Blimey. That was bloody quick. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set up a process that will prorogue (i.e. suspend) British parliament at the end of the first week of September until the middle of October. There will then be a Queen’s speech, setting out a new government program, ahead of what everyone assumes will be a “no-deal” Brexit on October 31.
The suspension of parliament for five of the next nine weeks is ostensibly, procedurally, cued to the calling of a Queen’s speech — standard practice. But the only purpose of the Queen’s speech is to make the prorogation possible.
The move is both symbolic and strategic. Parliament had been due to suspend for three weeks from mid-September to early October for party conferences, but there had been talk of reducing or abandoning that. The extra squeeze of four to eight days is thus presented as procedural. But the reduction in sitting time is enough to make the parliamentary prevention of a no-deal withdrawal all but impossible.
However, the limited prorogation also avoids the nuclear option: proroguing parliament across October 31, when Brexit will occur. That would have created a full-bore constitutional crisis. The calling of a Queen’s speech — months before any “real” occurrence of it, as a new government develops its policies — also allows the government to fill the order paper with non-Brexit business, including a budget and other official instruments, which would make it difficult for a cross-party Remain alliance to take control of Commons business from the government, and prioritise Brexit.
Reaction to the prime minister’s move was swift and furious, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn calling it a “smash and grab” exercise on democracy, and the speaker John Bercow calling it a “constitutional outrage”. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called it “not democracy, dictatorship”, and Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson, an opponent of no deal, is likely to resign her position today.
Rebel remain Tories such as Philip Hammond called it “profoundly undemocratic”. The announcement was greeted with immediate protests in London and dozens of cities across the UK, with thousands of people marching on Downing Street, and an online petition quickly gained a million signatures. Legal challenges to the prorogation are working their way through the Scottish courts, and other legal challenges are on the way.
Johnson’s move came days after Labour and the other parties (aside from the Democratic Unionist Party) finally hammered out an agreement on proceeding with a challenge to a no-deal Brexit that didn’t demand that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn become the immediate head of a possible alternative government, following parliament’s resumption on September 3 and a successful no-confidence motion — something Tory rebels wouldn’t agree to.
This, more than anything, gives the lie to the argument that the move is procedural; as former public service head Gus O’Donnell noted, the move is constitutional, but enormously risky, and draws the monarchy into a position where the Queen may have to make an unadvised — or multiply advised — position. This would occur if the Commons votes up a “humble petition” — it’s literally called that — to ask the Queen to annul her own prorogation.
Thus, Johnson’s move is breathtakingly risky, especially for a conservative party. The multiple contradictions inherent in the entire Brexit process — a Burkean party, grounded in the legitimacy of particular institutions, invoking a referendum as the expression of a Rousseauian people’s will for their legitimacy — are coming to unavoidable climax.
Members from all parties, Tories included, have spoken of continuing to sit in the Commons after the ceremonial prorogation, maintaining their legitimacy as a body in session. This turns the hitherto largely ceremonial officers — serjeants-at-arms, Black Rod, etc — once again into real agents of the sovereign, for the first time since the 17th century.
MPs such as Rory Stewart, a one-time contender for the Tory leadership, have said they will physically resist parliamentary dissolution. Simultaneously, large anti- and pro-Brexit rallies have been brought forward, the former likely to be in the millions of people. While that occurs, the other aspect of the Brexit paradox will occur: a vote designed to restore representation by returning power to a national parliament will be decided in courts by legal specialists, and enacted in the chamber by constitutional and parliamentary experts using arcane knowledge possessed by no more than a few dozen people in the country.
While the “Marxist” leader of the Labour Party writes to the Queen requesting an audience, the “conservatives and unionists” have trashed the webs of power built up over decades and centuries, and surely made Scottish separation and the breakup of the union the more likely outcome.
The sea-blue of the saltire will drain from the Jack, leaving nothing but red marks on white, a flag of bloody resistance, or a flying bandage. All this, since 2010, under the stewardship of the party of Disraeli, Salisbury and Churchill. Blimey.
Will Johnson’s ploy backfire, or is it all going according to plan? Let us know your thoughts on the latest Brexit instalment by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.