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 avoids 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.
Boris Johnson announced last week that Parliament is to be prorogued days after MPs return from their summer recess: both Houses of Parliament will stand empty for five weeks. A new session will begin on 14 October. A Queen’s Speech debate typically takes a week of parliamentary time, which leaves just over six sitting days until the Brexit deadline. Across the press, opposition politicians have described Johnson’s power grab as an affront to democracy. The speaker of the House of Commons said it was a ‘constitutional outrage’. The thousands of people protesting in cities and towns across the UK on Saturday were clearer and bolder: they called it a coup.
We expect the government to be able to retain the confidence of the Commons. If it cannot do so, that is a political problem (certainly for the government) but not a constitutional one. It is a situation that the principle of parliamentary supremacy anticipates. When push comes to shove, the constitutional position is clear: Parliament, not government, is supreme.
The Commons vote on Tuesday night to give the Tories majorities on all the committees that are supposed to scrutinise legislation, including Brexit legislation, despite their not having a majority of seats in the Commons, has been described by the shadow leader of the house as a ‘power grab’. It’s also deeply unconstitutional. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, which expresses and enacts the ‘will of the people’, but only once that will has been scrutinised, debated and tested over a (fairly short) period of time. The idea that the ‘will of the people’ as expressed on a single day in June 2016 should be set in stone, never to be amended, runs against the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy.
The Queen’s Speech has all the pomposity and solemnity of a panto you’re not allowed to laugh at. This bowdlerises its political content, grimly apparent were it delivered by a nerd in a lounge suit. Elizabeth lumbers in, glazed and jowly, with the familiar cast of attendant lords, including her husband, her heir and her heir’s duchess, who’s kitted out with a purple sash that could be left over from the Ukip election campaign. As ever the queen herself looks as if her breakfast porridge had too much mogadon in it. Since she always reads her script as if she were reciting the E numbers on a packet of jelly, it’s anyone’s guess what, if anything, she thinks about it. The custodian of the speech is a nerd usually seen in a lounge suit, Michael Gove, who from journeyman beginnings as a Times hack and a Commons expenses home-flipper, has now hit it big as lord chancellor. Yesterday he got to try out his new 18th-century chancellorial garb.
Ed Miliband has said with not very much reservation that the idea of getting rid of Prime Minister's Questions is something he 'might be up for'. He would look into it. As political statements go, that is edging on the emphatic. In the same interview he acknowledged public enervation at shouting matches.