Euan McColm: Brute Boris logic trumps unwritten constitution

Whether a written constitution would have hindered Boris Johnson all depends on who had written it. Picture: 'Rui Vieira/AP
Whether a written constitution would have hindered Boris Johnson all depends on who had written it. Picture: 'Rui Vieira/AP
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It’s the tawdry “look what you made me do” defence so favoured by manipulators and abusers.

As MPs across the political spectrum tried to prevent him from allowing the UK to leave the EU without a deal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that they were actually increasing the chances of that happening. The more MPs try to block a no-deal Brexit, the more likely it is that we’ll end up in that situation, he said.

The choices, then, as Johnson set out on Friday, are submit to him and risk crashing out of Europe without a deal or challenge him and guarantee it.

When the Prime Minister announced on Wednesday that he planned to prorogue parliament, shutting down all House of Commons business in advance of a new Queen’s Speech in mid-October, he and his political henchmen, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg (a man who might drive a maiden aunt to join the class war movement), were quite adamant that there was nothing untoward going on. This was simply a routine matter of process. A new government should outline its programme and it should do it with a Queen’s Speech.

Of course, that was garbage. Of course the PM was trying to prevent opponents from getting in the way of a no-deal Brexit. Of course he was.

Wing-nut hard Brexit ideologues should stop denying this and own the strategy.

From anti-Brexit politicians came some hefty claims. Johnson was acting like a dictator. His actions were not only underhand, they were downright unconstitutional.

I like to think that I hold Johnson – a man who backed Brexit not because he believed the EU harmed the UK but because he believed that to do so would maximise his chances of becoming Prime Minister – in the correct amount of contempt (which is a lot, and then some), but I’m afraid I can’t sign up to these attacks.

Johnson’s behaviour is dishonourable and self-serving but it is not unconstitutional. For it to be so, the United Kingdom would require a written constitution for him to have undermined.

As it is, what passes for the UK constitution is a patchwork of statute and convention. Our politics is done a certain way because that is how it is done. If a Prime Minister wishes to do things differently then he or she may do so.

That is not to say what Johnson did on Wednesday is without grave implications for our democracy. The right of MPs to scrutinise, debate and vote upon significant matters is – or should be – fundamental. Otherwise, why bother having them?

So, if that charge that Johnson’s behaviour is unconstitutional doesn’t quite stick, the charge that it is undemocratic surely does.

There are now calls from some quarters for the UK to have a fully written constitution. If we’d already had one, then Johnson wouldn’t have been able to steamroller our democracy as he is now doing.

I can understand the appeal of such a development but the angel of doubt sits on my shoulder, whispering warnings.

Our imperfect, invisible constitution may have been dreadfully abused by Johnson but would we really be better off – in the long term – with something set in stone?

Who would write this constitution? Independently minded people, you say? Would they be independently minded people you agree with or disagree with? Would they be independently minded right-wingers or independently minded liberals? Would they be independently minded people who believed in women’s reproductive rights or independently minded people who didn’t?

You get the picture, I’m sure. A hasty move towards the creation of a written constitution driven by anger over the Prime Minister’s disreputable actions may lead us into dangerous territory. A written constitution would, inevitably, set in stone matters about which broad opinion changes.

I am particularly surprised that Conservatives should now be carrying out a course of action that can only feed an appetite for a formal, written constitution. Such a document birthed in such a way would, surely, curtail what these Tories now see as their right to do what they are now doing. A written constitution created in response to Tory excesses would punish them, wouldn’t it? Unless it was written by independently minded people who think Johnson’s a great statesman, of course.

I bumped into an old chum, a former Liberal Democrat adviser, on Friday and we chewed this matter over. “So long as the constitution was written by liberals, we’d be fine,” he joked, recognising that it would be a solution that simply couldn’t satisfy everyone.

And so, despite Johnson’s revolting abuse of convention, I’d argue that the current set-up is the best of a number of imperfect options.

Opposition politicians are, for now, united in their condemnation of the Prime Minister’s actions. Meanwhile legal challenges against the prorogation of parliament are under way both north and south of the border. It may yet be the case that Johnson’s plan to shut down the Commons is stopped.

I hope it is, but I wonder what, next, politicians might do to prevent a no-deal Brexit. MPs, after all, cannot compel the EU to sign up to any agreement. European leaders have, I think, been more than patient when it comes to this display by the UK of reckless self-harm. Neither preventing Johnson from proroguing parliament nor voting, in principle, against a no-deal Brexit is enough to stop the UK leaving the EU without an agreement.

That eventuality remains, despite the efforts of opposition MPs, the likeliest one. The UK and the EU have agreed that Brexit will come to pass on 31 October.

If Halloween comes around and no new agreement is in place then a no-deal Brexit is the inevitable course.

And when the consequences are felt, when the economy begins to weaken and society begins to further polarise, the charlatan who occupies 10 Downing Street will point his finger at those who tried to prevent this and say they are to blame, that they made him do it.