The big lie of British politics is that power rests in two places; the monarch appoints government ministers and priests of the established church, hands out awards to successful businessmen and famous artists, and introduces laws to the elected Parliament, which has just two powers: to raise taxes and to pass or reject the laws that the monarch—in this case, Queen Elizabeth II—proposes.
In reality, power rests largely in one place: the elected Parliament, which picks a prime minister from its ranks, who then wields all of the queen’s remaining powers—unless or until Parliament decides to pass laws that snaffle those powers for itself.
Like the film Goodbye, Lenin, in which a loving son attempts to prevent his ailing mother from discovering that Communist rule in East Germany has collapsed, British politics engages in a series of elaborate set pieces in order to maintain the fiction. At the start of every parliamentary session, the queen delivers a speech in which she lays out her governing priorities for the new term. Of course, those objectives are set by the elected government—which also drafts the Queen’s Speech. Over the course of Elizabeth II’s reign, she has declared her intention to erect new regulations and then to dismantle them, to shrink the state and to expand it, to join the European Union and to leave it. As a result of the length of her reign, the queen has issued the most inconsistent set of public pronouncements of any public figure in global history: Not even Donald Trump’s Twitter feed comes close.
But, as in Goodbye Lenin, most of the time the fiction is harmless. It doesn’t matter that there are a number of powers held by Parliament and a number of powers held by the prime minister in the name of the queen, because, for most of the time, the prime minister and Parliament are one and the same. He, or she, is prime minister because they are the leader of the party with a majority in Parliament, which means that they can do whatever they want—up to a point.
Except that, unlike most of his predecessors, Boris Johnson has no majority in Parliament. Also, most MPs are opposed to his Brexit strategy, which is to leave the European Union by October 31, regardless of whether a deal has been reached between the EU and the United Kingdom. Doing so would, according to most predictions, trigger shortages of food and essential items, but would deliver the Brexiters’ craved prize of taking the UK out of the EU.
Johnson’s problem is that the Parliament he has inherited has voted against every resolution to the Brexit saga. It has consistently voted against measures to stop Brexit, but has also consistently voted against the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May. His chances of winning a parliamentary majority while the United Kingdom remains in the European Union are slim—but he cannot leave the European Union without a majority in Parliament.
Johnson, however, has one card he can play: the sizable package of powers that are nominally the queen’s, but in practice lie in the hands of the sitting prime minister.
One of those powers is that of prorogation—the right to mothball Parliament and rule without it. Over the years, Parliament has sharply limited the ability of first the monarch and later the prime minister to use this power, first by legislating to ensure that Parliament must sit annually and hold regular elections (after Charles I ruled for 11 years without recourse to Parliament), and then over centuries further reducing the ability of the prime minister to do away with Parliament. But the prime minister still retains the ability to set the length and duration of when Parliament sits.
Johnson has just used that power to shorten the coming session of Parliament by five days, closing down Parliament on September 11, only a week after MPs return from their summer holidays. Why?
Because, while MPs can still plot and plan when Parliament is not sitting, they can pass laws—their recourse against an executive they disagree with—only while Parliament is sitting. And though MPs can tear up their own rules to pass laws at lightning speed, as they did in March, when MPs passed a bill forcing Theresa May to delay the Brexit process into law in just one day, they cannot do the same with the House of Lords. The United Kingdom’s second chamber is a strange cocktail of 690 appointed-for-life peers, who hold their seats thanks to a record of achievement in some nonpolitical field or because of their proximity to one of the country’s major political parties. Topping up that group are 92 hereditary peers, who have inherited their peerages from their ancestors. (There used to be hundreds of these hereditaries, but their number was shrunk in a 1999 deal between the reforming Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Conservative Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, seventh marquess of Salisbury, the leader of the Conservative party in the Lords.)
Though MPs can vote to speed up their own processes, there are no equivalent mechanisms in the House of Lords, which means votes in that chamber take much longer. While a majority of Lords oppose a no-deal Brexit, a minority disagree, and will seek to delay any measure from passing. It has set up a desperate race against the clock next week, when Johnson’s opponents in Parliament will try to pass a law preventing him from seeking a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson’s hope is that if MPs fail in their bid to prevent a no-deal Brexit, then the European Union will have no choice but to offer a different deal to the United Kingdom. The problem is that while a no-deal Brexit would cause economic damage to both the UK and the EU, the damage is asymmetric: The UK will bear the brunt of the damage. Even if Johnson is able to stop MPs from blocking a no-deal Brexit, he has no guarantee of a better offer from the EU.
And that might well be the best-case scenario: The other effect of Johnson’s machinations is that MPs have realized that they have only one remaining chance to prevent a no-deal Brexit. They are now far more likely to vote to derail Johnson’s strategy than they were before the prime minister’s gambit. Johnson could still end up with no Brexit, no new deal, and the difficult task of another election before the question of the UK’s relationship with the EU is resolved.