Online News Editor Peter Syme reports on the recent prorogation saga and explores the Prime Minister’s Brexit options
In times of increasing turbulence and uncertainty, the supreme court ruling that the government’s prorogation of parliament was unlawful has proliferated tensions as 31 October comes ever closer. Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised the Queen to suspend Parliament based on the fact that the current parliamentary session has been particularly extensive. Whilst it is true that the current sitting has been unusually long, the fact that it is the longest since the English Civil War is a testament to the vast rift between Remain and Leave. Opponents argued that given the urgency of negotiating a deal with the European Union, the government was attempting to avoid scrutiny and force a no-deal exit, comparing it to a coup d’etat. Speaker of the House John Bercow declared the move “a constitutional outrage,” and was initially blocked from leaving his chair when Black Rod entered the chamber, with opposition MPs holding signs reading ‘silenced.’ The matter then made its way to the courts, but with differing opinions between the Scottish and English tribunals, the supreme court had to resolve the issue and ruled unanimously against the government.
On the resuming of the parliamentary session, divisions were prevalent as Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, defended himself against accusations that he was at fault for the illegal prorogation. Sky Newspublished notes from a meeting which showed that he advised that it would be lawful, and “within the constitution.” Regardless of one’s opinion on the matter, one fundamental lesson from this fiasco is the lack of transparency in the UK’s constitution, as it is not contained within a single code in the same way as America’s. Cox took to the despatch box with no holds barred, declaring “this parliament is a disgrace” with “no moral right” to sit. Red-faced with passion and pointing furiously at the opposition benches, his bellowing drew comparisons to Brian Blessed. On the other side of the house, Labour MP Barry Sheerman drew attention for his rebuttal to accusations of immorality. “To talk about morals, and morality, is a disgrace” he asserted with similar zeal, accusing Cox of utilising “barrister’s bluster to obfuscate the truth.” Calls for Johnson’s resignation were also prevalent, under the argument that he misled the Queen to prorogue parliament. The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford asserted that the PM’s position “was no longer tenable” before referencing The Clash, saying “he fought the law but the law won.” Notably, YouGov reported that 44% believe Johnson should resign, compared to 42% supporting him to remain Prime Minister.
The introduction of the Benn Act has obscured the certainty of leaving without a deal
The current position is that we will leave the EU at the end of the month regardless of whether a deal has been agreed, but the introduction of the Benn Act has obscured the certainty of this. Primarily concerned with preventing a no-deal exit, the Act requires the Prime Minister to ask for an extension on the withdrawal date if the House of Commons does not approve a withdrawal agreement or leaving without a deal by 19 October. The publication of the government’s Brexit proposals on Wednesday have provided more clarity on this, although it may struggle to pass through parliament. While the government is arguing that they are making a compromise, with Johnson calling it “a genuine attempt to bridge the chasm,” the European Commission notes that “further work is needed” owing to “problematic points.” The plan aims to remove the Irish Backstop by keeping Northern Ireland in the European single goods market, but leaving the customs union with the rest of the UK. Jeremy Corbyn opposed the new plan, calling it “a race to the bottom” that “would undermine the Good Friday agreement.” Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also contended that the plans “fall short in a number of aspects” and proposed that the most realistic solution would be for the UK to remain in the customs union or to revoke Article 50. Alternatively, he also suggested a United Ireland, but noted that there is likely no majority for this.
The Liberal Democrats have been insistent that they will not allow Corbyn to have the keys to Downing Street
From here, the path forward is vague, with a failure to compromise restricting options. Proposals for a motion of no-confidence in the government could oust Johnson in order to secure an extension or even a second referendum. However, leaders have been unable to agree on an interim prime minister. The Liberal Democrats have been insistent that they will not allow Corbyn to have the keys to Downing Street, in spite of the fact that it currently seems the best way to prevent a no-deal exit. Instead, they are proposing a government of national unity, with the likes of Ken Clarke and John Bercow being suggested as potential leaders. However, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has insisted that “the rules are the rules,” and only Corbyn could take the role. The SNP are also eager to pass a no confidence motion, with support for a second independence referendum growing, given that Scotland voted 62% in favour of Remain. With parliament set to be suspended for a second time, the sense of insecurity is only growing. There are talks that Johnson could refuse to cooperate with the Benn Act, with Labour seeking advice from Mark Sedwill, the head of the civil service, in the case that he refuses to leave office following a no-confidence vote. For now, an extension is looking increasingly likely, but it all depends on what happens in parliament leading up to 17 October, and whether opposition parties can agree on an interim leader.