Slowly Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, is revealing his plan. He has asked the Queen to suspend (“prorogue”) Parliament for an unprecedented four and a half weeks, from early September to mid October. This leaves parliament just three weeks before the Brexit deadline of 31 October (next week before the suspension, and two weeks after it), making it very hard for it to do anything to thwart his plans, given how much other business it must transact.
The Queen has consented to this, which puts Mr Johnson in a very strong position, as there is no easy way to stop him. So now either the EU cracks on the question of the Irish backstop, and the government rushes a revised deal through parliament at the end of October, or we drop out without a deal. One element of Mr Johnson’s plan remains mysterious. When and under what circumstances will he move for an election, which seems more than likely given how precarious the parliamentary position?
Leaving that aside, the most depressing thing about the episode, apart from the dire state of the country’s constitution, is how partisan and ill-informed all the commentary is. What people say about the constitutional propriety depends wholly on their views about Brexit. Leavers say that it is wholly proper, Remainers say it is an abuse of power. There is outrage on one side and insouciance on the other, but little attention to the facts. Let’s try to take a step back.
Firstly the government’s defence is that with a new prime minister it is essential to proceed with a Queen’s Speech setting out a legislative programme. It is customary to precede this with a few days prorogation. This has simply been combined with the normal three week recess for party conferences, and rounded up a bit. The first part of this makes sense. A Queen’s Speech is badly needed to give Mr Johnson’s administration legitimacy, as so far it is completely untested by any kind of democratic process. One of his predecessor’s unhappy constitutional innovations was doing away with the annual Queen’s Speech, and prolonging the parliamentary session indefinitely. A Queen’s Speech is long overdue. It is hard to challenge the timing either: waiting for the party conferences but before Brexit Day. Things surely won’t be any easier after this date after all. The problem with the government’s case is consolidating the conference recess with the customary short prorogation before the Speech. A recess is something decided by parliament itself, and the Autumn conference recess has frequently been suspended to deal with urgent business. That was sure to happen this time. One of the conferences (the first) includes only the 14 Lib Dem MPs after all. A prorogation, however, is imposed by the Sovereign and needs no parliamentary approval. Furthermore some important parliamentary business continues during a recess, such as committee work and the answering of questions. This will all go under a prorogation. This is a clear abuse the government’s prerogative powers and there is no need for critics’ outrage to be manufactured. The “nothing to see here” defence offered by the prime minister and his supporters marks a new low of lying and deceit in British politics.
A further suggestion is that the Queen should not have given consent. That is a much harder case to make. The constitutional principle that she always does as her prime minister advises is the only secure way that the Queen can stay above politics. The political accountability of the prorogation is the prime minister’s alone. This makes the case for an elected president in the manner of most republics. Alas that idea remains deeply unpopular.
So is excluding Parliament from interfering with Brexit for over four weeks a denial of democracy? Brexiteers appeal to the supremacy of the referendum result over parliamentary sovereignty. This is a brand new constitutional principle, without any legal force, but one that has broad popular and political consent. Even most Remainers say that the 2016 referendum can only be undone by another referendum. In the way that Britain’s unwritten constitution evolves, this looks secure. The problem is deciding what the British public actually asked parliament to do. Parliament is surely entitled to decide for itself, especially since it was elected after the referendum and so has a more up to date mandate. Precedent from other European countries that have rejected EU membership (Switzerland, Norway and Iceland) suggests that this may include membership of the Single Market and more. The campaigners for a Leave vote were deliberately open about what the vote actually meant until the vote took place. The suggestion by many Brexiteers that the referendum mandate can only mean a hard Brexit is clear nonsense.
But the Brexiteers do have a point. Parliament has failed to decide what it actually wants, in spite of some quite innovative attempts to get them to give an indication. They rejected the deal offered by the EU three times, and not even narrowly. They have rejected holding a further referendum to help it make up its mind. A narrow majority was found for the government deal minus the backstop, and that is exactly what Mr Johnson is asking for. But, Remainers counter, they have also rejected no-deal. But rejecting no-deal without agreeing on an alternative simply looks like trying to frustrate the referendum. Parliament did vote to serve Article 50 notice on the EU, with a leaving date of 29 March. No-deal is simply what happens if you fail to agree on a deal.
Personally I feel that MPs have three legitimate choices. First is to accept Mr Johnson’s plan of drop the backstop or else. Second is to delay Brexit again so that a further referendum can be held. Third is to back the existing deal with the backstop and leave on 31 October. The Labour leadership’s idea of buying time to renegotiate the deal and then putting it to public is a nonsense. It is way too late for that. They had their chance in the 2017 general election and they lost.
To my mind the whole sorry impasse is mainly Labour’s fault. Theresa May’s Conservative government followed a clear plan and it had democratic legitimacy. But she could not get enough parliamentary support. Her successor is carrying this forward in a way that is surely consistent with what his party said it would do when elected. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” was a favourite saying of Mrs May even if she clearly didn’t mean it. Jeremy Corbyn was right to make the case for a deal with deeper integration to the EU, as that is what Labour argued for in its manifesto. But as time went by it has become clear this his ideas are not fully fleshed out, and that he wasn’t going to get an early general election. At this point he needed to either throw his weight behind Mrs May’s deal, which when all is said and done was not far from Labour’s manifesto, and which could doubtless be modified by a future Labour government, or else he should have thrown his weight behind a new referendum. This was an invidious choice. The former would have enabled Mrs May to complete Brexit, but it would have shocked many of his core supporters. The latter would also have divided the party, and could well have failed to get a parliamentary majority. An invidious choice but surely the sort of honest, straight-talking politics Mr Corbyn said he stood for when he became Labour leader. Instead the party has simply acted to create deadlock.
All of this gives justification enough for the government’s drive for Brexit on 31 October, deal or not. But it offers no excuse for its prorogation stunt. And yet much of the outrage is a displacement activity from the awkward fact that the government’s parliamentary opponents are as far from offering a coherent alternative as ever. What a mess!