Johnson v Trump – The Suppression of Democracy

Westminster protest – Source: Author

This is the second in a three-part series looking at the parallel perils of Trump and Johnson’s leaderships. Part one looked at how both leaders have handled the pandemic. In part two, Liz Price examines their leadership styles and their common desire to deny debate.

As we saw in Part 1, Johnson might want to give a deadline for the pandemic to be over, but it hasn’t appeared to be listening to him. Even events that one might consider more under his control, such as the Brexit deal, which he declared was ‘Oven Ready’ in September 2019, have eluded his optimistic touch. A deal was eventually signed late into the 11th hour on Christmas Eve, but it left no time for parliamentary scrutiny, since it had to be passed on 31 December, or face the cliff-edge of no-deal.

In the end the Brexit deal only covers 20% of our economy and has left businesses stranded, exposing Johnson’s lack of preparedness. Even the fishermen, so often used to represent our apparent need for sovereignty, are unhappy, unable to sell their fish to the continent their businesses are threatened as they drown in a sea of UK-imposed red tape, delays at the ports likely to go on for months, as we “take back control” in this brave new post Brexit world.

Bypassing democratic processes

But this delay to produce a deal was not the product of hard work and tireless negotiations to get the deal best suited for our needs. The issues that were made much of during the last few weeks of negotiations were exactly the same ones that have always been there, since we triggered Article 50 in 2017. The delay is simply bullying dressed up as theatre. In truth, like Trump, Johnson is no democrat. He has no time for parliamentary debate or scrutiny.

Just like Trump’s use of executive orders, which he has used to circumvent legislating through debate in congress, often on divisive matters such as the Muslim travel ban or restrictions on diversity training, so Johnson has used the Brexit deal to appeal to his base and to deny scrutiny and debate. 

Just as Trump sought to deny democracy to ensure him a second term, Johnson would prefer to bully his parliamentarians into accepting the deal, with no scrutiny: only 5 hours of time was afforded to debate the most complicated and comprehensive rewriting of our trade relationships. The alternative to the deal was the threat of no deal, the worst of all options for jobs, trade and the economy. The attempts to deny debate continues with the recent announcement that Rees-Mogg has ordered the shutdown of the cross-party committee examining Britain’s relations with the EU.

A functioning democracy requires debate, complexity, dissent and cooperation. Both Trump and Johnson are threatened by these. While Trump does not accept the results of the 2020 election and has incited insurrection in his bid to overturn the result, Johnson too has no respect for democracy. This was apparent well before he was elected in 2019 when he tried to suspend parliament.

In 2019, when Johnson was first threatening a no deal Brexit, he unlawfully prorogued parliament to deny debate on one of the most momentous decisions for the country’s future. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the prorogation was unlawful. Johnson did not accept their result.

Preventing dissent in your party

Following this decision of illegality, Johnson framed his 2019 election campaign as “Parliament versus the people” in a “Get Brexit Done” campaign.  It was a populist campaign whose intention was to deny debate on the shape that the UK’s departure from the EU would take. In this airbrushing of events, he conveniently ignored the fact that he had voted against the Brexit deal and had therefore played his part in stopping the Brexit he claimed had been unfairly thwarted. He then required experienced parliamentarians in his party who disagreed with him to stand down, replaced by a loyal troop of supine followers.

In all of this, Johnson took a leaf straight out of the Trump playbook. Firstly, by requiring total loyalty from the team around him and requiring them, in the run up to the 2019 election, to vote his Brexit deal through, whatever it contained, and secondly by persuading enough people to buy his brand of economic populism. “Unleash Britain’s potential” echoed Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. The unregulated online social media attacks were another American import, with the Conservatives being found to have been dishonest in 88% of their adverts. None of this should have come as any surprise since Johnson was clear in June 2018 that he was “increasingly admiring of Donald Trump. I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness”.

Just as Johnson appealed to frustrated and disaffected voters in 2019, so did Trump in 2016. With their slogans, they both claimed to understand the problems facing communities, and that they could fix them. But the “Oven Ready Deal” on which Johnson’s entire 2019 campaign was based was as empty, deceitful and meaningless as the “Sovereignty” he heralded to declare that Brexit was done. Once complete, Johnson has continued to misinform about the contents of the deal, and deny that it fails the promises he so clearly made.

But not only did Johnson lie about his “Oven Ready Deal”, he was also prepared to renege on his commitments under the Withdrawal Act that he had agreed with the European Union regarding the terms of our departure.

Disregard for the rule of law

In an unprecedented manoeuvre, Johnson was prepared, despite legal advice to the contrary, to introduce legislation which was in breach of the rule of law, as he did with the Internal Market Bill. While the offending measures have now been withdrawn, the very fact that the government was prepared to break international law, despite its senior legal adviser resigning over the illegality, demonstrates a disregard for the rule of law and has undermined our status as a serious democratic country on the world stage. While we might look in horror at what happened in the US last week, we should be in no doubt of the slippery slope that we face when we embark on illegality. The apologists who have surrounded Trump the last four years may be distancing themselves now. We have only to look at the Attorney General and Lord Chancellor, Braverman and Buckland, who were content to wave through this illegality, to know who will be amongst the rats when our ship starts taking on water.

Trump and Johnson want to be the quick fixers in an age of complexity. They prefer dishonesty to the difficulty of government. They have both made conscious choices to whip up their base: by claiming that the Trump election was rigged, that they represent the people against the elites, that Brexit was being betrayed, and that postponing Brexit would be tantamount to “surrender” a “humiliation” and a “capitulation”. It is no coincidence that the pro Brexit rallies and the pro Trump march show people prepared to incite violence and carry nooses for those with whom they don’t agree.

The Sovereignty that Johnson so loudly heralded with Brexit comes at a very heavy price: more isolated, less secure in the world and less democratic internally, with fewer avenues for challenge.

In the final of this set of articles on Trump and Johnson, I will look at the legislative programme of Johnson’s government going forward and the signs that the UK under Johnson is doubling down on the populist agenda, undermining the protections afforded by our constitution, and exploiting the exploitable.