Remainer MPs are reaping what they have sown
Many of the MPs most constitutionally outraged by the Prime Minister's decision to prorogue Parliament voted again and again for the laws and decisions that have led us to this point. They have no one to blame but themselves, writes Bernard Jenkin
What seemed outlandish a few months ago, in the heat of the Brexit debate, now seems less so. Most constitutional changes are greeted by a mix of outrage and indifference, and so the decision to prepare the way for a new Queen’s Speech and legislative programme is presented by one side as perfectly normal, while the other claims it is “a constitutional outrage”.
Of course, it is neither extreme. The sovereignty of Parliament is not altered in any way. It can still make or unmake any law.
However, it does represent a further development in the constant ebb and flow of the influence of Parliament.
MPs also encouraged the Speaker to subvert the meaning of Standing Orders contributing to a climate in which previous conventions and understandings are cast aside for their own ends, so they can hardly complain that the government is doing a bit of the same.
The real irony is that so many of those now most constitutionally outraged voted again and again for the laws and decisions that have facilitated this decision to prorogue.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was sprung upon the new Parliament in 2010 by the Cameron-Clegg coalition. It was sold to the unsuspecting as a means of limiting the power of an incumbent prime minister, who previously enjoyed unlimited discretion of up to five years to advise the Sovereign when to dissolve Parliament and to fix the date of a general election.
However, as PACAC set out in our December 2018 report, the Act is silent on what should happen in the event of a vote of no confidence, which could now be statutory, or non-statutory.
It is a misconception, held by some who should know better, that a no confidence vote used to automatically lead to a general election. However, the new Act is silent on what happens now if the government loses a statutory vote of no confidence. The Clerk of the House of Commons told PACAC that this is a matter of politics, not of procedure. The PM is no longer free simply to call an election, but nor does he have to resign, and for up to 14 days, he can try to get confidence back. Alternatively, he could just sit it out until he can call election.
I warned at the time that the Act strengthens a sitting prime minister. Those who voted for it have nobody to blame but themselves that Mr Johnson is now exploiting this.
Parliament has also increasingly chosen to let the people decide matters by referendum. As many warned, this has consequences too, but not for the sovereignty of Parliament, which can still make or unmake any law, but for the legitimacy of our mandate as representatives.
Like FTPA, Parliament did this to itself. MPs overwhelmingly supported the EU Referendum Act. They voted to put the binary question on the ballot paper.
It is at least as much “a constitutional outrage” that Parliament should now shrink from implementing the decision without a deal. Unless we abandon referendums in the future, Parliament must always be ready to implement a decision it does not like, because direct democracy inevitably trumps representative democracy.
MPs also passed the Article 50 Act and the EU Withdrawal Act, making it possible for the UK to leave with or without the Withdrawal Agreement. MPs even voted to allow the government to take control of the departure date. They reap what they have sown.
Sir Bernard Jenkin is MP for Harwich and North Essex and Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. He writes in a personal capacity