After a summer of puzzlement and frenzied speculation about how Boris Johnson was going to make good his pledge to take Britain out of the European Union on 31 October ‘do or die’ we now have at least part of the answer. He plans to shut down parliament so that it cannot thwart him. That’s not how he himself presented his plan but it’s what his many critics say he is really doing. And they are vociferously protesting that it is a constitutional outrage. Is it, or is it both constitutionally justified and politically shrewd?
Mr Johnson declared that the current session of parliament will be closed around 10 September and a new session will be launched with a Queen’s Speech outlining the government’s legislative agenda for a new session starting on 14 October. He claimed that he was acting wholly in accordance with usual practice. It’d called ‘prorogation’ and it’s different from the ‘dissolution’ of parliament, when a general election is called and a wholly new parliament of newly-elected MPs comes into existence. In a five-year parliament there are five sessions, each preceded by a Queen’s Speech. The current session, however, has been going on far longer than usual; in fact, since the general election of June 2017. So, in Mr Johnson’s view, prorogation is long overdue.
What’s more his is a new government with its own, new priorities and so, he argues, it is entirely right that there should be a new session with a fresh Queen’s Speech. It will lay out his government’s ‘very exciting agenda’ involving measures on crime, the NHS, school funding, infrastructure investment and no doubt much else. Closing the current session is just an inevitable and necessary part of this entirely uncontroversial process. Nothing more needs to be said about it. Or at least, that is his claim.
But of course Mr Johnson is far too politically savvy ever to have imagined that nothing more would be said about it. In fact his move has been met with a deafening chorus of outrage from his critics.
In the first place, they say that the length of time between prorogation day and the Queen’s Speech will be without precedent. On the last two occasions, the gap between prorogation and the Queen’s Speech was four working days and thirteen working days. In the last forty years, the longest lull was fifteen days. This time it will be twenty-three. His defenders say that’s because it will coincide with party conference season when parliament would not have been sitting anyway. Prorogation adds only four days to the planned parliamentary break, they claim.
Secondly, critics point out that parliament rose for the summer the day after Mr Johnson became prime minister. So there was then only one day in which he had to face the Commons and now, after the briefest session next week, MPs won’t have the chance to hold him to account until the middle of October. It cannot be right, they say, that a government which exists only by the say-so of the House of Commons should provide so little opportunity for it to do its job of grilling ministers. This is especially so, they argue, when the Prime Minister came to power not on the back of a popular vote at a general election, but elected solely by the votes of under a hundred thousand Conservative Party members.
But of course the main reason for the outrage is the implication of prorogation for Brexit. From the outset of his campaign to become prime minister, Boris Johnson made clear his readiness to take Britain out of the EU on 31 October without a deal if no deal could be negotiated. This is an option which a majority of MPs has consistently opposed and many of them remain determined to try to stop him doing so. But they need parliamentary time to have any chance of succeeding and Mr Johnson’s move to prorogue parliament severely curtails the time available.
He made his announcement the day after a meeting of opposition party leaders organised by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, agreed to try to introduce legislation which would prevent the government from taking Britain out of the EU without a deal. They planned to seek time to do so when parliament returns next week and Mr Corbyn also said he would be tabling a motion of no confidence in the government at some point. Johnson condemned those involved in this attempt to stop a no-deal Brexit as ‘anti-democrats’. He has previously called them ‘collaborators’ with the EU, sabotaging his attempts to secure a deal. Prorogation is his way of trying to stop them in their tracks.
Or at least that’s how they see it and it has made them apoplectic. Mr Corbyn denounced the move as ‘an outrage and a threat to our democracy’, adding that he was ‘appalled by the recklessness of Johnson’s government’. Jo Swinson, the new Liberal Democrat leader, called it ‘a dangerous and unacceptable course of action’ describing the decision as ‘an act of cowardice from Boris Johnson’. Ian Blackford, the Scottish Nationalists’ leader in the Commons, said the Prime Minister was ‘acting like a dictator’, a view echoed his party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who called Mr Johnson a ‘tinpot dictator’, warning that Wednesday would be seen as ‘the day UK democracy died’ if the prorogation went ahead.
