Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 30 August 2019

Johnson suspends parliament to force a crash out Brexit

On Brexit at least (and who knows what may be next) UK democracy has been suspended. Yesterday the Prime Minister drastically reduced the number of days parliament will sit until we automatically crash out of the EU. On the critical issue of Brexit, the Prime Minister has become an unelected dictator. He intends to use his dictatorial power to restrict the supply of medicines and food to the British people.

The device he has used is a quaint part of the UK constitution where the Queen decides when parliament sits or does not sit. Nowadays the Queen has no power so she takes advice from the executive. The Prime Minister instructed his lackeys to ask the Queen to prorogue (the technical name for suspend) parliament for 5 weeks and the queen approved. It is as if the President could shut down Congress whenever he liked, and in particular whenever they were about to do something he disliked.

It was cleverly done, in that it allowed parliament to sit for effectively four days in early September and probably about a week just before we crash out of the EU, so the PM could claim parliament still had “plenty of time” to discuss Brexit. Johnson, like Trump, is a serial liar. As the former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake said, to believe this is anything other than an attempt to critically curtail the chances that parliament can stop us crashing out is an insult to the intelligence.

Johnson knows that only the most foolish will believe the 'plenty of time' lie. But Johnson's big idea that he wants wavering Tory MPs to believe is that the EU will only change the backstop if they truly believe the UK will crash out. This is one more Leave misjudgment about the EU, in a long list of them. The EU do not want the UK to crash out, but they are not going to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland to avoid it. Any UK government not made up of anti-EU fanatics would want to avoid that to.

Like so much in the UK’s unwritten constitution, the Queens right to decide when parliament sits is a hangover from our history that has been allowed to remain because it was understood that the Queen would follow the advice of the Prime Minister (the last monarch that didn’t had his head cut off) and the Prime Minister would respect the will of the parliament. In the UK parliament is sovereign, but only because there were unwritten norms that assumed no government would be undemocratic enough to disobey.

Article 50, the process by which the UK is negotiating to leave, also makes an assumption that governments reflect the interests of its citizens. It says that after two years, unless the EU extends that deadline, the leaving country crashes out with no trade deal, and indeed no deal on anything else. It was assumed that no rational government would ever want to crash out and so this deadline was a great incentive to agree to a deal of the EU’s liking. The UK now has a government that relishes the opportunity to leave without a deal, which the government’s own advice suggests will lead to shortages of food, fuel and medicines.

Does this affront to democracy matter if it is restricted to the issue of Brexit, where a referendum voted to leave? It matters because in that referendum the Leave side only talked about leaving with a deal. That is the mandate that this advisory referendum provided - to leave with a deal. So leaving with no deal does not even respect the referendum.result.

Here are some comments by MPs about the idea of a Prime Minister proroguing (i.e. suspending) parliament to get their way on Brexit.
I think it would be a terrible thing that having said we should have more power in this country and trust our institutions more ... and shut the door on parliament”
[Proroguing parliament] goes against everything that those men who waded onto those beaches, fought and died for and I will not have it.”
It is a ridiculous suggestion”
Delivery on democracy while trashing democracy. We are not selecting a dictator.”

Not any old MPs, but now ministers in the Prime Minister’s cabinet. Yet none has expressed any regret at it actually happening, now that they have some power. How far the Conservative party has fallen.

Let’s think about what this actually means if we crash out of the EU. A measure that will have profound implications for most UK residents will come into effect without approval from the House of Commons and with hardly any scrutiny. The official document that sets out the likely impact on food and fuel supplies, medicines and much else remains secret, and no House of Commons committee has had a chance to examine claims that the government has somehow avoided the shortages this document predicts.

You may say that parliament overwhelmingly gave the approval for the government to start the Article 50 process, but on this occasion - and time and again subsequently - MPs have not anticipated how fanatical those advocating No Deal are. They will certainly not have anticipated a No Dealer becoming Prime Minister and suspending parliament to crash out via Article 50. If you had said that more than two years ago you would have been laughed at. UK democracy has fallen a long way in two years.

