28 August 2019

The government is not respecting Parliament’s democratic role in debating Brexit, but it hasn’t denied MPs’ their ability to have their say, says Bronwen Maddox.

The government’s decision to force the House of Commons to rise in the next two weeks and then not sit again until mid-October shows no respect for Parliament’s democratic role in debating Brexit. MPs erupted in anger and an online petition against the proroguing of Parliament promptly gathered more than 400,000 signatures. The sense of outrage is justified. The move constrains Parliament’s ability to debate Brexit, as it was no doubt intended to do. Had it wanted to construct opportunities for debate, it could have done so.

All the same, the government has not entirely removed Parliament’s ability to shape the outcome, in particular with two opportunities that remain to block no deal at the start of September and the end of October.

Parliament would be in a stronger position, however, if MPs agreed on how they hope to legislate to stop no deal – and what they would do with an extension if they got one. 

No respect for Parliament – but only a small reduction in sitting time

The government has announced that it would suspend (or 'prorogue') Parliament from a day between the 9 and 12 September to 14 October. The period includes the traditional recess of around three weeks for party conferences. Allowing for that recess, the government’s action deprives Parliament of only between three and six sitting days.

However, the insult to parliamentary power is clear. Parliament gives its assent to the conference recess each time. Had MPs wanted more time to debate Brexit, they could have decided not to support the recess this year (and there are indications that this was being considered). And the five-week prorogation is the longest in history; if it was just about bringing a new Queen’s Speech it could have been much shorter.

The first bid to block a no-deal Brexit will come next week

But while the time available to MPs has been reduced, opponents of a no-deal Brexit will still have opportunities to take control of the parliamentary timetable, table legislation, and then steer that bill – if there were support – through Parliament before it was forced to rise, possibly on 9 September.

If MPs did succeed, though, then the fact that the government has forced Parliament to rise becomes much less important.

The Brexit showdown may well take place in late October

If the government survives next week’s attempts to block no deal, it has gained about five weeks freedom from challenge by Parliament. For all the insistence from Number 10 that today’s announcement was to give Boris Johnson a chance to set out his “exciting agenda” in a Queen’s Speech, the prime minister is clearly determined to reduce the amount of sitting days available to his opponents.

However, when Parliament returns on 14 October, MPs will be able to attempt to amend the Queen’s Speech setting out its legislative programme. It is another chance to repeat next week’s manoeuvre of trying to block no deal, though MPs will have to start from scratch if their first attempt fails. The government will probably argue that opponents of no deal should wait until the European Council on 17 October, portraying this as the real crunch point for securing a deal with the EU.

The government is resisting democratic engagement – but not avoiding it entirely

If the prime minister does strike a deal with the EU, those opposed to no deal will be under huge pressure to support it if the alternative is crashing out on 31 October. However, there will be very little time to scrutinise and pass this crucial piece of legislation – which, after all, is the role of MPs. If, however, Parliament votes down the proposed deal, or the prime minister has not struck a deal at all, then Parliament has a final chance in the last days in October to try again to block no deal. It would have to try a similar manoeuvre as MPs are planning for next week – to pass legislation forcing the prime minister to ask for an extension.

Is there enough time? Not by normal standards – but these are not normal times. The timetable would be fearsomely tight. However, one of MPs’ greatest handicaps in trying to obstruct the government is their disagreement over tactics – and what they would do with an extension if they got one. This is, after all, the same Parliament that has voted down not only no deal but Theresa May’s deal and variations on that.

The government decision to prorogue Parliament is at odds with its claim to support democratic engagement, and has provoked understandable fury. However, Parliament still has at least two opportunities to try to block no deal. First of all, however, MPs would do well to agree on what they would do instead.

