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Lies, Purging and Prorogation: Two Pivotal Weeks in Brexit

There was a personal cost to Mr. Johnson, too. His brother, Jo Johnson, a member of Parliament and government minister, announced he would resign, saying he was “torn between family loyalty and the national interest.” An ashen-faced prime minister wished his brother the best, but insisted he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask Brussels for another delay in Britain’s departure.

The broader picture was one of chaos. The opposition rebuffed Mr. Johnson’s call for an election, declining to give him the necessary two-thirds backing of Parliament. They worried that Mr. Johnson would try to schedule a vote before the Oct. 31 deadline to leave Europe, and use a new mandate, if he won at the polls, to leave without a deal.

“Parliament is divided, clueless, and doesn’t know what it wants,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. “Well, that’s also the British people. The political debate has changed beyond recognition because of Brexit.”

For all the stresses they have absorbed, Britain’s democratic institutions have held so far. But the country’s unwritten constitution has been a source of strength, giving members of Parliament flexibility in resisting the government, but also weakness, as it has forced momentous decisions into the judicial and political spheres, with unpredictable outcomes.

“The line between a political crisis and a constitutional crisis in a country with an unwritten constitution simply isn’t a bright line,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at Oxford University.

“With an unwritten constitution,” he said, “you leave many of these questions to the political process. We are precisely on the ill-defined frontier between a political and constitutional crisis.”

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