Opponents of a no-deal Brexit on the Prime Minister’s own Conservative benches were equally appalled. Phillip Hammond, the former chancellor, said the move was ‘profoundly undemocratic’ and a ‘constitutional outrage’. And the former attorney-general, Dominic Grieve, also called it ‘an outrageous act’ and predicted that the government would fall over it. He said: ‘I will certainly vote to bring down a Conservative government that persists in a course of action which is so unconstitutional.’
But perhaps the most striking critic was John Bercow whose position as the Speaker of the House of Commons would normally require him not to enter political controversy. But he clearly believes that the rights of MPs over whom he presides are at issue here. He too said the decision was a constitutional outrage and ‘an offence against the democratic process and the rights of parliamentarians as the people’s elected representatives’. And in contradiction of the Prime Minister’s claim that prorogation had nothing to do with Brexit, he bluntly added: ‘it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country’.
In response to all this outrage, the Prime Minister’s supporters (and, indeed, some independent observers) argue that parliament has had three years since the referendum to debate Brexit. Indeed it seems to have debated little else. But even though it voted by a majority of 382 to carry out the decision of the referendum and start the process of withdrawal, it has consistently failed to back any specific measure, whether Theresa May’s negotiated deal, or anything else, to make it actually happen. So, in the view of Mr Johnson’s supporters, it is parliament that has been thwarting the will of the people and so what is needed is certainly not more time for parliament to go on doing this ad nauseam, but for a government to take a stand and just get on with it. That’s what the Prime Minister is doing and his decision to prorogue parliament is a necessary part of the process.
So what will happen? When prorogation was first mooted as a possible move Mr Johnson might make, the idea was greeted with horror by many, including the former Conservative Prime Minister, Sir John Major, who suggested taking action in the courts. This is already happening in the Scottish courts, but it is far from clear whether the judges will provide what the Prime Minister’s opponents hope for. More likely, the issue will be decided in parliament next week.
Those backing legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit believe it could still be introduced even though the time available will now be so much shorter. Prorogation may also force Mr Corbyn’s hand in bringing forward his promised no-confidence motion sooner than he had previously wanted. If that fails, the Prime Minister will be able to carry on knowing that he won’t have to face parliament again until 14 October, just three days before a vital EU heads of government meeting that will be the last chance for any deal (if one has emerged) to be agreed. If it hasn’t, then Britain will be just seventeen days off leaving without a deal.
But if Mr Johnson loses a no-confidence vote then, in the absence of a new prime minister emerging in the fortnight that follows the vote (and few observers seem to think one would), then a general election would have to be called.
Some people think this is the real motivation behind the Prime Minister’s willingness to court opprobrium by proroguing parliament. It would suit him, they think, to be forced to go to the country after having been defeated in parliament and to campaign on a ‘People versus Parliament’ platform, on which he would put himself forward as the champion of those who voted Leave in the referendum and whose democratic rights (as he would claim) were being thwarted by politicians who had never accepted the result.
Such an election would not be without risk to him, of course, not least because Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party would be in full cry in any election held before Britain had left the EU and because Mr Farage has said he wouldn’t cut any election deals with the Prime Minister unless Mr Johnson actually started advocating a no-deal Brexit, which is not his position. But he has an existing majority of only one and that is dependent on another party, the DUP - which, incidentally, is the only party in the current parliament to back prorogation. So Mr Johnson may feel an election is his best chance to break free of the Brexit chains that have tied his party ever since it lost its majority back in 2017.
What do you make of it? Is it, as he claims, a perfectly normal procedure that gives his new government an opportunity to embark on a new agenda and has nothing to do with Brexit? Or is it a ‘constitutional outrage’ designed precisely to thwart parliament in its attempt to stop a no-deal Brexit? Do you think parliament should have further opportunity to express its views on Brexit or do you think that its failure over three years to agree to any way forward on Brexit means it’s time to get on with getting out, ‘do or die’? Would you like there to be an election and, if so, what result would you hope for?
Let us know what you think.