By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
Some MPs are describing it as a coup. The Speaker of the House of Commons has condemned it as a “constitutional outrage.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s shutting down of Parliament, to prevent MPs halting his headlong rush toward a no-deal Brexit, has plunged British politics into entirely new depths of chaos.
With a large majority of MPs steadfastly opposed to no-deal, Johnson is resorting to non-democratic means to fulfil his pledge of severing Britain’s relationship with Europe by Oct. 31, to the extent of lying about his motives for “proroguing” Parliament: Johnson disingenuously claims that Parliament must be closed to allow time to unveil a “bold and ambitious legislative agenda” — an agenda that will never be enacted, either because the prime minister’s actions will force a general election, or because a no-deal Brexit would trigger a shock recession and derail spending plans.
Johnson has no democratic mandate for his actions. Three-quarters of Britons oppose quitting the EU without a deal. A petition opposing Johnson’s parliamentary “coup” rapidly accumulated nearly two million signatures. Johnson’s government enjoys a nominal parliamentary majority of just one seat, thanks to the 10 Northern Ireland MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party, who themselves oppose no-deal Brexit.
Johnson has weakened his standing within his own party by purging moderates and bringing in a narrow cabal of hard-right Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Cummings and Dominic Raab.
Britain has blundered into constitutionally murky waters: What is legally permitted or politically possible in these unprecedented circumstances has never been put to the test, and it is now a question of who can seize the initiative. Johnson’s coup puts his opponents on the defensive, forcing them to consider desperate and hitherto unthinkable measures.
These pro-European MPs now have just four days of parliamentary time to force some kind of counter-putsch through Parliament. This could mean legislation ordering the government to ask the EU for a delay to the exit date, or the “nuclear option” of a no-confidence vote, which would require persuading significant numbers of Conservative MPs to vote against their own leader.
Johnson continues to insist that he wants a deal with the EU, and that those who are acting against him are undermining his negotiation position with Brussels. Yet European leaders firmly reject the premise of Johnson’s demands, and the prime minister belligerently rejects any delay to the exit deadline — which would be required so that Parliament can vote on any deal that may be agreed. In fact, there is no deal to be had on Johnson’s terms. He and his extremist acolytes transparently intend to steamroller through a catastrophic no-deal scenario.
Seventy percent of the food Britain exports goes to the EU, and 60 percent of Britain’s food imports come from the EU. Europe’s high trade barriers would make a no-deal exit ruinous for agriculture. One report estimates half of British farmers would be forced out of business. Consumers will endure punishing price rises, empty shelves in supermarkets and unavailability of medicines and essential goods, while food rots in lorries stuck in immense queues on both sides of unnecessary borders. Vehicle and aviation manufacturing, steel, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other huge employers are being forced overseas, costing thousands of jobs.
The principle sticking point for reaching a deal has been the status of Ireland. Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have reaped the benefits of a fragile peace process that Johnson intends to callously throw to the wolves. Britain’s Police Federation warns of “wide-scale disruption” and escalating violence in Northern Ireland as a consequence of no-deal. With the Scots rethinking the merits of independence, the “United Kingdom” is disintegrating before our eyes.
Charting his path to power, Johnson during the 2016 referendum sold Britain a lie about “taking back control.” Today, like Prof. Pangloss, he prescribes “optimism.” Citizens who have been drip-fed poisonous anti-European propaganda by xenophobic right-wing sections of the media must now endure job losses and spiralling living costs. Much of the country remains wedded to a nostalgic, isolationist myth of a freshly independent Great Britain, unmoored from its foreign restraints, sailing off proudly into the sunset. They shrug at no-deal warnings: “Just get it done!”
As small and large businesses alike are dashed upon the rocks of gratuitous economic sabotage, only a fringe super-rich elite stands to gain from Britain becoming an unregulated tax haven on Europe’s margins. Donald Trump talks about a British trade deal with malicious relish, knowing that in the UK’s lamentable state, it will soon be compelled to sign anything. Yet Britons are loath to see supermarkets flooded with substandard, chemically treated US produce.
Consumed by domestic woes, Britain has become irrelevant on foreign policy. The Foreign Office hardly bothers any more to trouble journalists with limp-wristed statements of “concern” about events in far-flung parts of the world, and no-deal promises new depths of irrelevance.
The impact of no-deal is being compared to that of the Second World War (indeed, the last forcible prorogations of Parliament led to England’s 17th-century Civil War), with Johnson determined to reduce his nation to a basket-case banana republic.
Britain’s economic wellbeing has long been premised on its pivotal location as the globalized gate into Europe. Amid the poverty, recession and unemployment that will ensue from a no-deal Brexit, civil unrest and anger against the political classes are the predictable bitter fruits of such an ill-fated and ill-judged isolationist course.
It is consequently not hyperbole to say that rational politicians from all parties have just days to come together and rescue the UK. I will be one of very many praying that they succeed.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.