Comments

As a layman I try to keep abreast of the day to day happenings around Brexit. As you have pointed out the current WA and its variants as negotiated by Teresa May have been rejected on three occasions. Brussels to date have rejected firmly any attempt to reopen the WA and renegotiate. The default position in law is that we leave the EU on the 31st October, this was agreed by Parliament when the last extension was requested and agreed. Therefore it seems there are only one or two alternatives, we leave on WTO Terms if Brussels agrees or we leave with No Deal. What is the point of requesting a further extension of Article 50 if Brussels sticks to its guns, 3, 6 9, or 12 months down the line nothing it appears will change, the EU are demanding we sign the WA as agreed Mrs May. Therefore reading between the lines the majority of MP's voted remain and irrespective of how their constituencies voted and their parties manifesto's they are ignoring the Democratic Vote of 17.4 million people. The suggestion being, put the vote back to the people, they have stopped quoting a Second Referendum, however there are 17.4 million people who have already voted, why should they have to be asked to vote again?
Would WTO terms not allow us to continue as we are now whilst giving us the time to negotiate a future Trade Agreement whilst giving us freedom from EU bureaucracy and the ECJ.
Apart from all the fear tactics of people dying for lack of food and medicines which is utter rubbish, and disastrous results for our economy.
I also don't understand why the Speaker Bercow appears to be firmly lodged in the Remain camp, is he not supposed to be Neutral, why does he never point out to MP's that they should serve the Democratic Vote of the people, all he talks about is the Democratic Right of Parliament.
His comments last week in Edinburgh stating he will fight No Deal with his last breath, Neutral ?
Today when told about prorogation of Parliament he quotes "constitutional outrage". no one has spoken to me, should such remarks not be reserved for the floor of The House. should he not be sanctioned for such public statements.
Looking back at history there are several MP's along with The Speaker who would have been arrested for Treason.
What is the Governments position and can this alliance stop BREXIT through some legal mechanism?

Either the referendum was mandatory and void (for rule breaking) or it was advisory. It can't be a mixture of the two.

The referendum result was advisory to the sovereign authority in the UK representative democracy: Parliament. Doesn't matter what anyone else said - e.g Cameron's stated intention during Project Fear, which were rejected by Leave voters at the time. No one other than parliament had any authority to promise anything.

So, according to our constitution and legal system it is down to our sovereign Parliament to work this out. If the result is too pro-remain then the population shouldn't have elected this parliament. But, it is worth pointing out the unicorn-fiction sold to Leave voters prior to the referendum - it was never a no deal Brexit.

What no one should accept is this rogue PM acting like a dictator and assuming to know the mind of an electorate that only provided a negative. A bit like going to a restaurant and demanding you don't want salad and then kicking off when your order doesn't arrive. It's Parliament that has to take the negative provided through direct democracy and turn it into a positive.

I really hope and pray that we can see legislation to at least force a second referendum. That at least will settle once and for all what the majority of the population truly want. Especially as the first referendum should be seen as a fraudulent result based on far too many lies.

IFG, do you think there is a possibility in the future for yourselves to act as a neutral party for referendums? I believe there is a need for an entity (such as yourselves) to provide a list of true facts (pro's and cons) to allow the public to vote with a full and true picture, rather than voting based on lies, deceit and false slanderous social media campaigns.

Philip, I won’t get into opinions regarding the vote made by 17.4 million , we’ve all heard the arguments. I do however take exception to two of your points, firstly you conclude that under WTO rules we can trade as now while new trade deals are negotiated. I suspect that you are referring to GATT 24, this is only relevant if there is a deal and there is a transition phase. If we leave without a deal our trade deals cease on day 1, consequently there will be food shortages, problems getting medicines and radioactive isotopes for scans and radiotherapy and we will suffer an economic shock.
Secondly, you complain that John Bercow as Speaker of the House only refers to the democratic rights of Parliament and not those of the voters. It may have escaped your notice, but his role is exactly to ensure the correct constitutional procedures and to ensure that the democratic rights of parliament are upheld. You have just confirmed that he is fulfilling his duty. Reminder, ours is a representative democracy and our MPs have a duty to make decisions in the best interests of the country. I think we will all find out shortly whether Brexit can be stopped through some legal mechanism. I hope for all our sakes that it is.

Bronwen, thank you for this.

Your colleague Joe Marshall says in an Explainer piece:

"The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act requires Parliament to be recalled from prorogation in order to debate reports on progress made to restore the Northern Ireland executive. The planned prorogation in September and October is consistent with these requirements."

Is that why the prorogation period is such an odd duration? Is it the maximum that the lawyers told Johnson, Gove, Cummings and Cox that they could get away with? And why didn't they prorogue across the October deadline, as was threatened earlier in the summer? Finally, could you find a lawyer to advise on whether it is plausible that the lawyers advised that a legal challenge might well succeed, but that it would take time, such that if Johnson had already extricated the UK on October 31 from you-know-what, it would be academic?

Thank you.