President Brexit’s last stand – a new version of an old lie

Jake Mogg may not be the subtlest of all the beasts in the field, but like the serpent in the garden (to use Dante’s description) egli e bugiardo e padre di menzogne – he is a liar and the father of lies. The Brexit crew have a passion for ‘Research Groups’, for which I believe they receive parliamentary funding [= our money as taxpayers]. These groups are little better than lie factories: listen out, and in various forums you will hear their members repeat, in different voices but strikingly similar forms of words, some falsehood they have contrived that they wish to propagate.

The original version of the ERG ‘Big Lie’ was that Brexit was ‘the will of the British people’ who ‘voted overwhelmingly for it’ [see ‘Liars in Public Places‘] . Both claims are false, of course: insofar as ‘the British people’ can be equated with the electorate who participated in the 2016 referendum, only a minority voted to leave the EU: the majority expressed no desire to do so. This lie was wielded as a weapon to shut down debate: because Brexit was ‘the will of the British people’ speaking against it was tantamount to treason and was certainly undemocratic; the people had decided, so the matter was settled (even, absurdly, to the extent of denying the same people any chance to reconsider it – see ‘A Most Ingenious Paradox‘).

Of course, to represent the 2016 referendum as an exercise in ‘direct democracy’ [see ‘Another Lie from the Egregious Bernard Jenkin‘] is itself a lie. At most, a referendum in this country can decide whether or not legislation already passed by parliament is to be implemented: that was the case with the 2011 referendum on whether to replace the ‘first past the post’ system with the ‘alternative vote’ (sadly, the change was rejected). The 2016 referendum was not of that sort: it served only to advise the government of the day on how the public felt regarding continued membership of the EU [see ‘The Real Enemies of the People‘] – and what it showed, of course, was that the country was divided on the issue and that a minority (37.5 % of the electorate, 26% of the ‘British People’, i.e. the total population) wished to leave. Nevertheless, ERG members strove consistently to present the referendum result as something which was so overwhelmingly decisive that to challenge it would be undemocratic.

Lately, this nonsense has been revived in a new and interesting form. With Johnson sinking ever deeper in a mire of his own making, Mogg popped up on BBC’s Newsnight to deliver himself of this breathtaking falsehood: “It’s my view that we have moved to…an essentially presidential system and that the mandate is personal rather than entirely party and each PM would be advised to take a fresh mandate…my view is a change of leader requires a general election.”

This, of course, is a tissue of lies. Regardless of Mogg’s ‘views’, we do not have, nor have we moved towards, ‘an essentially presidential system’ in which ‘the mandate is personal’, so that cannot be used to support the equally false claim that a change of Prime Minister requires a general election*. What we have is a system of representative democracy: constituencies elect Members to sit in Parliament, the legislature that decides our laws. The Executive or Government is formed by whatever group can command enough votes in the House to pass its legislation; this is termed ‘having the confidence of the House’. The leader of that group, which typically is formed from one or other of the parties, or sometimes a combination of them, is de facto Prime Minister. The different parties have different methods of deciding who leads them but none involves the electorate voting directly for them.

The dust that Mogg is trying to throw in the public’s eyes is that because Johnson has promoted himself as having ‘got Brexit done’ (another lie, since the process is still unfolding, and worsens at every step – consider the huge tailbacks on the M20) and because Brexit was ‘the will of the people’ (as we’ve seen, it wasn’t) then any vote for the Conservative party in any constituency was in reality a vote for Johnson. Factually, that is incorrect: votes are cast for individual candidates who stand for some party or as independents. The fact that some people, even the majority, may vote along party lines does not legitimise the claim that someone perceived (or promoted by the press) as a popular leader is directly elected by the public, or the notion that seeking to remove them from office is somehow undemocratic or even anti-democratic, as claimed today on Twitter by Lucy Allan MP:

‘Trying to remove an elected PM with a huge personal mandate, mid term, is anti democratic. Those who seek to do so are subverting democracy. If you respect democracy, Mr Major, Mrs May, Mr Heseltine et al, do it through the ballot box, not by abusing your power and influence.’

On the contrary, it is false claims like these, that misrepresent the nature of our system of government in order to bamboozle the public, that are anti-democratic. Boris Johnson is only Prime Minister by dint of leading the group that currently commands the confidence of the House and so is able to pass legislation. Should he lose the confidence of his supporters in the House, they will replace him, using the method the Conservative party has chosen to elect its leaders (interestingly, this now inolves direct voting by around 150,000 members of Conservative constituency associations, which is arguably less democratic than the former system, where the parliamentary party (each of whom has a mandate from the electorate) chose who would lead them).

[Should the ruling group itself lose the confidence of the House – typically through being unable to pass some key legislation, e.g. a finance bill – then even then there need not be a general election, provided another group can be formed that does command a majority of votes. It was the failure of Parliament to get their act together to do this for the good of the country in September 2019 (see ‘Only the Conservative Party can save us now‘), when Johnson had not only failed in every vote he attempted but had lost his parliamentary majority live on television, that landed us in the mess we are now in]

The most worrying aspect of the false claim that Johnson was somehow directly elected by the people to lead the country is that it appears to be part of a larger programme, to vaunt the power of the executive at the expense of Parliament and the Judiciary. Thus we see, on the one hand, a continual bypassing of Parliament which a weak and ineffectual speaker has done little to prevent: it has become routine practice to announce policy via Tory-supporting newpapers before it is brought to the House, while in the House itself debate is curtailed or even bypassed alogether using a combination of emergency powers or so-called ‘Henry VIII clauses’ that enable ministers to amend or repeal provisions in an Act of Parliament using secondary legislation, which is subject to varying degrees of parliamentary scrutiny.

At the same time, laws are being proposed expressly to prevent public opposition to the executive [the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, to which Home Secretary Priti Patel added some 18 pages after it had been voted on by MPs – thankfully the Lords threw them out] , either through protest or recourse to the judicial system [the government wants to restrict recourse to judicial review, so that it could not be used to hold the executive to account, as it was by the redoubtable Gina Miller in 2017 and 2019 (in the first case, ironically, she sought to have the sovereignty of parliament upheld by giving MPs a say over triggering Article 50 – the legal mechanism taking the UK out of the EU. In the second, famously, she asked the court to rule that Johnson’s attempt to prorogue Parliament (which he lied to the Queen about) was unlawful]

When we consider these concerted attempts to portray Johnson as a leader with a mandate that comes directly from the people (and so is answerable only to them, not their elected representatives) against this background of vaunting executive power by undermining Parliament and the Judiciary, then Johnson’s recent remark that it would require ‘a tank division to drag him from office’ has a sinister ring – it is strongly reminiscent of Trump’s rhetoric leading up to the January 6th insurrection.

There may be trouble ahead.

*The extent of the falsehood is seen when you consider that, going back to the early fifties, Johnson succeeded May; May, Cameron; Brown, Blair; Major, Thatcher; Callaghan, Wilson; Douglas-Home, Macmillan; Macmillan, Eden; Eden, Churchill; all without the intervention of a General Election.

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