For those tempted to say this is just one issue and just five weeks (the total length of parliament’s suspension), I would say two things. First, this is hardly a minor issue, but one of the biggest issues that the UK has had to deal with in decades. On this vital issue, Johnson is trying to force an outcome that most people do not want. Second, pluralist democracy normally does not end with a bang but in stages of plurality. No doubt when the Hungarian government in 2011 abolished its fiscal council plenty of Hungarians thought little of it. That has been followed by the end of judicial independence and and independent media. It is clear this government also has little respect for parliamentary democracy.

Will the majority of MPs in the little time they have left do enough to stop us crashing out of the EU? I honestly do not know, but I am pessimistic because only Johnson can extend Article 50 and I now think it is quite likely he will try to frustrate parliament in other ways and that he will ignore parliament if it did succeed. A vote of no confidence may be the only option MPs have. Will Johnson’s suspension of parliamentary democracy unite enough MPs to do this? Again I have no idea, but I can say this.

If Jeremy Corbyn in government did anything similar to this in order to get one of his policies through, I would argue he was no longer fit for office. But perhaps putting power above principle, as the MPs whose quotes I show above clearly do, is today a characteristic of almost the entire right of UK politics? The principle at stake right now is parliamentary democracy itself.



  1. But as there are only three choices - leave with no deal, take the deal on offer, and don't leave - and parliament can hold a vote of no confidence in Johnson as soon as parliament reconvenes, and/or vote to withdraw article 50, and/or accept the deal on the table, doesn't all of this seem ever-so-slightly overblown? parliament has had all year to debate the three choices and decide what it wants, and it still hasn't (it's not as if it hasn't had plenty of time to do all the virtue signalling it wants, which is what this reaction basically amounts to - does parliament really have anything new to say?). if it takes the suspension of parliament to focus minds sufficiently on the possibility of crashing out with no deal for MPs to finally decide what they want to do, rather than what they don't, and then do it ...

  2. I expect this will be taken as a crank post but I'm repeating this point to anyone inclined to listen.

    If the opposition doesn't come up with an effective legislative response before Parliament is prorogued, the Queen can save the situation without making a constitutionally dubious use of her reserve powers. She can cause Parliament to reconvene by abdicating.

    Under the Succession to the Crown Act 1707, a prorogued Parliament is called into session immediately upon the "Death or Demise" of the monarch. The term "demise" refers to any transfer of the Crown, including by abdication (hence its mention in the Act is not redundant).

    It would be contrary to constitutional norms for the Queen to summon Parliament into session against the government's express desire, but in this case a new parliamentary session would be required by statute, and hence not an exercise of the royal prerogative.

    If the legal and legislative challenges to prorogation fail and people intend to continue demonstrating, perhaps they should demonstrate for that.

  3. You and many other commentators keep suggesting the right is putting "power over principle." This is a mischaracterization that gives them too much credit by suggesting they have moral principles. Power /is/ their guiding principle. Their behavior - maximizing personal and party power, regardless of economic and diplomatic damage - is entirely in keeping with their principle.

  4. Popular sentiment and popular sentiment of those who bother to vote are two distinct and separate things. The simple fact is that old people are more likely than others to vote, and there is nothing to guarantee that their views and interests coincide with the majority of the population. Too often, they don't. Consider the following rather striking examples of disparities between polls and election results: Clinton v.s Trump, and Stay in the EU vs. Leave the EU.

  5. The frightening move to the Far Right of the Conservatives has been highly legitimated by the Sun, Mail, Express, Telegraph who shift further right/anti-EU pro-Brexit by the week. This has been scary because it is manipulative of Brexit voters by ignoring any real economic coverage of Hard Brexit. Their frame or discourse is simply Brexiteers Vs Parliamentarians as if the later were some hostile group to the people.
    This creation of a supposed enemy worked for Fascists in 1930's and now Nationalist Populists with Trump, Johnson ...Cummings is a most dangerous man. Moreover the opposition failed to point Brexit does not rescue the left behinds - that was a function of 9 yrs of Tories.
    I have two thoughts 1) Remain side including Labour & the Remain protest groups did not fight in the gutter & engage Brexit public like their opponents so many people have no idea of what awaits them in November be it shortages, layoffs, increased prices, massive border disruption and of course tariffs on their imports first time for about 40 odd years.
    But as the BBC does everyday we must not mention the Brexit Billionaire Press and its winning control of the news agenda

  6. “The EU do not want the UK to crash out, but they are not going to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland to avoid it.”

