The battle of Britain: Johnson v Parliament

Humbled? Johnson as King John in 1215 when the barons forced him to sign away powers in the Magna Carta.

Who governs Britain? Has a bumptious and untrustworthy Prime Minister been brought to heel by six, thumping parliamentary defeats? Or have MPs shot themselves in the collective foot?

Early this morning, MPs rejected a general election for the second time.

Some hours before that, the Act forcing the Prime Minister to ask for an extension to the Brexit deadline became law. And MPs passed another motion obliging the Government to make public every memo and text message produced by aides about no-deal planning.

In other words, Parliament tied the Government up in knots.

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, spent the night relentlessly mocking his opponents for running away from a general election. He refused again point blank to ask the EU for any delay to Brexit.

And, rather oddly, he seemed quite happy with the turn of events.


The answer is that the fundamental battle is over who governs Britain. The contenders are Parliament and the Government. And both sides think they have won.

Parliament thinks it has won for the reasons above. But Johnson also thinks he has won because he is sure that he will win a general election.

Like King John in the picture, his barons have forced his hand. But unlike King John, Johnson believes the people are on his side. He believes the majority of voters want Brexit completed “do or die” and that in a general election they will give him a healthy majority.

What is more, Parliament is now suspended. The troublemakers will be out of his hair for five weeks, one of the longest prorogations in history.

In order to get Brexit through by 31 October as he has promised, Johnson has two broad plans.

One is to appeal to the Supreme Court. His argument is that the new law is unconstitutional because it “usurps the powers of the crown”. In other words, it gives Parliament powers that should only belong to Government acting on behalf of the Queen.

The other is to provoke at least one EU member country to veto an extension. Agreement has to be unanimous for the EU to permit any delay. And the UK has a secret weapon.

Just imagine, for example, if Johnson decides to nominate Nigel Farage for the current vacant post of British European Commissioner. (You read it here first.)

The rift between executive (Government) and legislature (Parliament) goes to the very heart of democracy and has deep historical echoes.

Many experts believe the present national crisis is comparable to two previous political upheavals: the “People’s Budget” of 1909, which taxed the landed gentry to fund social welfare, and the Reform Act of 1832, which made the voting system fairer.

Both were victories for ordinary people against the rich, educated elite.

But who governs Britain today?


It’s a balance, goes one argument. Parliament is sovereign, but only because it is elected by voters. It is the voters who give legitimacy to both Parliament and the Government. They elect the Government to run the country and Parliament to approve what the Government does. As long as the Government is abiding by the will of the people, then it is perfectly legitimate.

Not so, say others. Parliament governs Britain. Our system is called representative democracy because we elect MPs to go to Parliament, study all the issues, argue and debate them and pass laws. Without Parliament, the Government is a tyranny and democracy is dead. By suspending Parliament, the Government has mounted a soft coup.

You Decide

  1. Are you proud of the British Parliament?
  2. All legitimate power comes from the people. Do you agree?


  1. Make a poster with the slogan: “Silenced” (like some MPs did last night) to protest the suspension of Parliament.
  2. How would you vote in the next general election? Write down your choice of party and explain why, in just a few sentences.

Some People Say...

“The house cannot choose. It will not let anyone else choose. It can only decide to dither and delay.”

Boris Johnson in the debate last night

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In March 1629, Charles I grew tired of a Parliament which would not support his foreign policy errors and ordered the dissolution of Parliament. The MPs were so incensed when speaker John Finch announced the closure of the session, they promptly left their seats and sat on him. Holding him in the chair meant that he could not rise from his seat, and thus close the house. While he writhed under at least five members, the MPs passed a series of motions condemning the king’s policies.
What do we not know?
Whether MPs last night could have achieved the same if they had tried harder. Here’s what the Labour MP Alex Sobel says about it: “The action taken by myself and other members to beseech Mr Speaker to not accede to Black Rod’s request, echoes the action of members to try and prevent the speaker proroguing at the request of Charles I. Unfortunately, we couldn’t pass any motions against Boris Johnson’s policies.”

Word Watch

The Act
House of Lords Speaker Lord Fowler confirmed a bill aimed at blocking a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on 31 October had become law yesterday after the Queen gave final approval to the legislation. Known as the Benn-Burt Bill, it would extend the Brexit deadline until 31 January 2020 if no deal is agreed with the EU by 19 October.
The action of discontinuing a session of Parliament, or other legislative assembly, without dissolving it completely. Suspension is not closure. Parliament is rarely shut down for more than a week. This prorogation is expected to last up to 34 days.
Supreme Court.
The final court of appeal in the UK for civil cases, and for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population.
Action that goes against the agreed set of rules for governing the country.
Takes power by force or illegally.
British European Commissioner.
The Commissioners, one from each EU country, are the EU’s political leadership during a five-year term. Each Commissioner is assigned responsibility for specific policy areas by the President.
Undemocratic rule. Cruel or unreasonable use of power.
A sudden, violent or illegal seizure of power.


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