Boris Johnson set off a political earthquake when he asked the Queen to prorogue parliament on the 28th August. There have been huge protests in London. Opposition MPs are demanding meetings with the Queen. The Speaker has issued a statement calling Johnson’s decision a “a constitutional outrage.”
Many people will be cheering Boris Johnson on. Others will be frightened and scared at what lies ahead. It’s the reason why many are referring to the current situation as a coup.
When tensions are heightened and political drama is the lay of the land, we should keep a level head. This isn’t a coup. It’s not even close to one. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be angry or concerned. None of this is normal.
Prorogation is a common procedure. It usually happens at the end of each Commons session, which is usually a year. The current session has run for two years, the longest sitting in 350 years.
The only person who can prorogue Parliament is the Queen. She can only do so on the advice of the government. That advice is binding if the Prime Minister commands parliamentary confidence. We can debate all day about whether Johnson has a majority in the House of Commons. Either way, constitutional experts seem to agree that the Queen had to act on Johnson’s advice yesterday. If she hadn’t, that would have been unusual. It’s ironic that people are calling for the monarchy to be abolished because they don’t like the fact that the Queen didn’t act like an absolute monarch. I suspect that the campaign to codify the constitution is going to increase over the next few months.
Given the length of current parliamentary session and the fact that he has installed a new government, the Prime Minister could argue that he is entitled to prorogue Parliament for a lengthy period and have a Queen’s Speech. He could also argue that Parliament will be in recess in September for conference season anyway.
The problem with this argument: it’s clearly disingenuous and insincere.
As Ruth Fox from the Hansard Society has pointed out, the Government hasn’t brought forward a motion for the conference recess. Any recess date must be agreed by MPs. A few weeks ago it was reported that MPs were planning to stop the recess going ahead. As Ms Fox further points out, even if the Commons had gone into recess, the Lords could have sat. Prorogation means both Houses are suspended. Previous prorogations have lasted days, even a few weeks. A monthly suspension will be the be the longest in 40 years.
When Parliament is prorogued, all business stops. As Jayne McCormack has pointed out, there are now question marks over the Domestic Abuse Bill for Northern Ireland and legislation for historical abuse survivors.
Few believe the Prime Minister when he tries to paint this is an honest attempt to bring forward policy changes. Why? He is seen to be untrustworthy and unprincipled. Sleekit, to use an Ulster Scots phrase. He lost the benefit of the doubt that he acts in good faith a long, long time ago.
Boris Johnson denied that he was going to prorogue Parliament when he was elected as Tory leader: “I would like to make it absolutely clear that I am not attracted to arcane procedures such as prorogation of Parliament. As someone who aspires to be the Prime Minister of a democratic nation, I believe in finding consensus in the House of Commons.” There was a further denial given to the government last weekend when The Observer published a story on prorogation: “the claim that the Government is considering proroguing Parliament in September in order to stop MPs debating Brexit is entirely false.”
Why should anybody believe anything the Prime Minister says? Look at the government quote given to Sebastian Payne following the prorogation announcement: “ If MPs pass a no confidence vote next week then we won’t resign. We won’t recommend another government, we’ll dissolve parliament, call an election between November 1-5 and there’ll be zero chance of Grieve legislation.” This government doesn’t act according to the rules.
When the Commons returns in September, Opposition MPs and Conservative MPs will have as little as four days to push through legislation to try and stop Johnson in his tracks. Buzzfeed is reporting that Johnson & co are planning to cause further interruption.
Ah, you might cry, but Remain MPs have also used parliamentary procedure to try and stop Brexit. This is true. Remainers who argued that Ken Clarke should be installed as a caretaker Prime Minister need to check their language. At least Remain MPs were open about what they were doing. Johnson’s latest move smacks of political opportunism but he pretends to be above it.
Why is the Prime Minister doing this? He could be using prorogation as leverage to get concessions from the EU at a Council Meeting on the 17th-18th October. Johnson seems to believe that the threat of no deal will make the EU blink at the last minute and change its position on the backstop. The Prime Minister is reported in The Times to have told his cabinet that “now Brussels knows we mean business.”
Johnson may also be banking on MPs pushing a motion of no confidence under the Fixed Term Parliament Act when the Commons returns in September. Remain MPs have, until now, been scattered and divided. Based on current numbers, the Prime Minister knows that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t stand a good chance of forming an alternative government. If that happens and the House doesn’t pass a further confidence motion, an election will be triggered. Current polls put the Tories 12 points above Labour. It’s a risky strategy but an election could see Johnson increase his majority and, notably, dispose of the DUP.
The other alternative? The simplest explanation: the Prime Minister wants a no deal Brexit and is hurtling us towards a cliff edge.
This isn’t a coup but whatever the Prime Minister is doing, he is playing fast and loose with this country’s future and its constitution. He is a wealthy man. If a No Deal Brexit turns out to be as bad as some are predicting, he will not have to suffer the consequences. This is all one big political game, never ending and spiralling out of control. Ordinary people, remainers and brexiteers, are going to pay the price.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.