    I can’t follow the logic here. As I understand it the biggest threat to Northern Ireland peace would be a hard border. The UK Government has said it would not introduce a hard border in the event of a No Deal. If the EU decides to introduce a hard border then they would be choosing to potentially compromise peace in order to preserve the integrity of the EU market. It would be the EU who would have ownership of this. It is they who would be choosing not to compromise on the backstop in order to ‘punish’ the UK, including Northern Ireland. They seem to have shot themselves in the foot here. It is they who decided to introduce Northern Irish peace as some sort of bargaining point, but they are the only ones threatening to compromise the peace.

    1. "I can’t follow the logic here. As I understand it the biggest threat to Northern Ireland peace would be a hard border. The UK Government has said it would not introduce a hard border in the event of a No Deal. If the EU decides to introduce a hard border then they would be choosing to potentially compromise peace in order to preserve the integrity of the EU market."

      It was a UK government decision to become hostage of the DUP. UK owns the mess. Special status of NI is still on table, but is opposed by the DUP - only by the DUP.

      You sound like a typical brexiter who has difficulties to follow the changes of political environment caused by your own guys.


    2. You make it sound as if refusing to allow for the SM and CU is not in itself making a hard border necessary. The EU cannot have a nation wide gap in its borders with a non member state that has no controls at all. Hence the backstop and talk of the border in the Irish sea. Saying the UK will not set up a hard border is facile when they instead create the conditions that necessitate one for the other side.

  7. The lowest the unemployment rate gets is around 2%. So it’s never at theoretical capacity. Instead of paying people to do nothing - and making them unemployable - pay them to do something. This requires immigration controls.

  8. so if what Johnson is doing is unconstitutional, how come the constitution has allowed him to do it?

    The main problem with Johnson's approach is that people like you think it gives them a mandate to overthrow the referendum result. The logic of 'MP's are representatives not delegates' and 'MPs should vote with their consciences' leads to the promises MPs make and the acts they commit meaning nothing. They are now acting without scrutiny against the promises they made over the referendum and again in their manifestoes, and are seeking to undo their triggering of A 50.

    The comments you quote were about proroguing parliament until the beginning of November, not for a few days in October. you know this full well but seek to misrepresent.

    If Parliamentarians believe they and their consciences are paramount, then the time do decide that and act on it is before contemplating a referendum, not afterwards when you've promised to implement the result and then decided you don't like the result.

    And for clarity, bang on about Hungary all you like, but if we stay in the EU it is clear that the main lawmaking body for the UK is not the UK Parliament but the European Parliament approving bills from the unelected Commission. If UK Parliamentarians care so much about their ability to make laws and govern the country, why are they so keen to hand this power over to Europe?

    1. " ...the main lawmaking body for the UK is not the UK Parliament but the European Parliament approving bills from the unelected Commission. If UK Parliamentarians care so much about their ability to make laws and govern the country, why are they so keen to hand this power over to Europe?"

      From Brexit : What the Hell Happens Now? by Ian Dunt (Canbury Press 2019):

      "Many of the scare stories you’ve read about ‘EU regulation gone mad’ are actually about laws that originated above the EU’s head. In 2013 for instance there was a tabloid panic about an EU programme that removed the Union Flag from packets of meat. That actually came from from the Codex Alimentarius, a collection of internationally recognised standards and codes of practice for food production. The EU had cut and pasted parts of the text into its regulation. But even the Codex wasn’t original: it was relying on the World Trade Organisation’s agreement on rules of origin.

      The tabloids shouldn’t have blamed Brussels at all, they should have blamed the Codex, except that the public has never heard of it, so it wouldn’t make a good story. The Codex and the WTO do not make useful bogey men, so the way their standards infringe on our supposedly much prized British sovereignty is rarely mentioned."

  9. Surely, at the time of King Charles it was the Speaker who represented Parliament to the Crown. The first PM was a century later. When did the slippage occur, so that it was the PM and not the Speaker who instructed the monarch on prorogation?

  10. You guys have painted yourself into a corner, but it is real good fun to watch you wriggling and writhing to find a way out. (Am I mixing metaphors here? Who cares...) And good old Winston was worried about INDIA's ability to govern itself! Har, har, har!!!


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