Parliamentary suspension prompts fury in Brexit run-up

By on 28/08/2019
UK House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has called PM Boris Johnson’s plan for an extended suspension of Parliament a “constitutional outrage”. (Image courtesy: Julian Mason/flickr).

The UK prime minister has announced that Parliament will be suspended for nearly five weeks from early September until mid-October, in an apparent bid to prevent MPs blocking a ‘no deal’ exit from the EU. The move prompted anger across the political spectrum, and was followed by reports that the governing Tory party’s leader in Scotland is preparing to announce her resignation.

Parliament is due to sit from Tuesday 3 September, and had been expected to continue working until at least mid-September. It typically then rises during the main party conferences, returning in the first week of October; but MPs had raised the possibility of taking control of the Parliamentary timetable and cancelling this conferences hiatus, giving themselves more time to organise against a no deal exit.

On Wednesday, Johnson announced that on 14 October there would be a Queen’s Speech at which his government would set out its objectives for the year. The Speech is typically preceded by a brief ‘prorogation’ of Parliament – but Johnson extended this period and run it together with the conferences prorogation, securing the monarch’s permission to send MPs home between 9 and 12 September. Under this timetable, at the point they return for the Queen’s Speech, there will be just 17 days before – under current legislation – the UK leaves the EU, whether or not an exit deal has been agreed.

Opponents in disarray

Johnson’s announcement comes a day after Remain-supporting opposition parties, Tory rebels and the Labour Party – which says it respects the narrow Leave verdict of the 2016 referendum, but has opposed both Johnson and former PM Theresa May’s exit plans – changed tack, agreeing to seek legislation that would force the PM to seek an extension to the UK’s exit date.

They had spent the summer working on plans to call a vote of no confidence, then replace Johnson with an interim PM and call a general election. But while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had insisted that he should become the interim PM, many centrists and Tory moderates would not bring the government down if that meant putting in Corbyn in power. So the group could not find a parliamentary majority for that strategy, and turned instead to the legislative route – which requires more parliamentary time.

Seeing that his opponents are unwilling to bring him down immediately, Johnson will have felt fairly secure in compressing Parliamentary time – and his move complicates their new strategy, dramatically reducing their opportunities to amend legislation or secure votes. As any incomplete legislation must begin again from scratch following a Queen’s Speech, MPs will have just 3-7 working days after they return on Tuesday to secure a majority for legislation.

Number 10 sources told Buzzfeed that their goal is to minimise the chances that MPs weaken Johnson’s negotiating hand ahead of the planned European Council meeting on 17 October, robbing him of the threat of a no deal exit. “Every sitting day there is a risk of something going wrong”, a “government source” – code for special adviser – told the website.

Wrecking Parliament to empower it?

But Remain campaigners and Tory moderates were furious that the PM is bending convention to sidestep opposition in the House of Commons, accusing Johnson of undermining the sovereignty of Parliament.

Former PM John Major told the BBC he has “no doubt” that Johnson aims to “bypass a sovereign Parliament that opposes his policy on Brexit.” In June, Major told a meeting at think tank Chatham House: “I cannot imagine [former PMs] Mr Disraeli, Mr Gladstone, Mr Churchill or Mrs Thatcher even in their most difficult moments saying let us put parliament aside while I carry through this difficult policy that a part of my party disagrees with. It is fundamentally unconstitutional. And to hear that argument coming from people who in the Brexit debate talked about the sovereignty of parliament being at stake is not only fundamentally distasteful, it is hypocrisy of a gold plated standard.”

Meanwhile, the Scottish Sun reported that the leader of the Tory party in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, is preparing to quit. Davidson has led a revival of the Conservatives north of the border, and her departure would make it harder for Johnson to secure a majority. The PM’s decision may also cause discomfort for ministers in Westminster, some of whom – including health secretary Matt Hancock and work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd – have previously spoken out against the idea of proroguing Parliament in this way.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, called Johnson’s move a “constitutional outrage”, saying that it is “blindingly obvious that the purpose of [suspending Parliament] now would be to stop [MPs] debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country.”

And the longer game

Many Labour MPs were as angry, with senior backbencher David Lammy tweeting that “the unelected poundshop dictator Boris Johnson threatens to end Britain’s long history of Parliamentary democracy. If Parliament is silenced on the biggest issue of our time we must take to the streets in peaceful protest & civil disobedience.” As Global Government Forum published this story on Wednesday evening, crowds were gathering in central London to protest against what many of those attending saw as a “coup”.

But Johnson’s real plan may be more subtle. By manufacturing a clash with Parliament while providing just enough space for a no confidence vote, he may be setting up a general election – in which he can present himself as a hero of the people, battling against the established powers in Westminster and Brussels.

Johnson has previously said that, if he’s brought down in a no confidence vote, he’ll send Parliament home and call a general election for the period after the UK leaves the EU – allowing Britain to crash out during the campaign. With his opponents demonstrably unable to coalesce around an alternative PM, that plan now looks a little stronger; and, following today’s announcement, a little closer.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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