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United Kingdom

A prime minister with no proven respect for institutions

by Hans Dembowski


Impression management: this rather fishy prime minister loves to dress up, but never takes off his tie.

Impression management: this rather fishy prime minister loves to dress up, but never takes off his tie.

Britons will elect a new parliament on Thursday, and I find it strange that the public hardly seems to be aware of what is probably the greatest risk of Boris Johnson's Conservatives winning a majority in parliament: He seems to be the kind of prime minister you can only vote for once because he'll do whatever he can in his first term to change the rules in ways to entrench himself in power for decades to come.

The British constitution depends on respect for unwritten conventions. Johnson has only been in office for a short time, but we have already seen that his respect for unwritten conventions is just as small as his respect for the truth. Historically, conservatives were cautious about changing the established order. Johnson is not.

For professional reasons, I regularly read the Financial Times, the Economist and the Guardian. They have done a great job of reporting that Johnson is a habitual liar (FT – paywall) and that his promise of getting Brexit done is hollow (Economist – paywall). They also reiterate that this election is especially important in view of what is at stake: Brexit, public spending on health, public spending in general et cetera. But until today, I did not find an op-ed piece that actually spelled out the full risk, mentioned it in the headline and did not hide the profound warnings in paragraphs near the end.

Polly Toynbee's comment in the Guardian today has the headline: “Be very afraid. Boris Johnson will take revenge on all who stood up to him”. In my eyes, she deserves attention.  

As a German aware of my nation's dreadful Nazi past, I am appalled to see the Tories resorting to a “the people versus parliament” strategy and ostracising independent media. It is frightening to see them intimidating journalists. Their double standards are bizarre. In the name of “taking back control”, they are prepared to introduce a customs border separating one part of their sovereign nation from the rest. I cannot understand why anybody would believe that the National Health Service or the BBC would be safe under continuing Tory rule, given the Conservative's disloyalty to Northern Ireland's major unionist party DUP.

I'm sad to say that I find the lukewarm stance of the FT, my favourite newspaper, to be particularly disturbing. Yesterday, James Blitz argued in its Brexit briefing, that Johnson might negotiate a softer Brexit if he won a strong majority because that would mean you wouldn't depend on right-wing hardliners. Hasn't the author noticed that Johnson has been purging his party of centrists? Since 2016, he has closely aligned himself with the hardliners and done everything he could to undermine his more moderate predecessor Theresa May. Does Blitz really believe that a leader with proven authoritarian leanings becomes more accommodating the stronger his power becomes?

Today's FT includes a long story by George Parker under the headline “In search of the real Boris Johnson”. It does a reasonable job of summarising Johnson's mendacity. But it commits only two sentences to the considerable constitutional dangers, admitting that the Tory manifesto includes “a vague, but threatening, reference to the ‘need to look at broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts’.” It suggests that Mr Johnson may want to take revenge against the Supreme Court after justices outlawed his attempt to suspend parliament ahead of the previous Brexit deadline on October 31. In view of the prime minister's track record of ruthlessness, this carefully worded line seems very timid, and it neglects that he probably does not only resent the Supreme Court.

Yes, I know the FT's editorial board has not endorsed any party this time, but rather advised readers to vote tactically. That closely resembles the stance taken by the Guardian and indeed Polly Toynbee personally.

The future of Britain's democracy does not only concern Britain. Since the election of Donald Trump in the USA, it has become much harder to promote democracy convincingly around the world, given that his attitudes so obviously resemble those of dictators. The ongoing impeachment drama shows that the US is in deep constitutional crisis. If Johnson wins a majority in parliament, the British scenario may soon look even worse. The UK does not have the kind of checks and balances that the US has. Johnson will be free to do what he wants, and his track record suggests that the only thing he wants is power. He is therefore likely to do his best to change the institutional order in ways that entrench his position ever deeper. That is what is at stake.

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