Empty Houses

James Butler

Parliament was prorogued late last night, and both Houses now stand empty until 14 October. Its final day saw a sharpening of the conflict between legislature and executive that has characterised the tenure of both Theresa May and Boris Johnson; latent tension burst again into a full face-off. Throughout yesterday’s sitting, the Commons lived up to its tiresome reputation for political theatre. Opposition MPs boycotted the prorogation ceremony, held up placards declaring they had been silenced, and briefly tried to prevent the speaker from rising from his chair. Through two emergency debates, MPs decried the long prorogation, laying bare the suspicion of the government now common across the House. John Bercow epitomised the mood at the day’s close, declaring the prorogation ‘an act of executive fiat’.

Beyond the theatrics, and the justified outrage, three major changes now affect the next two months of British politics. First, the prorogation means the government avoids parliamentary scrutiny until October: Johnson escapes not only the pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions tomorrow, but also the more forensic questioning of the Liaison Committee, to which he was due to give evidence afterwards. During prorogation, government statements on Brexit will endure only the haphazard interrogation – or adulatory stenography – of the British press.

Second, the two emergency debates granted by the speaker yesterday tightened the political screws on the government. Perhaps most striking, both debates were de facto constitutional arguments over executive power: one on how and why the government uses its power to suspend Parliament; the other on whether the government regards itself as bound by the rule of law, and therefore bound to apply for an extension to Article 50 if no Brexit deal is worked out by mid-October.

Both motions prepare the way for a face-off between Number 10 and Parliament, and probable parliamentary censure of the kind faced by Theresa May, but the former will produce the more immediate headache. Dominic Grieve’s humble address mandates the government to provide, by the end of tomorrow, not only the government’s No Deal preparation papers, but messages, discussion and advice on prorogation by named advisers to the prime minister – including any given through unofficial channels, private email addresses or WhatsApp. The specificity of the names suggests that Grieve is aware of – perhaps has even seen – such discussions; the motion is a means of bringing them to light. Despite clear precedent that such messages are official regardless of the channel used, a succession of government MPs stood up yesterday to decry an unwarranted intrusion into the private lives of public servants; a hyperventilating Owen Paterson declared it the work of a revived Jacobinism, comparing the Commons to the Committee of Public Safety.

Third, the speaker announced his intention to stand down before the end of October. Bercow said that his retirement fulfilled a promise made to his wife and children, but the announcement came on the back of stories in the Sunday papers that the Tories intended to break convention and stand a candidate against him in the next election. As he made explicit, this means his immediate successor will be elected by the current House of Commons, where government control has combusted, rather than by its successor, where the whips’ strength is likely to be renewed. The new speaker’s position will not be guaranteed in the next Parliament, but their reappointment is likely. Implicitly, Bercow was fending off Tory attempts to replace him with a more pliable candidate, and looking for a successor who will continue the measures he has taken – including the expansion of urgent questions and emergency debates – to give MPs some measure of control over a recalcitrant minority government.

There have been rumblings in the Tory press that the opposition, in concert with the speaker, is engaged in wanton constitutional vandalism, granting Parliament unwarranted strength over the government. But parliamentary innovations have come as a response to successive governments’ contempt for the House, regarding it as a truculent inconvenience that ought merely to assent to whatever the government sees fit. The methods used to ‘shackle’ the government – in the rhetorical impasto of the No Dealers – are the ordinary procedures of parliamentary motion and majority vote; they are less a sign of MPs’ disproportionate strength than an obvious consequence of the weakness of a high-handed minority government.

The government’s response has been to supplement its weakness with voluntarist fervour: its strategists talk of facing down Parliament, or provoking a ‘Parliament v. People’ confrontation. In front of the despatch box and on TV, the PM and cabinet ministers yoke together contradictions by the force of assertion: Johnson respects the rule of law, but will not ask for an extension; Dominic Raab acknowledges the law passed by Parliament, but promises the government will do everything it can to ‘test’ and evade it.

There are widespread fears that the prorogation is a sign that the government will use increasingly autocratic methods to override democratic decisions; that having to ask if the government will respect the law is already a sign of its dereliction. The reality is more complex: as with its insistence that the prorogation is ‘normal’, the government is invested in insulating its power-plays from legal and procedural challenge. It will doubtless refuse to comply fully with parliament’s order to produce the documents listed in Grieve’s humble address, citing as an excuse the prorogation, or data law, or novel interpretations of the once loathed Human Rights Act. At the same time, Janus-faced, it boasts to its supporters of its boldness in facing down the treacherous parliamentarians and Brexit saboteurs. It combines the rhetoric of plebiscitarian autocracy with the feigned innocence of a child caught with his hand in the biscuit tin.

It is a strategy of deferral, but contradictions cannot be harnessed together indefinitely. The government will have to produce its papers, or suffer a contempt motion; Johnson will have to ask to extend Article 50, resign, pass a version of May’s deal, or break the law. Downing Street’s hope perhaps rests with the 54 per cent of the electorate who, the Hansard Society suggests, want a strong, rule-breaking leader – yet prorogation, only a small flexing of executive power, found support among barely a quarter of voters. People’s responses change when abstract desire becomes chaotic reality.

It is near certain that a general election will take place soon; the announcement of new funds targeted at marginal towns, and Priti Patel’s speech to police superintendents yesterday, should be understood in that light. Yet as Amber Rudd suggested in her resignation letter, negotiations with the EU are non-existent, and several of the government’s key Brexit preparation bills fell with prorogation. It is vastly unlikely any deal will be reached in time for the 19 October deadline. The election, then, will take place after the strategy of deferral runs out of road. It will doubtless be conducted amid accusations of betrayal and surrender, as Conservatives seek to stem their losses by wooing Leave-voting marginals. It is likely to be even more rancorous than the referendum itself.

Opposition parties have held together in backing Johnson into a corner, but that unity cannot survive in an election period. The Labour Party, especially, is faced with a difficulty: its periods of success have come when it has combined insurgency with clarity of political vision; its defence of parliamentary democracy, and excoriation of executive overreach, will be used by Dominic Cummings to depict it as part of a rotten establishment. It cannot base its campaign on Johnson’s democratic transgressions, however flagrant. The government will not abstain from politics during the prorogation; the election may be undeclared, but the campaign has already begun.


  • 11 September 2019 at 2:50am
    Joe Morison says:
    Every day that passes further shows the wisdom of Clement Attlee when he wrote, “I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism.”

    Also, I don’t understand why you refer to the theatricality of Parliament as tiresome? In normal times it just seems quaint and a bit pointless, but in these times its value is clear. How else are they meant to respond to the unprecedented assaults on democracy that are taking place by their own government?