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Friday, 22 November 2019

British politics in chaos

The debate on leaving the European Union in Britain is damaging core democratic values in the country, among them parliamentary scrutiny and the rule of law, writes Manal Lotfy in London

Manal Lotfy , Thursday 12 Sep 2019
Britain
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“Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!” This is how one of the most turbulent sessions in the history of the British parliament ended earlier this week, when the parliament was officially suspended for five weeks, with MPs not due back until 14 October.

The shouting was aimed at British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his ruling Conservative Party.

Many MPs protested against the suspension of parliament with signs saying “silenced,” while others were involved in an altercation near the chair of House of Commons Speaker John Bercow as they attempted to prevent him from leaving his seat to attend the House of Lords, a step in the formalities required for the suspension of parliament.

Late on Monday night, some MPs burst into song on the Commons benches, singing traditional Welsh and Scottish songs in the British parliament, or, as some of them call it, “the English parliament”.

The unprecedented scenes in the Commons came after another tough day for Johnson’s government when parliament enacted a law to block a so-called “no-deal Brexit,” or leaving the European Union without a deal, at the end of next month.

It also ordered the government to release private communications about its Brexit plans and rejected Johnson’s call for a snap election.

Suspending, or “proroguing,” the parliament at the government’s request is a drastic move that gives Johnson a respite from rebellious lawmakers as he rethinks his tactics.

The move reflects tensions between the legislative branch and executive branch of government, as MPs accused Johnson’s government of trying to silence parliament’s voice and avoid democratic scrutiny of its policies on Brexit during crucial weeks.

It is usual for new governments to suspend parliament, as it allows them to set out a fresh legislative programme, but the length and timing of this prorogation has sparked controversy.

Bercow expressed his anger at the suspension of proceedings by saying that the suspension “is one of the longest for decades and represents an act of executive fiat.”

In an emotional intervention he said that “I have already made the point that if people have the manners to listen, which they have not, then I will play my part. This is not, however, a normal prorogation. It is not typical. It is not standard. It is one of the longest for decades, and it represents, not just in the minds of many colleagues but for huge numbers of people outside, an act of executive fiat.”

Before the start of the prorogation Johnson once again failed in his attempt to force an early general election after opposition MPs abstained and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said he would not walk into “traps laid by this prime minister”.

“We’re eager for an election, but as keen as we are, we are not prepared to inflict the disaster of a no-deal on our communities, our jobs, our services, or indeed our rights,” Corbyn said.

The lawmakers’ refusal for a second time to agree an early election limits Johnson’s options. The opposition parties have rejected mid-October elections and said their priority is to stop Brexit without a deal.

Johnson will now be obliged by law to ask the EU to extend the Brexit deadline until 31 January 2020, unless a Brexit deal is approved or parliament agrees to leave the EU without one by 19 October.

Yet, despite royal assent being given to the legislation requiring a delay, Johnson insisted he would not ask for another extension to the deadline. “I will not ask for another delay,” he said.

His options, all of them extreme, include disobeying the law, which could land him in court or even prison, and resigning so that someone else can ask for a delay.

Amid increasing mistrust in the government, legislators also demanded that the government release emails and text messages among aides and officials relating to suspending parliament and planning for Brexit.

Under parliamentary rules, the government is obliged to release the documents.

In a statement, the government agreed it would share “appropriate information with parliament” but argued that the “scope of the information requested is disproportionate and unprecedented.”

Johnson has had a turbulent week since parliament returned from summer break on 3 September. He has kicked 21 lawmakers out of the Conservative group in parliament after they sided with the opposition, and he has seen two ministers quit his government, one of them his own brother, Jo Johnson, who cited a conflict between family loyalty and the national interest as the reason for quitting his ministerial role and parliamentary seat.

Johnson also suffered his sixth parliamentary defeat in a week, more defeats than former British prime ministers Thatcher, Major, Blair or Brown had in their entire tenures.

Yet, despite Johnson’s defeats in parliament and the Brexit extension law, the prime minister and his advisers are still insisting that Brexit will happen on 31 October come what may. This will mean Johnson will be in a confrontation with MPs at the resumption of parliament in five weeks

Two former Conservative ministers, Philip Hammond, a former finance minister, and David Gauke, a former justice minister, were kicked out of the Party last week, after warning that Johnson risks losing millions of Conservative voters and turning the party into a “Brexit sect” if he continues his hard-line stand.

Johnson is eager to see an early election to solve his Brexit dilemma, and he hopes to get a popular mandate to exit the EU without delay. But early elections could be a gamble, as polls indicate the probability of a new hung parliament.

According to a senior Tory adviser, Downing Street has seen polling results that suggest that Johnson would not win an election outright. Polling discussed by senior Number 10 figures suggests that the Tories would win 295 to 300 seats in an election.

This is short of the 325 needed for an outright majority and would likely mean more gridlock and uncertainty in parliament.

Jason Stein, former minister Amber Rudd’s former special adviser, said that the polling, carried out in the last two weeks, suggested “we are looking at picking up roughly 295 to 300 seats.”

He said that Conservative advisers were privately upfront about the scale of the electoral challenge ahead. “Number 10 themselves will privately tell you that this will be a tough election. They’re not expecting this to be the land of milk and honey,” he said.

“It is just a simple fact that we’re going to lose seats in London, in the South West, in Scotland... They need to be replaced, they’re already 10 behind. We need to win 35 seats in areas we’ve never won before just to break even,” he added.

Expelled Tory heavyweight Oliver Letwin has thrown his weight behind a fresh Brexit referendum and told Johnson that this is his best escape route from the crisis. The former cabinet minister said there was “an increasing number of Conservative and ex-Conservative” MPs ready to deliver a majority for a further public vote, with parliament deadlocked.

 “There is another option, of course, which is to bring back a deal and ensure a majority for it by attaching it to a referendum,” he suggested. “Why not get a deal in front of parliament? If parliament won’t otherwise accept it, why not take it to the people in a referendum and let’s see,” he asked.

Opposition parties like the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Greens and many Labour MPs are willing to vote for a second referendum to end the impasse.

Brexit has tested British democracy to the limits. It has shaken the balance between the executive and legislative branches of government and the power of political traditions in a country with no written constitution.

It has also highlighted the contradictions between a referendum as a political tool and parliamentary democracy and raised the question of who has the final say, either the people or the parliament.

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