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Brexit Brings About Political Role Reversal


The Houses of Parliament are reflected in a puddle of rainwater in central London, Sept. 24, 2019.

As lawmakers from Britain's main Labour opposition party crowded around televisions in the coastal town of Brighton, where they're holding their annual conference, there was an audible collective intake of breath.

The historic judgment Tuesday by Britain's Supreme Court, in which all 11 judges deemed unlawful Prime Minister Boris Johnson's five-week suspension of the country's parliament, was something they had hoped for, but had not dared to expect.

After the chief justice of the London-based court, Lady Hale, delivered the unanimous verdict declaring the suspension of parliament "unlawful, void and of no effect," the lawmakers started hitting their cellphones, exchanging text messages and talking excitedly on them as they plotted the next steps in blocking Britain from leaving the European Union without a deal by the prime minister's deadline of Oct. 31.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street in London, Britain, Sept. 25, 2019.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street in London, Britain, Sept. 25, 2019.

"The prime minister needs to consider his position," said senior Labour lawmaker Keir Starmer. "He needs to come to parliament straight away and make a statement so we can question him."

Labour's leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for Johnson to resign, arguing he lied to the Queen to secure her assent for the suspension, known as a prorogation.

Brexit has bent British politics out of all recognizable shape, shattering the delicate balance of power shared between Parliament, the courts and the Crown, as represented by the government, say analysts.

The country's storied parties are fracturing, new ones are emerging. Parliament has been pitched into an open confrontation with a pro-Brexit minority Conservative government, grabbing power from the executive to control the legislative agenda of the House of Commons.

The country's monarch has been dragged into the mire of partisan politics.

Judges and politics

And in the political chaos thrown up by Brexit, the judges have entered deeper into the realm of politics than they have done before in modern times to try to get some order. Many of the conventions guiding British politics have been eroded — including whether a prime minister has the clear authority to secure a suspension of parliament without judicial oversight.

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the parliament in London, Britain, Sept. 25, 2019, in this screen grab taken from video.
Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the parliament in London, Britain, Sept. 25, 2019, in this screen grab taken from video.

The court Tuesday found in favor of Johnson's opponents, who argued the beleaguered prime minister exceeded his authority by suspending parliament to avoid scrutiny of his Brexit plans and to avoid being blocked by the House of Commons from taking Britain out of the EU without a deal with Brussels.

But one of the biggest ironies, say analysts, has been the role reversal by the two main parties — Labour and the Conservatives — when it comes to the overriding sovereign importance of parliament and the rights of lawmakers.

Britain's Conservatives have traditionally been seen as solid defenders of parliamentary democracy; Labour all too often, especially its left wing, which now controls the party leadership, has frequently prioritized the rights of the people and the working class not only over a sitting government but over the House of Commons, the bedrock of Britain's representative democracy.

Corbyn and his deputies, as well as his tight-knit team of advisers, have at various times called for civil disobedience and extra-parliamentary direct action, notably during the 1984-85 miners' strike, a major industrial action to try to prevent Margaret Thatcher from shuttering loss-making collieries. And during 1980s agitation over the basing of U.S. intermediate nuclear missiles in Britain at the height of the Cold War, they urged direct action.

In the past the current Labour leadership, which this week in Brighton unveiled a package of proposals that would see the abolition of private schools and a huge expropriation of company stocks, has made no secret of its fear that parliament could impede a future Labour government bringing about a socialist transformation.

British Labour MP John McDonnell speaks during the Labour party annual conference in Brighton, Britain, Sept. 23, 2019.
British Labour MP John McDonnell speaks during the Labour party annual conference in Brighton, Britain, Sept. 23, 2019.

Just eight years ago John McDonnell, Labour's shadow chancellor of the exchequer, urged anti-austerity agitators at a "Unite the Resistance" rally that he wanted to see a situation where "no Tory MP can travel anywhere in the country or show their face in public without being challenged by direct action." He added: "Any institution or any individual that attacks our [working] class, we will come for you with direct action."

Immediately after the 2017 general election, which the Conservatives won but with a much reduced parliamentary majority, McDonnell said "a million people should take to the streets to force Theresa May from power." McDonnell and Corbyn have praised Venezuela's socialist policies and have been vocal supporters of Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez. In a televised phone conversation in 2014, Corbyn congratulated Maduro on his election in a poll widely seen internationally as rigged.

But on Tuesday, hours after the court ruling, Corbyn rushed on to the stage at his party's conference, and condemned Johnson for being "part of an elite that disdains democracy." He added: "The democracy that Boris Johnson describes as a rigmarole will not be stifled."

He said the country needed "a government that respects democracy, that respects the rule of law."

'Constitutional coup'

On the Conservative side of the political aisle, the talk is now of a "constitutional coup" by the judges and fury at what they see as a conspiracy by parliamentarians and the courts to thwart the "will of the people," expressed in the 2016 Brexit referendum in which a slim majority of voters backed relinquishing EU membership.

"The normal rules of political gravity have been suspended by the referendum," opined the Daily Telegraph. The pro-Conservative newspaper dubbed Johnson the champion of the people against an establishment determined to stop Brexit.

Anti-Brexit protesters hold flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, Sept. 25, 2019.
Anti-Brexit protesters hold flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, Sept. 25, 2019.

It is a view shared by pro-Brexit Tory MPs, who argue the plebiscite gave the government the authority to supersede parliament and that the court decision marks the most brazen encroachment into politics, a seminal arrogation by the judges of power.

Senior governments accuse the Supreme Court of making a "serious mistake," sounding more like Labour lawmakers in the 1980s when they fulminated against the courts for finding in favor of the Thatcher government's legislative restrictions on the trade unions.

The role reversal has many a commentator blinking.

Writing Wednesday in The Times, columnist Daniel Finkelstein, a onetime adviser to former Conservative prime minister David Cameron, noted: "For a Conservative government to find its actions revoked and reversed by the highest court, for it to have to be reminded by judges of its constitutional and political duty, and for it to have given advice to the Queen which has been found unlawful, is a calamity."

He added, "The whole point of Conservative government is to provide an executive aware of its limitations and sensitive to the dangers of over-reaching them. Conservatives emphasize the value of unwritten conventions by treating those rules and traditions with the greatest respect. … Without these things, what is the point of Conservatives and what is the value of Conservatism?"

Some moderate Conservatives and lawyers have urged hardline Brexiters to tone down their criticism of the judges and of parliament, arguing they should welcome Tuesday's judgment as judicial independence and parliamentary sovereignty could also curb Jeremy Corbyn if he wins an election likely to be called soon.

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