolically vested in the crown and wielding them in aggression against his parliamentary opponents,” the paper said.

“That he does it in pursuit of a hard Brexit is distressing for pro-Europeans. That he is prepared to do it at all should alarm everyone who values the traditions of British democracy.”

The Financial Times took an even harder line, calling on MPs to call a no-confidence vote which would trigger an election.

“It is time for parliamentarians to bring down his government in a no-confidence vote, paving the way for an election in which the people can express their will,” it said in its editorial.

The Metro used wordplay to make its point, with a front page headline of “Prorogue state”. Similarly, the Daily Mirror ran a front page headline with “PRO” and “ROGUE” in different colours for emphasis.

At the other end of the political spectrum, The Daily Telegraph’s editorial ran under a headline of: “The real outrage is the antics of the Remainers”.

"After three years of backsliding, compromise and humiliating defeat under Theresa May, the country has a Prime Minister who is evidently willing to do whatever it takes to carry out the people's will," the paper said.

The Times echoed that sentiment in its editorial, but added a warning that the prime minister might face problems in parliament in the future, since it was “dangerous to unite your opponents in righteous indignation”.

The Sun voiced a more cheeky confidence vote, with a front page headline of “Ballsy Boris comes out fighting”.

European papers

In Belgium, La Libre called it "the dangerous coup de force of Boris Johnson," while De Standaard gave prominence to the European Parliament's Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt's reaction that "taking back control" had "never looked so sinister".

The same country’s De Tijd suggested Johnson had triggered the “Brexit end-game”.

“As a cynical power politician the prime minister is reaching for all weapons at his disposal,” it added. “Never before had anyone in a parliamentary democracy sidelined a parliament in this way. The Brexiteers will be delighted.”

Reaction was particularly negative in Germany, where suspending parliamentary powers carries a particular historical burden.

The centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s best-selling broadsheet, had five articles in its Thursday edition on events in London. Its editorial dubbed the enforced parliamentary holiday “ingenious and perfidious” and attacked the prime minister’s claim to represent “the people – against the politicians ... the enemies of the people”.

“This is pure populism,” it added, noting the government accountable to the people had undermined their parliamentary representation. “Johnson may win this power struggle. But the price is very high.”

The Bild tabloid had only a small piece, buried at the bottom of page two. Online it carried several British front pages – including a comparison of both front pages of the Irish Daily Mail (“Boris Goes Nuclear”) and its British parent (“Boris Takes The Gloves Off”).

Die Welt noted a certain irony in politicians suspending parliament on a mission to take back control from Brussels.

“Now they are showing a considerable democratic deficit themselves when it involves pushing through their radical goal to get a no-deal Brexit,” it suggested in a front-page editorial. “If Johnson succeeds, his hard departure from the EU will not just damage considerably the British economy but also Britain’s time-honoured democracy.”

The Handelsblatt business daily noted how in Britain, “often hailed as the motherland of democracy, it’s possible to send democracy off on holiday”.

Deutsche Welle’s English version ran a simple headline of “Boris the dictator” above an editorial saying a “weakness in the British political system — rooted in its archaic traditions and heritage – is coming back to haunt the country”.

“What Johnson is doing ... is befitting a military dictatorship,” it said.

"It is anti-democratic and matches the havoc wreaked by US president Donald Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

“These new ravagers are only interested in power for themselves, and their financiers among the ranks of the super-rich. To them, democratic procedures and institutional controls are simply tiresome accessories.”

Spanish daily ABC relayed the news with a symbol of anarchy, doctoring the cover of 1970s punk rock hit God Save The Queen to substitute the name of the Sex Pistols with that of Boris Johnson.

El Mundo expressed concern that Johnson was pushing the UK in the direction of autocracy

France’s Liberation ran a front page photo of Mr Johnson under a headline of “Brexit — harder and harder”.

Le Monde suggested the multi-faceted British politician had finally shown his true face: “A populist prime minister, cynical and brutal, determined to do everything, including forcing the queen to suspend British parliamentary democracy, to achieve his ends”.

“The only realistic way out of the chaos that has paralysed British politics since the June 2016 referendum is to call fresh elections,” it added.

Anyone claiming to represent the people, it noted, should not forget he was elected by just over 90,000 Tory party members.

Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter made a blunt case against the British prime minister: “Boris Johnson accused of taking Britain into a dictatorship,” it said.

Austria’s Die Presse echoed the point that Johnson’s mandate is backed by 0.3 per cent of the British electorate.

“A politician in this position would seek the broadest possible consensus while a revolutionary – once controlling the reigns of power – uses them unconditionally to reach his goals,” the newspaper said, putting Johnson into the revolutionary camp. It warned of historian Christopher Clark’s “sleepwalker” theory about the disastrous drift into the first World War, predicting “Johnson will trigger developments he cannot control.”

Among the newspapers more amenable to Johnson was Germany’s conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, warning the cost of a no-deal departure would be grave for all of Europe, in particular Ireland.

“The backstop for Ireland was well-intended but increasingly it appears counter-productive because, in the end, it makes agreement impossible and, as a result, threatens that which was to be avoided: a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,” it warned in its business section.

One of the newspaper’s London correspondents suggested the time had come for Ireland to “give up immediately its sclerotic position”, allow the EU “cut the Gordian knot” and offer the UK a time-limited backstop of two years.

“This would allow a soft Brexit,” suggested Philip Plickert. “It would be tragic if Europe and Great Britain don’t manage to reach an agreement. The risk that this will come to pass has, sadly, grown considerably.”

Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten was also more amenable, headlining its editorial: “Let’s have Brexit. The sooner, the better.”

“Enough is enough. There is no other interpretation of prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament at least for a month to secure Great Britain can leave the EU on October 31st, if necessary without any deal,” it argued. “No-one can say they are surprised over the prime minister’s move, but reactions have never the less been powerful.”

Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung suggested Johnson had only one goal: to secure his political survival. The “dramatic” decision to suspend parliament would pre-occupy legal minds for years to come, it said, but might “finally bring clarity to the country after three years of exhausting Brexit confusion”.

US papers

Mr Johnson’s actions also feature on the front of The New York Times under the headline “UK leader moves to suspend parliament to advance Brexit”.

"Prime Minister Boris Johnson turned to Britain's queen on Wednesday to limit Parliament's ability to challenge his plan to take the country out of the European Union in nine weeks, with or without a deal," it says.

"Mr Johnson asked Queen Elizabeth II to suspend Parliament in September, a move that will cut the already dwindling number of days lawmakers have to find an alternative path ahead of the looming Brexit deadline on Oct 31."

The Washington Post’s front page states “Drastic move toward Brexit - Parliament to be suspended” while The Dallas Morning News goes with “Johnson moves to shutter Parliament”. - Additional reporting PA

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin