Category: Westminster Parliament
Westminster Parliament. The heart of darkness
The Sunday Times reports,
This is some new meaning of the word “unity” not previously known to me. I do not believe I am alone in preferring the honest fanatic Jeremy Corbyn to John Bercow.
Jeremy Corbyn has privately told allies that he will step aside and allow someone else to become prime minister if Boris Johnson is forced from power.
Sources say the Labour leader has concluded that he would not win the support needed to lead a government of national unity. Corbyn has signalled to allies that he might support another candidate as long as it is not a Labour or Conservative MP.
John Bercow, a Tory MP before becoming Speaker of the House of Commons in 2009, has emerged as the Labour leader’s favoured compromise candidate after he ruled out Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, who was expelled from the Tories last month.
I suspect that this is a trial balloon designed to make Jeremy Corbyn look good by comparison, but if John Bercow does “emerge” his way into being Prime Minister it will make his decisions made as Speaker during the last three years look as if they were nothing but a conspiracy to gain power, a process of emergence from the shadows brought to the threshold of completion by his recent meeting with the EU’s President-of-whichever-bit-of-the-EU-he’s-president-of, David Sassoli.
Parliament will be prorogued later today. It has been sitting since the court judgement – that is during the latter half of the Labour conference week, when it would normally have been recessed, during the whole of the Tory conference week, when it would normally have been recessed, and during yesterday and today, when it could normally have been prorogued.
What exactly has parliament achieved with this extra time? I know of no act passed. What was the point? (This is a real question, not just rhetorical. By all means inform me in the comments if you can answer it.)
It was claimed to be essential that parliament perform its functions during this time. What essential thing(s) did it do?
The Independent‘s John Rentoul is scarcely likely to be happy at what the latest poll by Opinium says, but dutifully tweeted it anyway:
Opinium poll for Observer, Cons back to 15-pt lead:
Con 38% +2
Lab 23% -1
Lib Dem 15% -5
Brexit 12% +1
Green 4% +2
2,006 UK adults 3-4 Oct, change since last week
So after all those Remain victories in Parliament and the courts, Boris Johnson’s Tories are slightly more popular and the Liberal Democrats are significantly less popular? How can this be?
In theory I ought to like Independent MPs. In practice they are often cranks. So strong is this correlation that I begin to suspect that there might be causation involved. Perhaps the bites on the neck that the party Whips administer to all MPs weekly under the pretence that it is an “old Parliamentary tradition” actually transfer a dose of sanity serum. Without that saving vampiroid saliva, the derangement to which everyone in Westminster eventually succumbs comes all the sooner.
Philip Hammond, former Conservative Chancellor and current backbench Independent Conspiracist has claimed in the Times that
… he is backed by speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit — and there is only one outcome that works for them: a crash-out no-deal Brexit that sends the currency tumbling and inflation soaring. So they, at least, will be reassured to see no evidence at all that his government has seriously pursued a deliverable deal; still less that it has been pursuing a deal that could get us out by October 31. The time available means that the only deal with any prospect of delivering that outcome is the deal that they have already rejected and that many of them have voted against.
There is an excellent fact-filled response to this nonsense by Frances Coppola writing in Forbes: The Mythical Bets On No-Deal Brexit.
I say we wait three years without implementing the court’s ruling, then ask the court if that is still what they think.
– Perry de Havilland
The supreme court ruled that the prorogation was unlawful. It is unclear what the implications of this are, besides that Parliament will sit for more days than expected and that future prorogations will be subject to similar scrutiny as to motive.
We seem to be in an interesting situation in which Parliament is divided on other-than-party lines (it is not aligned with itself). The executive can not pass legislation (at least not Brexit-inclined legislation) because it does not hold a majority. It can not get a majority because the Fixed Term Parliament Act prevents an election. However the speaker allows the (Remain) opposition to pass legislation which appears to bind the executive into specific courses of actions.
It is a very odd situation. Either parties must split and the Great Realignment occur, or else the issue on which they are split must resolve and the parties re-join and continue as they were.
Update: Raphael Hogarth explains the court’s reasoning.
When leaders represent the will of the people – and the laws they are breaking are illegitimate or undemocratic – violating them is nearly always justified in retrospect. As it would be in this case. The Benn Act became law earlier this month because of the connivance of the unconstitutionally partial Speaker, John Bercow. When he allowed the Opposition to pass legislation in Government time against the will of the PM and his Cabinet, 300 years of constitutional precedent was overturned.
The Benn Act was a very English form of coup d’etat, orchestrated by an anti-Brexit faction in Parliament to subvert the clearly expressed will of the people. It is, therefore, necessary for Boris to break it to restore the proper constitutional relationship between Government, Parliament and people.
The historian David Starkey was interviewed by Brendan O’Neill of Spiked. He compares recent events in Parliament with events in the 17th century:
We’re going through the events of the 17th century as farce. What those people were doing, that noble gentleman I think he was a Scot Nat who fell across the speaker, he was trying to re-enact the role of the Commons in 1629 when the speaker was held down to prevent the proroguing of Parliament at the will of Charles I.
Rather than being suddenly silenced with desperate amounts of business waiting to be dealt with, they have sat for the longest single session since the long Parliament. It was 810 days. It cost one and a half billion Pounds, and they did bugger all. They did worse than bugger all: they buggered things up. What happened? It’s very clear. No legislation of any significance was passed in three years. Not only that, they stopped any decisions being taken. We are in a nightmare. We are in this sealed world that you can’t get out of because we’re bound into it by another catastrophic peice of legislation, the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which looks directly back to the Civil War.
Parliament in 1641 passed an act that it couldn’t be dissolved without its own consent. It then turns into a vicious oligarchy that sits until 1653 when it has to be chased out at the point of a bayonet by Cromwell. That’s where we are.
I think the best feature of all this is that no legislation has passed. Other than that this seems about right. Starkey goes on to discuss the role of MPs, the speaker, and the government.
In legal theory, the members of the Commons are representatives and they have the role that was enunciated in the famous letter to the electors of Bristol by Edmund Burke. “I owe you my discretion; I don’t merely owe you my vote.” That was nearly 250 years ago when there was no democracy and politics was run by a handful of families like the Marquess of Rockingham to whom he was the paid lackey (and by the way the electors of Bristol threw him out). There is a very vague relationship between Parliament and democracy. We have had Parliament for 800 years. We’ve had democracy for less than a century. And the great issue was: how do you reconcile the previous tradition of representative in a non-democratic Parliament with the position of delegate in a democratic Parliament. And the way it was dealt with — this is what all the fuss, all the things that we are talking about: Erskine May, A V Dicey, they all appear at a particular moment of time. They appear in the middle of the 1880s because it’s the 1884 reform act that introduces something like democracy.
But you see we’ve never worked out the relationship between the fact that we’ve got two sovereigns. There is the legal sovereign which is the Crown in Parliament and there is the real, political sovereign which is the sovereign people behind them. But what we did, and this is why Bercow’s behaviour is so disastrous; it’s why Theresa May’s behaviour has been so catastrophic: what we developed thanks to Erskine May and the Parliamentary Handbook and endorsed by Dicey, we developed a whole series of devices. They were conventions that turned MPs from more or less representatives into more or less delgates. And what are these things? They’re party affiliation. They are manifestos. They’re standing on a ticket and they’re being whipped when they’re in the house. That is the thing that binds them to the popular vote. No MP; Dominic Grieve was not elected in a personal capacity. He was elected because he stood as a Tory on a Tory manifesto which promised Brexit. That man did not dissent at the time. His claims to dignity, his claims to acting honourably, are totally false.
There are other rules in Erskine May about the procedures of Commons business which gives the government the basic control of the parliamentary timetable. Otherwise what happens is the house just dissolves into a talking shop. Becuase MPs have refused to vote for any deal: they’re strong in the negative but they’re hopelessly weak in the positive. They can’t agree on anything. We developed a series of conventions in the 1880s that turn MPs into something like the representatives of the people and what has sytematically happened in this Parliament: we have broken those conventions.
Theresa May’s loss of the election and her absurd notion that you can keep people with completely contradictory opinions on a main platform of government policy in the same party broke down the whipping system. Bercow broke down the government’s control of legislation. And you’re left with this chaotic mess.
Later there is discussion of the validity of the referendum result:
All the referendum act does: it specifies the question and it specifies the day on which it will be put. In other words, no protections were built into it at all because George Osborne said, “easy peasy we’re going to win this”. In theory, yes the referendum is advisory because of the sovereignty of Parliament. But that’s the legal sphere. The political sphere was that Cameron said publicly and repeatedly: we will honour the results of the referendum. And the leaflet went to every house in the country. That is political. At the moment the legal sovereign refers itself directly to the political sovereign on a key issue on a binary vote, only a fool would challenge that. And the argument that because it was a narrow vote it doesn’t count: every single general election is a vote of a few percent. The landslides of Blair were all secured with a fraction of the number of voters for leave.
We’ve got degrees of deceit, of chicanery, of double-talk because simply: they did not like the result. They saw it as an act of rebellion.
This all seems like useful context for understanding the impending realignment.
Parliament demands to see all the private messages sent between nine advisers since 23 July relating to the prorogation of parliament (or to Yellowhammer), claiming there might be constitutional issues.
Suppose Boris demands to see all private messages sent between remoaners and the EU, under a similar claim?
Of course, it may not matter in either direction.
– On the one hand, even May only yielded to a similar demand after parliament, in a second vote, held her in contempt (one of the few sentiments I share with them). In Boris’ case, such a vote cannot now happen for weeks – and if it finally does, he might ignore it anyway. Meanwhile, he may exploit the humour of insisting that EU law (GDPR and/or similar) means he cannot comply. It makes an obvious introduction to a speech echoing Churchill on how the 1930s parliaments were
“adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent”
– On the other hand, Boris may already know whatever a counter-demand could tell him. In the days before Corbyn became its leader, instead of the kind of backbencher that worried its leaders, the Labour establishment, whenever it won an election, was delighted to discover that the UK security services were keeping an eye on their wilder backbenchers (whom they could then head off from their wilder antics before public embarrassment ensued). I don’t see Barnier and friends as the men to keep secrets, despite their passionate belief that there are many things the masses do not need to know, still less decide on.
So I’m more interested in the ‘why’. Mostly, I’m assuming (and hoping) that it’s just a standard insolent PC establishment fishing expedition.
“Perhaps the outrage over the fact that Parliament is to be prorogued – something that normally happens at about this time each year – tells us more about the Remainiac establishment’s state of mind coming to terms with Brexit, than it does about our constitution?” Douglas Carswell
If you want to insist that something that “normally happens at about this time each year” (and is now, abnormally, a year overdue) is an unconstitutional outrage then you need to gather a lot of material to have a chance of finding something you can misrepresent.
However – although I would be glad to think otherwise – it is just possible that the people who are so sure they are the clever ones found themselves on Monday feeling the need of some intelligence. Last week, 102 amendments were tabled to help time out the wrecking act in the Lords – standard parliamentary tactics which the remoaners well understood. But then No. 10 said, “Don’t bother – go get a good night’s sleep”. (Other ways of timing it out or delaying it were likewise left unexplored.)
As regards public opinion, I can see the benefits.
– Now, not just the remoaners but Labour – and Corbyn personally – are incredibly on record: no letting the public decide, no election, and in Corbyn’s case, no more plausible pretence of being different, still less of being brave, but just doing what Tony Blair and the spin doctors tell him like a good party hack.
– Boris, by contrast, now has the perfect out for the negotiations. If he’d negotiated for 5 weeks without the EU-advised act shouting “ignore him” to the EU negotiators, then failure to present a Canada++ deal on October the 14th would be something he’d have to explain. Now, he can throw it in parliament’s face (which won’t bother them but will destroy any traction they might otherwise have had with the public). If he already felt sure the EU’s stubborness meant we’d have to leave before they’d negotiate for real, it was very much in his interest to have the act to blame. And if he already felt sure he’d have to leave on absolute no-deal to reel in the Brexit voters or ally with The Brexit Party, it was wise to make that parliament’s fault, not his choice in rejecting some no-backstop-but-still-smells-fishy deal.
Remoaners and Corbynites may not realise just how big a political price they have paid, but they surely know they need their procedural win to be a real win on October 31st to make it worth it. I hope they feel lazily sure they have Brexit boxed in and it’s all over bar the shouting – that’s their rhetoric – but is it possible that, as Monday progressed, they found themselves really wanting to know what the despised Dominic thought and why Boris didn’t sound more panicked?
(Of course, they’re not alone in that. 🙂 )