But an election in these circumstances, following Wednesday’s dramatic parliamentary suspension, would also be ugly. One of Johnson’s advisers has hinted that the campaign slogan will be “The People vs. The Politicians” — that is, illogically the People vs. Parliament. Many also seem to think Johnson might let Brexit happen, by default, while the campaign is going on and Parliament is not sitting. If that’s the case, it almost doesn’t matter who wins: That kind of campaign, with that kind of slogan, amid that kind of chaos, will deepen the profound divisions in the country, convince whoever loses that they have been cheated, and make life for the next government nearly impossible.
If the Conservatives win after such a campaign, a rebellious opposition will do everything, constitutional and unconstitutional, to thwart their rule. If members of the Labour Party win, they will be tempted to use some of the same tricks, including the suspension of Parliament, to push through their own unpopular agenda. If there is a hung Parliament, nothing of any kind will be decided at all. The scars will last. “We aren’t killing one another,” Lord Jonathan Marks, a Liberal Democrat constitutional scholar, told me, “but it’s as bad as the 17th century in many ways.” For those who don’t remember, in the 17th century, Britain had a civil war.
I’ve so far resisted these comparisons, but now Britain’s political crisis really does resemble the parallel crisis in the United States. A ruthless executive is pushing the outer bounds of what is constitutionally possible in order to achieve unpopular outcomes. A ruling party that is afraid for its own electoral future is shamefacedly supporting him. A divided opposition seeks to block him but doesn’t have a popular leader itself. A conservative party is using populist slogans that undermine national institutions. Old precedents and customs are being abandoned at great speed, leaving only a vacuum in their wake.