MPs are calling it an attack on democracy, the government insists it’s no big deal. Who is right in the battle for Brexit?
First published in August 2019.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, is to suspend parliament for several weeks in the run up to Brexit day on October 31. Johnson argues that suspending (or proroguing) Parliament is necessary to prepare for a new parliamentary session. But many MPs, and those beyond Westminster, are viewing the PM’s decision as a cynical move, designed to prevent them from attempting to block a no-deal Brexit. The speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow has called the move a “constitutional outrage”.
Johnson’s present plan is to suspend parliament on September 10, and reopen it on October 14 with a Queen’s speech setting out his government’s plans for a new parliamentary session. There will then follow days of debate on these plans. This strategy presupposes that Johnson will secure a new Brexit deal with the EU at the European Council summit in Brussels on October 17 and 18 when leaders next meet and that MPs will vote on it before October 31.
What reason is the government giving for suspending parliament?
Johnson has announced that he wishes to prorogue parliament for two reasons. First, to “bring forward a new bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda” to ensure post-Brexit renewal of the UK. Second, to kickstart “a significant Brexit legislative programme to get through”.
To justify these parallel goals, Johnson argues that the current parliamentary session has gone on for far too long, at 340 days, and that the parliamentary business of the house has been “sparse” during this time. He has therefore asked the Queen to end the session, with a new session dedicated ostensibly to domestic policies on the NHS, violent crime, infrastructure requirements, science, and tackling the cost of living, as well as the crucial issue of Brexit.
Is it normal to shut down parliament like this?
Yes and no. There are various precedents to proroguing parliament ahead of a Queen’s speech. However, in such cases, such suspensions last for a far shorter period than the solid month being proposed by Johnson. The most recent two occasions in 2014 and 2016, for example, were four and 13 days respectively. Proroguing parliament has also been used as a tool to reintroduce previously defeated government legislation. But using prorogation as a mechanism to restrict the available time to debate a given issue is wholly unusual.
Why do MPs think the government is really suspending parliament?
The reaction across the political spectrum has been swift and demonstrably angry. The general feeling is that parliament is being deliberately shut down, both to prevent debate on Brexit and to frustrate any attempts by MPs to legislate to alter the government’s plans to leave the EU without a Brexit deal on October 31.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, accused Johnson of trying to avoid parliamentary scrutiny despite talking up “sovereignty”. Key Conservative MPs appear equally anxious at the unprecedented prospect of attempting to govern without parliament. Philip Hammond, the former chancellor, is strongly opposed – arguing that “parliament is effectively prevented from holding the government to account at a time of national crisis. Profoundly undemocratic.”
Views from Scotland and Northern Ireland, however, indicate the continuing divisions over Brexit. Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland accused Johnson of acting like a “tin-pot dictator”. Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, however has responded positively, agreeing that the parliamentary session had gone on for long enough.
Is this a prorogation or a recess? What is the difference?
A recess refers to the point in time when the House formally rises: including summer holidays or the September conference season. A recess effectively pauses an existing parliamentary session, to which MPs then return and continue. Prorogation formally and conclusively brings to an end a current parliamentary session – and what follows is an entirely new session.
Will parliament be sitting on October 31, when no-deal Brexit would happen?
At present, Johnson’s intention is to commence the new session of parliament with the Queen’s speech, on October 14. Barring further changes, MPs and Lords alike will then remain in session from that day until they rise for the November break – sitting for the crucial mid-late October period, during which time the European Council will meet for its key October summit.
But while Johnson insists there will be ample time to debate both domestic and Brexit issues on either side of the Brussels summit, there will be only eight working days between the end of the summit and the current Brexit deadline of October 31.
Is there any way for MPs to stop Johnson proroguing parliament?
Based on current convention, MPs do not have formal means to prevent the proroguing of parliament. These powers are rather invested in the monarch, who uses them on the advice of the prime minister.
However, former attorney general Dominic Grieve is considering a number of options, such as a “humble address” – a form of direct communication between MPs and the Queen – to attempt to prevent prorogation. It is also highly likely that the Speaker of the House, John Bercow will respond robustly with a range of suggestions regarding possible parliamentary tools.
In terms of legal responses, former prime minister John Major has previously threatened to seek a judicial review in the eventuality that the government sought to prorogue parliament. Lawyer Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, has also filed a motion asking the Court of Session to suspend the PM’s request that parliament be prorogued.
Does this plan mean MPs won’t be able to block a no-deal Brexit?
MPs effectively are now very time-limited in their ability to look concretely at legislation. They have two periods of time in which they can act. The first is between September 3 and somewhere between September 9 and 12, when they will sit briefly before prorogation. During this time, those opposed to Johnson’s plan will likely use all possible parliamentary mechanisms to either express their own views on Brexit, attempt to amend, or pass legislation on Brexit, or even bring down the government in a widely-expected vote of no confidence, potentially triggering an election.
The second period is post-prorogation. During those final two weeks of October, MPs would need to organise themselves on the basis of the content of the Queen’s speech, and the outcome of the European Council summit and whether a deal is agreed, or not.
Both windows are very tight for anyone looking to pass legislation to to either prevent prorogation from taking place, or for enacting legislation to reduce or halt the chances of a no-deal Brexit.
Will Johnson’s plan work?
It appears that Johnson’s goal here is to turn up the heat on the EU as he attempts to strike a new Brexit deal. By decreasing the ability of MPs to block a no-deal Brexit, he shows that he really will go through with it unless Brussels makes concessions.
But prorogation is an incredibly high-risk strategy. After the enormous divisions prompted by the outcome of the 2016 Referendum, this plan again pits the government against parliament.
For ardent Brexiters, it is the only remaining tool by which to guarantee the outcome of the referendum and ensure Brexit actually takes place (deal or no deal). For many others however (on either side of the Brexit debate, the UK itself, and the Channel), proroguing parliament is injurious to the integrity of the House, and the health of British democracy.🔷
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