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.
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.
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.
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.
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.