In Depth

Who is in charge of Britain?

Supreme Court ruling is revolutionary for the country’s governance

Boris Johnson’s power grab backfired yesterday as the Supreme Court ruled that his suspension of Parliament was “unlawful, void and of no effect”.

As MPs head back to the House of Commons today after the unprecedented ruling, analysts have been considering its implications for the governance of the country.

The “extraordinary intervention” by the judiciary will propel the UK into a “fresh round of political turmoil”, says The New York Times. “But it is even more significant for what it says about the role of the country’s highest court, which has historically steered clear of politics.”

The 11 justices of the Supreme Court asserted their right to curb a government that blocked Parliament from carrying out its functions to legislate and supervise the executive, says the newspaper.

“But critics warned that in taking upon itself the right to adjudicate disputes between the government and Parliament, the court would soon find itself thrust into the same charged, highly partisan waters that have politicized decisions of the United States Supreme Court in recent decades,” says the NYT.

Constitutional coup

One senior Johnson ally told the Daily Mail: “The effect of this is to pose the question, who runs this country? Are the courts saying they want to run the country now? It will be very interesting to see what the public makes of that.”

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg accused judges of mounting a “constitutional coup”, says the Mail.

And, in The Telegraph, Philip Johnston says it “marks the most brazen encroachment of the judiciary on to territory once considered an untouchable Crown prerogative”.

Johnston asks: “Who governs Britain? Not Boris Johnson, it seems. The powers of the executive, stripped away gradually like the Dance of the Seven Veils since 1689, are now all but gone.”

Avoiding tyranny

However, in an editorial, the Financial Times says: “The judges found the prime minister in effect misled MPs, the British people, and the Queen. No future premier will be able to act this way again. The judges’ ruling marks a historic moment in the evolution of the UK constitution.”

The newspaper says it was a “much-needed reminder that, even in the most testing political circumstances, Britain remains a representative democracy underpinned by the rule of law”.

MPs are elected to make decisions on behalf of the public and hold the government, formed from their number, to account.

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“The UK system cannot allow a cabal around the prime minister to determine by itself the ‘will of the people’ and attempt to implement it, while sidelining those whom the people elected to represent them,” says the FT. “This is the road to tyranny.”

Eight weeks into his role as prime minister, Johnson “has been stretching the limits of the UK’s unwritten constitution in his drive to deliver Brexit at all costs on Oct. 31”, notes Bloomberg.

“He tried to force an election, and failed. He tried to tie the hands of members of Parliament, and that too has also now failed,” says the news site.

Parliament reinstated

Lord Sumption, a retired justice of the Supreme Court, says that rather than undermining the democratic legitimacy of public decision-making, it has reinstated Parliament “at the heart of that process” after the present government took “an axe to convention”.

Writing in The Times, Sumption argues that “most of our difficulties over the past three years have arisen from the misguided attempt to insert a referendum into a fundamentally parliamentary system”.

“Parliament is the supreme source of law,” he says, while a referendum is “a snapshot of public opinion, and as such an important political fact for parliamentarians to take into account - but that is all it is”.

James Kirkup in The Spectator says parts of the Supreme Court judgment should be “shared as widely as possible, plastered on front pages, taught to school children and possibly tattooed onto the skin of anyone, of any party, employed as a Government special adviser”.

He highlights the line: “The Government is not directly elected by the people (unlike the position in some other democracies). The Government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that.”

Kirkup concludes that Parliament “is the heart of our constitution” and those who should “cheer most loudly for the Supreme Court are the Eurosceptics and Brexiteers, who fought so long to bring power back from the European level and to restore Parliament to its rightful place at the apex of the British constitution”.

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