The Guardian view on Boris Johnson and the crown: a clear abuse of power

Editorial
Photograph: Victoria Jones/AFP/Getty Images

When Boris Johnson arrived in Downing Street, he brought with him a reputation for duplicity in matters personal and professional. Only his most credulous cheerleaders expected that to change when he became prime minister. The pessimists did not anticipate how swiftly and egregiously Mr Johnson’s worst attributes would be displayed. Even by his own shabby standards it is an achievement already to have corrupted the relationship between a prime minister and the monarch. A court has judged that parliament was unlawfully prorogued. Scottish appeal judges accepted arguments that the purpose of the move was “stymying parliament” with intent to obstruct scrutiny of the executive in contravention of constitutional principle. Downing Street insists prorogation was required because a new government needed a new session to enact its agenda.

That explanation does not withstand much interrogation. The government failed to provide a witness statement supporting its account. Before the case came to court there had not been much effort by ministers and supporters of the government to conceal a link between Commons resistance to a no-deal Brexit and Mr Johnson’s determination to shut the legislature down. If the real motive had been a technical reboot ahead of a Queen’s speech, prorogation could have lasted a couple of days, not five weeks. The legality of such a cynical move is still moot, despite Wednesday’s judgment. A parallel case was heard by the high court in London last week with a different outcome. The judges neither rejected nor accepted the claimant’s view of the government’s ulterior motive. They declared instead that a prime minister’s agenda for prorogation was a point of political contention, so not justiciable.

This vexed matter now passes on to the supreme court. If the Scottish appeal court’s verdict prevails, prorogation will have to be undone. The prime minister will be steeped in disgrace to depths that would once have submerged the career of any politician. Even if the English high court interpretation ends up being preferred, the dishonesty of Mr Johnson’s prorogation gambit has been recorded as a matter of fact. The salient technical question is not whether he is a liar, but whether a constitutional procedure based on his lies should be invalidated.

In purely political terms there should be no doubt that Mr Johnson abused his power. In well-functioning democracies the executive does not close down the legislature by fiat just to eliminate opposition and evade scrutiny. A British prime minister acquires the unusual capacity to do such a thing only by misappropriating the royal prerogative. Mr Johnson took a ceremonial function of the crown and weaponised it for ultra-partisan ends. The Palace is rightly sensitive to anything that looks like political activism and so, by default, Elizabeth II grants prorogations when requested by her prime minister. That is the unwritten contract upholding a constitutional monarchy. The whole arrangement is perverse and archaic – overdue for modernisation – but in the absence of reform the only safety valve is trust. It requires whoever sits in No 10 to operate by some basic code of decency and responsibility. Mr Johnson does not play by those rules. He gamed the vulnerability in the system, inveigling the Queen into a potentially unlawful enterprise.

The prime minister could still prove his respect for law by conceding that the prorogation was ill-conceived and seeking its reversal, although that would be out of character. It is revealing that Downing Street’s initial response to Wednesday’s ruling, briefed anonymously, insinuated that a Scottish court might be less reliable than an English one; not impartial on Brexit-related matters. Clarifications were hastily issued, but the damage was done. A trustworthy government does not have to make explicit its belief in the independence of the judiciary and its readiness to uphold the rule of law. But this administration holds fundamental precepts of democracy in contempt. Since Mr Johnson has no respect for the unwritten conventions that underpin the British constitution, he plainly cannot be trusted with the powers afforded by those conventions to the office of prime minister.