A central plank of Boris Johnson's carefully cultivated self-image has always been the claim that, behind the buffoonish exterior was a skilful, serious-minded tactician. It was an assumption shared even by some of his critics, who pointed to his long, single-minded pursuit of – and, ultimately, accession to – a position of power that ought to have been beyond his abilities. In just two months in Downing Street, however, that illusion has unravelled. Here is a British prime minister who has already lost his majority, lost all his votes in the House of Commons, lost 20 MPs who appeal to middle-ground voters, failed to stop legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit and failed in his attempt to force a premature election he claimed not to want. This is not the work of a shrewd strategist. Boris Johnson, it is painfully clear, is winging it.
And now, the biggest humiliation of all. In a devastating judgment on Tuesday, the UK supreme court unanimously found that Johnson had acted unlawfully by suspending parliament for five weeks. It’s a landmark decision – a powerful assertion of parliamentary sovereignty and a robust rebuke to those who might trample on it. The judges deftly side-stepped the question of motive, and they are careful not to say the prime minister misled Queen Elizabeth. But the implication of their finding is self-evident: Johnson lied to the public about his reasons for suspending parliament and his advice to the queen to do so was unlawful.
This is an important test for the rule of law in the UK. Populists such as Johnson thrive on chaos and instability. As the Brexit debacle has shown, the radical right that has captured the Conservative Party is willing to sacrifice democratic norms and strong institutions – not to mention the interests of the citizens they represent – in pursuit of their ideological goals. Johnson no doubt envisages fighting an election that pits “the people” – whose interests he purports to embody – against “the establishment” and “unelected judges”. It was positive, at least, that he responded to the judgment by saying he would respect it.
But while the judges have broken new constitutional ground and dealt a severe blow to Johnson’s standing, their decision will not necessarily change the course of the Brexit standoff. The parliament has already voted to block a chaotic no-deal exit. Johnson remains adamant that he will not extend the departure date beyond October 31st. And, unless he shifts his position, his chances of securing a deal with the EU look vanishingly slim.
Something has to give. What is clear is that Johnson is now backed into a corner, his options narrowing and his time running out. Will he change course? Or will MPs use the extra time the court has given them and do what they have been unable to do for three years and agree on a way forward?