It’s known as the “mother of parliaments” – one of the oldest legislatures in the world. But in the last two days, the British Parliament has been the center of the mother of all battles.
The new British Prime Minister has fired 20 of his own lawmakers, rebel MPs have seized control of parliamentary business, Johnson’s call for a snap general election was rejected and members of the House of Lords squabbled until late in the night on Wednesday.
The world has watched as the very foundations of British politics shifted in front of their eyes.
On Tuesday, 1.5 million people tuned into BBC Parliament to see an alliance of rebel lawmakers deal the UK government a humiliating blow, seizing control of the Brexit agenda and forcing embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson to call for a snap general election.
It was the biggest single-day audience for the channel – which, for Americans, is something like the UK’s answer to C-SPAN – even competing with the popular (and, by contrast, highly soothing) baking show, the Great British Bake Off.
Many Britons were left torn about whether to watch “biscuit week” or see their government fall to pieces.
Those who chose the latter were treated to a truly unparalleled spectacle. Johnson lost the first vote under his government, a moment unprecedented in the modern era. Members of his own party who voted against him – including figures like “Father of the House” Kenneth Clarke, who has been in politics longer than some MPs have been alive, and Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames – were purged in short order from a party they’ve devoted their political lives to.
Soames, close to tears, said Wednesday he was “truly very sad that it should end in this way,” and called on MPs to “rediscover the spirit of compromise, humility and understanding.”
Taking a parting shot at Johnson, he said he always supported ex-PM Theresa May’s Brexit plans, “which is more than can be said for the prime minister … whose serial disloyalty has been an inspiration to so many of us.”
Clarke also slammed the Prime Minister for being “disingenuous.”
The drama didn’t end there. In his first Prime Minister’s Questions to date, Johnson referred to the opposition Labour Party’s economic policy as “shit” and Sikh lawmaker Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi received an unusually raucous round of applause after accusing the PM of fueling racism in the UK. Later, British lawmakers delivered Johnson yet another stunning defeat, passing a bill aimed at preventing a no-deal Brexit through the House of Commons.
But the drama unfolding in Parliament has not only left viewers at the edge of their seats, it has also raised serious questions about the stability of one of the oldest continuous representative assemblies in the world.
The Brexit process has drawn attention to the detail of Britain’s constitution, procedures, rules, and how strong they are – or not. And a breakdown of longstanding conventions has raised fears over a full-blown constitutional crisis in the country. Johnson’s plan to suspend Parliament in particular has been branded a “constitutional outrage” for limiting the time that MPs have to debate Brexit.
Britain’s constitution is unwritten, meaning it is sustained largely through precedent, which has left some commentators wondering whether it is still fit for purpose.
“There is a fundamental question this [Brexit] is posing to the UK, about whether its uncodified constitution was doing the job they thought it was,” said Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, a London-based independent think tank. “Others argue it is not the constitution that’s struggling, but politics that are failing.”
“It is calling into question constitutional conventions that felt to experts to be strong and intrinsic to our system of government, but you now see political actors starting to talk about whether or not they would adhere to them or how binding they are,” Haddon added.
All of this together casts doubt over one of the key messages of the campaign to leave the European Union: that by ending the UK’s membership within the bloc, it would “bring back sovereignty” to British Parliament.
In reality, the government is often in conflict with Parliament, the opposition and even their own back benches. And that tension has ratcheted up as the clock ticks down to October 31, the current deadline for the UK to quit the EU.
If the seizure of Parliament Wednesday by a cross-party alliance or rebel lawmakers is any indication, a majority of members in the House feel that Johnson’s government doesn’t show enough respect for the institution.
Labour, in particular, has tried to convey that the government is attempting to thwart democratic practices. While the government in turn has argued that the opposition is trying to thwart Brexit, and, by extension, the will of the people.
“Both sides are using constitutional practices and parliamentary conventions in new ways that some feel is an abuse and that has led to great mistrust and disrespect,” Haddon said.
Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg seemed to be the physical embodiment of that contempt on Tuesday night as he reclined on the front bench of the chamber, eyes closed and nearly horizontal while the debate raged around him.
A photo of the arch Brexiteer shared by Labour MP Anna Turley subsequently went viral, spawning innumerable memes. In one, Rees-Mogg’s languid body charts the decline of the government’s working majority in Parliament, which has dropped to zero.
To critics, Rees-Mogg was a caricature of the smug, privately educated elite leading Britain blindly to a no-deal Brexit, which is expected to trigger economic chaos, as well as food fuel and medical shortages.
All that was missing was a monocle and top hat.