The prorogation of parliament

Hany Ghoraba
Friday 6 Sep 2019

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has controversially decided to delay the recall of the British parliament, with demonstrations taking place across the country as a result

A rule of thumb in politics is that it is inadvisable to end a major debate in an abrasive manner that could lead to more problems than the originally contested issue. 

But this is what UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has done in his decision to delay, or prorogue, the country’s parliament reassembling for a whole five weeks amidst a heated political battle in regard to the country’s leaving the European Union, the so-called Brexit.

Johnson’s intention to deliver Brexit at any cost by 31 October even with no deal being agreed with the European Union took its firmest step to date with the announcement of the suspension (prorogation) of the British parliament from 10 September to 14 October.

When the parliament reconvenes after the latter date, it will be difficult to issue any form of legislation to force the prime minister to discuss a no-deal Brexit further within the limited period set for the leaving date. 

While it has been described as a “constitutional outrage” by some, the prorogation of the British parliament remains within the powers of the prime minister, and it has already been approved by Queen Elizabeth II.It was the manner and timing that Johnson chose to invoke this right to prorogue the parliament that will remain controversial, as it is one that has hardly been used in such a manner before, and the opposition is already labelling it an attempted “coup”. 

The five weeks in which parliament will be forced to shut down could have been used to discuss some leeway or legislation that could lead to a better alternative than a no-deal Brexit with all the economic and political consequences that this would entail.

But Johnson has sought to avoid such discussion by shutting the door from the beginning, which begs the question of if the parliament will not be performing its duties during the most serious political crisis in Britain’s modern history, what good is it?

 Johnson’s decision remains in a democratic grey area, as while he has invoked powers that are within his constitutional rights as prime minister, it is not politically apt to use them in a manner that deepens rifts on an already divisive subject that involves the future of the country. 

His commitment to applying the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK remains his top priority, and he himself was a staunch campaigner for Brexit before the referendum.

But his unorthodox methods to bring about an exit from the EU by 31 October will surely backfire because too many of the opposition in the UK believe he has acted as a strongman in seeking to reach his goal rather than as the unifying political figure he promised to be when he first became prime minister. 

Johnson has also not only provoked the opposition. He has already stirred anger within his own camp, which as a result of his decision is disintegrating.

This started with the resignation of Ruth Davidson, leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, along with that of Lord Young, the government chief whip in the House of Lords.

Other resignations may follow in the near future as the debate over Johnson’s decision heats up, with the core issue of Brexit taking second place to the controversy over the prorogation of parliament.

That said, it could be Johnson’s political tactic to throw his opponents off the scent for the next few weeks, leaving them to argue, protest and voice concerns while he keeps his eye on the goal of leaving the EU by 31 October. However, even if this tactic works, it will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many because the act is so uncustomary. 

The UK does not have a written constitution existing in the form of a single document, but of course it does have a constitution consisting of an assortment of documents that have been historically added to bit by bit, starting with the Magna Carta in 1215 and including the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 among others.

There is nothing in these documents to prevent the prime minister proroguing parliament for a certain period. It is a bit below the belt, but it is not unconstitutional. 

However, even if he feels that he has outsmarted his opponents, at least for the moment, Johnson will have to brace himself for the backlash that will come in the upcoming period, and it may not be an easy task to survive. Johnson’s government has a flimsy majority of just one seat in parliament, and a vote of no-confidence against the government remains one of the opposition’s options to unseat it, though that will not be easy either. 

In order to be sure of success, the opposition will need to convince several Conservative Party MPs to vote against their own government, a difficult feat despite the circumstances.

However, since a week is a long time in politics, there is always the possibility that further internal rifts might occur in the Tory camp and that these might make the impossible possible. 

In a no-deal Brexit, it will be hard for the UK economy to survive unscathed in its relations with its biggest economic partner the European Union.

The drop in the value of the British pound, among other alarming negative economic signals, shows that the country is facing challenges to survive the post-Brexit era while forming a new economic order outside the EU.

That order will need to replace the one that was established in 1972 with membership of the then European Common Market, which had economic ties as its main foundation. 

That said, the UK’s economic ties with Europe will not end even with a no-deal Brexit, but they will be strained to say the least, and it could take many years of negotiation and arbitration to find new ground for cooperation. 

More claims of the “day that UK democracy died” put out by Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has also described Johnson as a “tinpot dictator,” may be heard in the upcoming period, and these will be the least of Johnson’s worries as they could turn into action in the form of protests, political attacks and attempts to vote the government out in parliament.

There is some validity in these accusations, especially for a country that prides itself on being the world’s oldest functioning democracy.

There is also an irony, as Sturgeon has pointed out, in the Brexit campaign being allegedly all about restoring political powers to the House of Commons in the face of the European Union, only for it to have become apparently necessary to shut down the House of Commons itself to reach that goal. 

The history books will not be kind to Johnson’s decision or the manner in which he has acted even if Brexit somehow becomes the best decision the UK has made. That, of course, is also by no means certain, and it may, indeed, be simply wishful thinking. 

In the meantime, the Brexit saga continues to unfold, and there is hardly a dull moment in Britain as the country that set the foundations of modern democracy centuries ago is now battling to redefine those foundations.

Some of its political figures also apparently feel that there should be no holds barred in attaining their political goals, regardless of the consequences.

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 September, 2019 edition of  Al-Ahram Weekly.

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