In two weeks’ time, Britain will have a Prime Minister whose commitment to democracy is contingent. Boris Johnson has repeatedly refused to rule out proroguing Parliament in order to secure a no deal Brexit by 31 October 2019.
Let us call proroguing Parliament by its proper name: suspending democracy. The United Kingdom operates with an executive that is supervised by the legislature. If the executive suspends the legislature (which is what proroguing is), it is suspending the democratic control of itself.
The government would not be able to pass legislation – but governments do a lot of things other than legislate. The Government does not need Parliament to be sitting to pass some delegated legislation. It can exercise its administrative and prerogative powers. It would be doing so without oversight from the MPs elected to perform that role. It prevents MPs from directing the government to change course or from bringing it down.
For that reason, proroguing Parliament is normally only done for a short period. Parliament has not been prorogued for longer than three weeks for 40 years. Parliament’s oversight is not impaired. It has been a largely ceremonial process for transitioning between Parliamentary sessions for at least 150 years.
The most notable political use of this effect was in 1948, when the government used its power to prorogue Parliament not to suspend Parliament’s oversight of it but to fast-forward through Parliamentary sessions in order to override the House of Lords’ veto power under the Parliament Act 1911. Far from frustrating the democratic process, the government of the time was looking to augment the elected House’s power through the use of prorogation.
So what is being mooted by the hardcore Leavers – the use of prorogation to frustrate democratic supervision – is unprecedented in Britain’s modern democratic history. They moot it in order to impose an irrevocable decision (no deal Brexit) on a House of Commons that shows every sign of wanting to prevent that.
Leavers claim to want to prorogue in order to implement the democratic vote to leave the EU. There are a few problems with that claim. First, there is no magic about the date of 31 October 2019. If Leavers have been unable to come up with a plan that persuades a majority of the House of Commons by that date, it is not for them to impose their will.
Secondly, the vote to leave the EU was not a vote to leave the EU without a deal. Vote Leave, as noted above, campaigned on the basis that “we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave”.
And thirdly, democracy did not stop on 23 June 2016. The current MPs were elected a year later. They have their own mandate to represent their constituents. The government and Leave supporters have no right to trample on Britain’s representative democracy.
So it boils down to this: hardline Leavers are willing to take a hammer to Britain’s democratic protections to secure a policy that they want. This is no longer about Remain or Leave, but about whether you have any respect for the democratic process that operates in Britain.
Unfortunately, polls show that the great majority of Conservative party members do not. 67% were recorded in a recent YouGov poll as believing that it would be acceptable to prorogue Parliament in order to prevent Parliament voting against no deal. The anti-democratic impulse has reached the mainstream.
Now it might very well be in practice that the Prime Minister could not prorogue Parliament in this way even if he wanted to. The decision is for the monarch, not the Prime Minister, and she would be entitled to, and in such a controversial case presumably would, take counsel from other members of the Privy Council first. Few Privy Council members are likely to be supportive of a Prime Minister’s wish to game the system in this way. A decision to prorogue would certainly be judicially reviewed (Sir John Major announced this week that he would do so). The courts might well intervene. So as a plan, it is not even particularly likely to succeed.
But even if Parliamentary democracy could be suspended in this way, proroguing would not just be a crime, it would be an error. Imagine that no deal Brexit was achieved against the will of Parliament by breaking democratic norms. Britain would be a pariah state. The government would almost certainly be immediately toppled and a general election would ensue with government ministers (fresh in their roles, remember, so unfamiliar with their remits) having to alternate between campaigning and dealing with the inevitable snarl-ups that would have come from such a disorderly exit.
Polling consistently shows that the public already on balance thinks that Brexit was a mistake and if Britain has been forced into the most extreme version of it by anti-democratic means, the Conservatives would be lucky if they were merely electorally eviscerated. It might also prove to be the swiftest route to Britain rejoining the EU.
It would also represent the most awful precedent. Governments of all stripes could then use it as a cue to take time out whenever Parliament was proving too exacting. Why go to the trouble of passing laws if you can achieve most of what you want by executive fiat most of the time? Jeremy Corbyn also does not have a great affinity with his fellow MPs. Do Conservatives really want to establish a precedent for him to be allowed to act without Parliamentary scrutiny or control should it all get too tough for him?
PS – Interesting fact, if the Queen dies then if Parliament has been prorogued it must immediately be reconvened.