Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament: Not a coup, but not good
Has Britain suffered a coup? This alarming notion filled newspapers around the world after Queen Elizabeth II, on the advice of Boris Johnson, agreed to ‘prorogue’ or suspend the UK parliament from the second week of September until 14 October. It was a provocative move. And while Britain is not leaving democracy behind, this act was democratically damaging. Less a coup, and more constitutional unsportsmanlike conduct, a dirty trick played in a politically divided country.
‘Prorogation’ is the process of ending a parliamentary session. During prorogation, all Parliamentary activity ceases, and items of business from the previous session (such as unpassed bills or pending parliamentary questions etc.) lapse, unless they are specifically carried forward. Prorogations are typically short — a brief pause of a matter of days to wipe clean the parliamentary slate and allow the government to set out its agenda. Traditionally, this happens around once a year: Parliament is prorogued, and a new parliamentary session begins.
This current parliamentary session has been unusually long (340 sitting days, the longest for several hundred years). A prorogation was due. What is distinct in this case is its timing, duration, and unstated intention.
Typically, Parliament would take a break in Autumn to accommodate the annual conferences of the main political parties, but this year that recess may well have been cancelled to allow more parliamentary time to focus on Brexit. Boris Johnson pre-empted that decision by proroguing Parliament for five weeks, far beyond what is typical, all the while maintaining the pretence that this was normal constitutional conduct.
There is no need for a prorogation of this length. Its purpose can only be to limit the opportunities for opponents to block the government’s Brexit plans.
It is true that arcane parliamentary procedure has been used by all sides of the Brexit divide. The Commons speaker John Bercow used a more than 400-year-old precedent to try to block Theresa May’s efforts to reintroduce her defeated Brexit deal. At one stage the hitherto obscure bible of parliamentary procedure, Erskine May, was trending on twitter. But Parliamentarians using parliamentary procedure to shape the activity of the Commons is distinct from the executive branch suspending Parliament altogether.
Formally, it is the Queen who prorogues Parliament, on the advice of ministers. Traditionally kept out of party politics, the monarch was compelled to give assent to a nakedly political move dressed up as a traditional constitutional procedure. While some were frustrated with her decision, in Britain’s constitutional monarchy, the Queen is obliged to accept her minister’s advice. Not to have done so would have been a more radical break from precedent than even the extended prorogation itself (a hereditary monarch ignoring the advice of the government would have brought a whole different set of problems).
Governments in Britain derive authority from their ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons, and their political mandates from elections. Johnson came to power without an election and has barely faced parliamentary scrutiny or been tested in the Commons. Thus, the move seems all the more egregious. There is even an argument that it is unconstitutional — not in the sense that the Queen may not exercise the power, but that its use has undermined wider constitutional principles of parliamentary sovereignty and government accountability. This is to be tested in court in a case brought by, among others, the incensed former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major.
The outrage the move has caused suggests Johnson will pay a political cost. So — what is he trying to achieve? There are three ways of looking at it.
The first is that he does not believe a deal with the EU is deliverable, and that Britain must leave — come what may — on Oct. 31 without a deal (i.e. with no transition, and just the bare minimum arrangements in place to manage trade, including on the border with the Republic of Ireland). Johnson is weak, with a working majority of just one. In this sense, prorogation is a squeeze on parliamentary time to get Brexit over the line.
The second is that prorogation is actually part of an effort to strike a revised deal and get it through parliament. By appearing willing to accept No Deal — an economically bad outcome for all sides — the UK government hopes to win concessions from the EU, which, the theory goes, won’t be on offer if it seems that Johnson is bluffing, or may be blocked in Parliament. This probably won’t work — the EU has kept a clear and firm line throughout, and No Deal will be worse for the UK. But Johnson may still hope to broker a last-minute compromise and put a take it or leave it offer to Parliament, forcing MPs to vote for a revised deal to avoid a crash out.
The third theory is that he is trying to set the terms of a future election. By goading his opponents into blocking his Brexit efforts, Johnson could then plan to run a campaign in which he will present himself as the champion of Brexit, seeking to implement the will of the people against a remainer Parliament determined to block him.
Whatever the intention, we shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of the lost parliamentary time.
What matters most on Brexit is whether those who oppose No Deal, from different parties and political perspectives, are willing to put all else aside in order to block it. If they are, they should have the numbers and opportunity to do so. Their outrage may galvanise them.
In two other ways though, this prorogation is damaging.
First, is the domestic precedent. Amid constitutional and legal constraints, democracies still rely on norms of conduct and behaviour. Even constitutional systems designed to constrain power — like in the United States — gift extraordinary powers to a single individual, such as granting clemency or launching missiles. Any democratic system will rely to some degree on good character, on a duty of reasonableness. Americans do not need reminding of this at the present time. Stretching the rules or chipping away at norms and precedents only encourages opponents to do the same — and risks a wider degradation of constitutional practice.
Second, it sends the wrong signal internationally. At a time when democracy is under threat in many places, for Britain’s government to unilaterally suspend parliament — regardless of the small print — sends the wrong signal, and impairs the capacity of British governments to take a moral stand in solidarity with democrats fighting deeper battles for their rights and freedoms, from Hong Kong to Hungary.
Reports of the death of British democracy are exaggerated. But Johnson’s move was a damaging one, both domestically and for Britain’s democratic reputation around the world.
Thomas Raines is head of the Europe Programme at Chatham House in London, one of the world’s leading independent think tanks focused on major international issues and current affairs. Folow him on Twitter @TomHRaines