In Bournemouth on 27 June, Boris Johnson threatened to suspend Parliament in order to force through his "no deal" Brexit.
He is likely to become Tory leader, and then Prime Minister, on 23-24 July. Manoeuvring to recoup the Farage vote for the Tories, he has promised to force through Brexit, "do or die", by 31 October.
How? Asked directly whether he would "prorogue" Parliament - send MPs home so that they can't stop him pushing through "no-deal" Brexit as the default follow-on from the 1 February 2017 parliamentary vote to trigger "Article 50" - Johnson kept his options open:
"Rather than confiding in this archaic device to get this thing done at my own behest, I would rather confide in the maturity of common sense of parliamentarians…"
Asked again: "I don't envisage the circumstances in which it will be necessary to prorogue parliament… I'm not attracted to the idea of a no-deal exit from the EU but, you know, I think it would be absolutely folly to rule it out…".
It would be absolute folly for us to rule out the risk of Johnson going for a "Brexit coup" by way of suspending Parliament.
After 24 July Johnson will face exactly the same constraints on Brexit as Theresa May - the same difficulties in avoiding a hard border in Ireland, the same difficulties in arranging easy trade flows while quitting the agreements which enable them. And the same parliamentary arithmetic.
He may go for a quick election after 24 July. Even if he makes that gamble, and it pays off, it is unlikely to give him a parliamentary majority for either of the two available options: the November 2018 Withdrawal Agreement (maybe with a few marginal tweaks he can get in the short time between that election and 31 October), or "no deal".
All his options are risky and unlikely. Suspending - that is, overruling - Parliament is not the most unlikely.
Theresa May had no capacity to present herself as the champion of "the people", the single voice of the (in fact) miscellaneous millions who voted for Brexit back in June 2016. Johnson may at least think he has that capacity.
When Louis Bonaparte took power in France in December 1851, dissolving parliament, Marx summed up the act in these words: "The scum of bourgeois society forms the holy phalanx of order and the hero Crapulinski installs himself in the Tuileries [palace] as the 'saviour of society'."
Then, the referendum serving the "farce" of the new ruler came after the coup, not before. But analogy remains. A demagogue claims to save society by forcing through his version of a vague formula which he says millions have voted for, but a version which could not gain a majority in structured, democratic, deliberative processes.
Demagogue "democracy" overpowers deliberation and representation.
It has not been done before in Britain (the 1945 Labour government did "prorogue" Parliament at one point, but in order to split a Parliamentary session into two sessions and thus force a Commons decision through the Lords by giving it the authority of three distinct sessions. It was quite different).
It has been done elsewhere. Germany’s Weimar Republic, unable to cohere a clear parliamentary majority for economic measures in response to the slump, resorted largely to rule by presidential decree from 1930. That regime paved the way for Hitler, in 1933, to use the same presidential-decree mechanism to establish a totalitarian dictatorship “constitutionally”.
France’s presidential regime, established by a “soft” military coup in 1958, has used “Article 49-3”, empowering the president to push through measures without debate or vote in parliament, dozens of times. Those measures can be stopped only by parliament voting no confidence in the government.
The question posed by Johnson’s threat is not just about Brexit. It is about whether we want British politics to be shifted to a model established by a “soft” military coup, or a model which had parliamentary democracy collapsing so much that it could be replaced by Hitler’s rule with no institutional resistance.
It is about whether we want that to happen in the age of Salvini, of Orban, of Trump, an age where there can be no comfortable assurance that overriding Parliament will be a one-off.
“It can’t happen here”? It can, unless we stop it.
The labour movement has the power to stop it, if we mobilise. The ruling class is divided on this issue — a majority would settle for May’s Withdrawal Agreement, but not for “no deal” — so we will face an enemy weakened by division.
The big majority of Labour Party members, Labour supporters, and trade unionists have a commitment to parliamentary democracy. Some see parliamentary democracy as the best form of democracy; others, like us on Solidarity, see it as a limited form which the working class will have to replace by more flexible, accountable methods of its own; but the big majority agree on defending it against rule by decree.
The big majority in the labour movement understand that Brexit means social regression. It means re-raising borders. It thwarts European social levelling-up, and pushes towards the social levelling-down imposed on small states by capitalist world market. It disrupts and blocks workers’ unity, chiefly by raising barriers against the much-cherished, much-used freedom of movement won by workers within the EU.
The big majority understands that the bureaucratic and capitalist character of the EU can be overcome only by building a cross-continent socialist movement, pushing through and beyond the bourgeois quarter-unification of Europe, not by trying to “reverse out” into “capitalism in one country”.
Maybe a million people marched in London against Brexit on 23 March. There will be further marches on 20 July and 12 October.
The main obstacle to stopping Johnson is the triangulation and weakness of the Labour leadership. It is against a “no deal” Brexit, but has raised no alarm about Johnson’s agitation.
It has now said that it is for a new public vote on any withdrawal formula, but in so weak and reluctant a way that it carries no conviction. Despite calls from John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry, and other Shadow Cabinet insiders, and from the left-wing “Love Socialism, Hate Brexit” MPs, it refuses to commit to having, in that new public vote, the same policy as in 2016: Remain.
The Labour leadership is bending under pressure from the sections of the self-described left which backed or half-backed Nigel Farage in the Euro-elections, and from the Morning Star.
On Brexit, the Morning Star’s strident view is the same as Farage’s: for “no deal”.
We have less than three weeks until Johnson probably becomes Prime Minister. Time is now probably too short (in reality, as well as in apologetics) for the special conference on Brexit which Labour should already have had.
Time is not too short to get the regular Labour conference in September to sort out the issue. Time is not too short to get on the streets and push back Johnson.