The next prime minister must show some respect to parliament

Posted On: 
12th June 2019

The idea of proroguing parliament is a red herring, but it is emblematic of how far we have strayed from constitutional norms that it is even being discussed, writes Tony Grew

Tory leadership contender Dominic Raab suggedted he would be willing to prorogue Parliament to ensure the UK leaves the EU on the 13st October
Credit: 
PA

The crowded race to be the next prime minister is underway. Only six weeks to go. While the Conservatives embark on a prolonged battle, the Commons is in limbo, shuffling through departmental questions and backbench debates. The Europeans may have warned the UK not to waste the time available to it, but that's exactly what parliament will do while the Tory members eye up the candidates and make a final choice.

The new leader will inherit all the problems of the old. There is no majority in the House of Commons for a no deal Brexit. Any move to soften the government's stance in either direction will face fierce opposition on their own benches. The new PM will have to be a miracle worker to bring the party together around a common position.

The length of the contest means that the new PM may not even perform at prime minister's questions before the House goes into recess, presumably until September. It will be for the new government to decide how long that recess could last. Dominic Raab raised eyebrows last week when he refused to rule out the option of proroguing parliament until after 31st October, in order to ensure a no deal Brexit was delivered.

Sir Edward Leigh, the progressive minded candidate for Speaker, went further. Sir Edward proposed the new prime minister "end this failed session within hours of a new government and prorogue Parliament." He also had some notes on a flat rate of income tax and an end to "kow-towing to liberal correctness and liberal virtue signalling". It's a shame Sir Edward isn't a candidate for leader – he's certainly full of ideas.

How credible is this prorogation plan? Former lord chancellor Lord Falconer tweeted: "To prorogue parliament with the express purpose of preventing it from considering Brexit to facilitate no deal would be unlawful, and would be set aside by the courts." As is sometimes the way with Twitter, others, expert and moron alike, challenged his view.

The idea of proroguing parliament is a red herring, but it is emblematic of how far we have strayed from constitutional norms that it is even being discussed. To do so would be the last act of a desperate, doomed administration. It would expose the Queen to unacceptable constitutional controversy, for the act of prorogation is done in her name. It would also be nothing new from a government that has tried to block and ignore parliament at every turn. That is Theresa May's unfortunate legacy, one that we can only hope her successor does not try to emulate.

This government has seen parliament as at best a hindrance throughout the Brexit process. The ugly atmosphere created around the Gina Miller case back in 2016, which forced the government to seek parliamentary approval to trigger of Article 50, has only become more toxic as time has passed. Ms Miller was subject to death threats and unforgivable abuse that are now par for the course for many MPs. The loss of Mrs May's majority didn't check this disrespect of parliament, it turbo charged it. The ugly headlines about unelected gay judges and remoaner Lords, of crushing the saboteurs and routing the traitors, poisoned debate.

The Commons was kept in the dark during the negotiations, insulted with robotic prime ministerial homilies and roundly ignored. Opposition day motions were no longer to be voted upon, the government decided, their motions to be treated as worth less the paper they were printed on. When Labour reached back to find a mechanism that ministers could not ignore, the government reacted with its usual flair. An assumed nadir was reached in December when the Commons voted that the government was in contempt. But there was more chicanery from ministers, the depths had not been reached yet. Mrs May finally presented her deal to parliament and suffered a blow so fierce it would have knocked any other prime minister out of office.

Theresa May sustained the heaviest parliamentary defeat of any British prime minister of modern times when MPs rejected her Brexit deal by a resounding majority of 230. She ignored their judgement and ploughed on. She failed again and again and at no point did she listen to what the Commons was telling her. Her negotiations with the other parties went nowhere because she had nothing to offer. It felt at the time like foot dragging, stalling for time to think up one more way to get around parliament.

The next prime minister must break this abusive cycle. He or she must show some respect to parliament. Mrs May's legacy is a shameful and arrogant attitude that sought to exclude MPs at every turn, with cack handed attempts to bribe the opposition and bamboozle her own side. Any candidate who even discusses a Brexit prorogation should be rejected out of hand.

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It started with an innocent enough observation. "I call Tracey Crouch, who is sporting her Spurs lanyard," said the Speaker. "It is very good of you to notice that, Mr Speaker," she replied placidly. "I look forward to watching Tottenham on Wednesday nights next season, whereas you, sir, will have to watch Arsenal on Thursday nights because, as the chant goes, you’re not very good.​" Sporting banter at its finest. The Speaker, a noted Gooner, often enjoys some banter about his beloved club. His reaction to this slight wasn't recorded in Hansard – suffice to say he didn't have an immediate comeback to hand.

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Some MPs get into an awful muddle about who is and is not a privy counsellor. The amount of incorrect ‘right honourables’ floating about on any given sitting day is a national scandal. Mr Speaker picked up Anne Milton for it the other day. "With typical generosity, the Minister has elevated the honourable Member for Dewsbury to membership of the privy council. As far as I can discern or guess, it can only be a matter of time." FYI, Anne Milton is a privy counsellor. There's a handy list of PCs on the privy council website for future reference.