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Brexit: silence in name only

2019-08-29 10:06:36

I should have found something different to write about yesterday. That way, with perhaps only the slightest of changes, I would have used yesterday's piece for today – and still been largely up to speed.

But, given the torrent of media coverage – much of it ill-informed (as always) – it is very difficult to see how much more I could add to the sum of human knowledge. For many commentators, though, the prorogation seems to have caught them by surprise, not that it should have done.

The moment Corbyn decided to back off from tabling a vote of no confidence, it was pretty obvious that something like this was on the cards. No sensible prime minister – much less Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – could have allowed a dysfunctional parliament to take control of government business. The only real question was the timing.

And it's the timing that is the one thing that puzzles me – why Johnson should have chosen 14 October for the Queen's Speech and the start of the new parliamentary session.

Doubtless, there are sound tactical reasons for the choice but – from an EU perspective (which should count for something, given its relationship with Brexit) – there is a certain disutility in picking a date three days before the next European Council.

This means that any developments in the Westminster parliament over those few days (which could be highly significant) can't be entered formally on the Council agenda and cannot even be part of the General Affairs Council briefing, which goes to setting up the pre-agreed Council conclusions.

Whether intentional or not (I suspect not), this plays to the strength (such that it is) of the Johnson administration, which revels in ad hockery and the unpredictable, as against the European Council which is a slave to its procedures and likes to have things sorted well in advance of it having to announce a decision.

With that, there are several possible (and multiple impossible) outcomes to the Queen's Speech, one of which (almost certainly impossible) is that Johnson could use it to announce a proposal for new "deal" with the EU, in time for it to be agreed by the European Council.

There are also UK procedural elements here as well, as the Queen's Speech is subject to a vote and, deftly manoeuvred, could be taken as Westminster's assent to any proposal – especially as the vote is traditionally taken as a vote of confidence. Conversely, rejection of a Queen's Speech would be taken as a vote of no confidence which would most surely trigger a general election (although not until after mid-November).

Since this might leave the nation without a parliament – it having been dissolved for the election campaign – thereby preventing it intervening (assuming it can) to stop a no-deal Brexit, this might defeat the object of the exercise, presenting MPs opposing a no-deal with a double-edged sword.

That highlights something which is all too apparent about Brexit – nothing to do with it is simple. The law of unintended consequences might have been written for Brexit as every time there seems to be a solution to an otherwise intractable problem, something else crops up which has us back where we started.

In the meantime, so many ironies abound that Westminster has become "irony central". You have EU-supporting MPs – a construct which is widely described by anti-EU campaigners as "anti-democratic" – calling in aid parliamentary democracy to bolster the object of their love, despite one of the main effects of our membership of the EU being to undermine the self-same parliamentary democracy, which isn't really democracy anyway.

One can only thus applaud the chutzpah of Labour's John McDonnell who argues that this is "a very British coup", perhaps unaware of the Booker/North thesis that the EU is a slow-motion coup d'ιtat, hollowing out state institutions of their powers while creating the impression that they are still intact.

Then we have the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, rebuking Johnson, describing what the Guardian calls his "intention to prorogue parliament" as "a constitutional outrage" aimed at preventing MPs from debating Brexit.

In strict terms, though, it is the Queen (through long-defined and well-established procedural steps) who prorogues parliament, in what is ultimately an expression of our constitution which, after all is not a parliamentary democracy (or any other form of democracy) but a constitutional monarchy.

And offensive though iconoclasts such as Bercow might find it, Crown prerogative still applies to certain corners of our constitution, allowing the executive under certain conditions to over-ride parliament.

Those who burble on about "parliamentary sovereignty" might do well to remember that, in our constitution, the Queen is sovereign head of state (indeed, she is often called "the sovereign"), and her exercise of the right to prorogue parliament (taken under advice from the prime minister in office) is quintessentially a constitutional act.

As for Bercow's complaint that suspending parliament prevents MPs from debating Brexit – the one thing of which there has been no lack is MPs debating Brexit. And, under the malign tutelage of Bercow, with his time-limited interventions by MPs (often reduced to minutes), the modern parliamentary debate is an impoverished thing which contributes little to the quality of public discourse.

Conservative MP Dominic Grieve is another one getting terribly precious about the prorogation arguing that it is "constitutionally wrong and frankly outrageous". Nonetheless, he doesn't think parliament can stop prorogation although, he says, "there may be something that parliament can do to register its deep concern". That just about sums it up – and if it was so outrageously unconstitutional, what does it say about parliament that it can't stop it?

But while the likes of the Guardian is getting itself in a lather about prorogation being "a device to silence parliament during a critical period approaching the 31 October Brexit deadline", whingeing about a "constitutional crisis", that crisis has long been with us, manifest in the inability of parliament to perform any useful function.

Although one tends to regard the over-use of the vox pop and focus group by our broadcasters as somewhat deplorable, current responses tend to indicate that, outside of the synthetic outrage of the Westminster bubble, there is less concern about the silencing of parliament that might be imagined. In fact, it seems that Clement Attlee's "period of silence" on the part of parliament, would be very welcome in the nation at large.

Generally, self-obsessed and appallingly ignorant MPs hugely overstate their case in asserting that they are the democratic representatives of the people. Increasingly, the view taken of them is that they represent only themselves and have formed a distinct political class which has little in common with their electors.

No sleep will be lost if they are temporarily deprived of this opportunity – notwithstanding that the conference season is one of the most intensely political periods of this nation's life, apart from a general election. It is not as if these little darlings are actually going to be deprived of a platform.

Sadly, the "period of silence" will be in name only. A little more intensity might actually be desirable.