We now have the true measure of Boris Johnson
The hypocrisy inherent in the British PM's words and deeds is astounding
Boris Johnson speaks at a Conservative Party leadership campaign hustings at in London. File Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA
Boris Johnson deserves to be haunted by the ghost of Jo Cox, the British Labour MP murdered during the final stages of the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016. As Cox campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU, Thomas Mair, the man charged with and later convicted of her murder, was reported to have shouted “Britain first” as he attacked her, and gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.
After her death a memorial service was held on what would have been Cox’s 42nd birthday and her husband Brendan suggested “she would have spent it dashing around the streets of her home town trying to convince people that Britain is stronger in Europe”.
That is what campaigning members of parliament do; they are then expected to accept and implement the verdict of the electorate whether that vote is a wallop or a vindication of their stance; what they share is a representative parliament that seeks to legislate but also hold the executive to account.
The murder of Cox was widely described by fellow MPs as a devastating blow to democracy; campaigning was temporarily suspended and numerous statements, including from Boris Johnson, described the death as horrific.
In June 2016 Johnson insisted that the reason he was campaigning for exit was because the EU was 'cooking things up in a way that I think is antidemocratic'
The killing of an MP – the first since 1990 when Ian Gow was killed by the IRA – was of course an opportunity for politicians of all shades to unite in condemnation and remember, not what divided them, but their shared service in parliament as public representatives and the primacy of that.
But such has been the political toxicity since then that those paramount, shared purposes are being completely undermined. Earlier this month, Johnson accused MPs who oppose his approach to Brexit of “a terrible kind of collaboration” with Brussels to prevent Brexit. That he would seek to characterise his parliamentary opponents in such a fashion is not just a measure of the man, bearing in mind what happened to Cox, but also another indication of the worrying normalisation of discourse that displays contempt for democracy.
Johnson has now added to that by indicating his intention to suspend parliament to prevent MPs holding him and his government to account. The hypocrisy is astounding; in June 2016 Johnson insisted that the reason he was campaigning for exit was because the EU was “cooking things up in a way that I think is antidemocratic”.
He also described his then party leader David Cameron as having been through the “professional deformation of people who become prime minister”, meaning they will not follow their true instincts because they are in charge but instead seek compromise. But after the referendum, Johnson suggested, “a massive chunk of the moderate, sensible public who have been interested in the Europe debate but not perhaps as passionate as I am will want to see us pulling together”.
So much for that. Pulling together would have involved precisely what Johnson is seeking to deny; as former prime minister John Major put it as early as February 2017, “Our parliament exists to scrutinise the Executive. That is its job, so it is depressing to see Leave enthusiasts in parliament acting against their own principles. To win the referendum, they asserted the sovereignty of our parliament; now, they speak and vote to deny that same parliament any meaningful role ... Parliament must be free to debate, and comment and advise. For it not to do so would be wrong in principle: it would also be unwise politically if – as it might – the will of the people evolves and the reality of Brexit becomes unpopular”.
Johnson prefers the jingoistic sloganeering he specialised in when writing for the Telegraph: 'Now is the time to believe in ourselves, and in what Britain can do'
But the English Tory power game is of far more interest to Johnson and his cronies. Prorogation of parliament also carries a particular weight in Britain given its long parliamentary tradition and its pride in its parliament being able, not just to withstand the pressures of modernisation, but come up with solutions in a way that other parts of Europe often struggled, or became engulfed in revolution.
During the long 19th century in Britain there were numerous constitutional challenges relating to industrialisation, the franchise, religion, labour, the provision of national education and colonial antagonisms, including famine and nationalism in Ireland. Mistakes were made and many cruelties perpetrated, but parliament persevered and adapted. There was little glamorous about most of that British stability; as Walter Bagehot the British journalist and essayist of the 19th century wrote: “Dullness in matters of government is a good sign, and not a bad one – in particular, dullness in parliamentary government is a test of its excellence, an indication of its success.”
Johnson, however, prefers the kind of jingoistic sloganeering he specialised in when writing for the Telegraph: “Now is the time to believe in ourselves, and in what Britain can do, and to remember that we always do best when we believe in ourselves”.
But not, it seems, believing in the primacy of parliamentary sovereignty.