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We’re in a mess. The task now is for MPs to find a way forward

6 min read

The situation remains the same as it has been for all of Boris Johnson's premiership – the government and the Commons want different things, writes Tony Grew

Last week saw the longest session in the history of the UK's parliament come to an end. This week may well be another first. Has a government ever before introduced a Queen's Speech they know has no chance of being approved by the Commons?

When Her Majesty reads out the words that have been written for her, she will be as aware as everyone else that the measures proposed are almost certain never to see second reading, never mind being presented to her for her Assent. A Queen's Speech like no other, presented by a government with a technical majority of minus 45, their parliamentary party split over the main policy facing the country and 16 days on the clock before it intends to leave the EU with or without a deal.

The government is practically begging the opposition to trigger a no confidence vote. The opposition don't want to. The government is stuck. The fact that the much-discussed government of national unity does not at the time of publication exist demonstrates that the opposition is stuck too.

We used to have a constitutional protection against this scenario – the prime minister could ask the Queen to dissolve parliament. But let's not dwell on how simple life was before the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. The task now is to find a way forward.

One possibility is to ask the House to vote again on some version of Theresa May's deal, with the proviso that it will be put to the people in a second referendum. This proposal could gain sufficient support, but the government isn't likely to accept another plebiscite. The government wants to leave on 31st October. The situation remains the same as it has been for all of Boris Johnson's premiership – the government and the Commons want different things.

The Queen's Speech debate normally lasts five days. This time it is highly likely opposition MPs will seek to capture the order paper for at least one of those days, to test the will of the House on some compromise position. The Lib Dems refusal to back Jeremy Corbyn as interim prime minister in effect keeps the Johnson administration in office. The opposition may spend time constructing fantasy cabinets, but the government is safe as long as the Lib Dem block continues.

The government has no general powers to hold a referendum. The votes on AV, on Scottish independence and on EU membership all required primary legislation setting out the questions to be asked, as well as a money resolution. While it is possible for backbenchers to advance a second referendum bill through its Commons stages, they cannot move a money resolution. Only a minister can do that.

For a second referendum to get through the Commons either the government will have to concede or there will need to be a new government. We are back to the Lib Dem block on Corbyn becoming PM.

Would Labour back another candidate? Their policy is to hold and win a general election, renegotiate a deal and only then go back to the people for a final decision. There is a significant risk for Labour in seizing control, entering government with parties they expect to be fighting at the ballot box in a matter of weeks, and legislating for a second referendum. They could face a huge backlash from voters who supported Leave and want Brexit "done". Labour have the most of any of the opposition parties to lose from a second referendum.

Will this interim government – presumably consisting of more than 100 ministers – stay in office to deliver this second referendum? If not, it will have imposed what many Conservatives would argue is a profoundly undemocratic vote on the public, and the people will in any case have a say before then in a general election.

The alternative is to try to force the Johnson administration to legislate against its will. That's not a credible solution, and would only add to the "people versus parliament" election strategy the Tories have been planning.

The Commons could in turn find the government in contempt or instigate impeachment proceedings against the prime minister. Either course has no immediate legal effect and would just boost Johnson's claim that he is trying to deliver on the 2016 referendum but meddlesome MPs keep blocking him. A scenario where the government is once again presented with a solution by the Commons that it does not like, but the House refuses to allow a general election, may seem clever in Westminster but given the public's low opinion of MPs it could be electorally disastrous.

All of this presupposes that the Brexit deadline will be moved again, another factor that is far from certain. One thing is clear, the next few weeks will be choppy and nobody knows for sure what is going to happen.


The many, many candidates for Speaker have been appearing at hustings ahead of the election on November 4th. There are some eye-catching proposals. Meg Hillier thinks PMQs should last for an hour. Harriet Harman proposes cutting the number of questions the leader of the opposition gets. Sir Henry Bellingham is running on a pledge to wear the traditional Speaker's robes. Chris Bryant wants to ban clapping and Sir Lindsay Hoyle has suggested parliament collectively has a problem with drink and drugs. Shailash Vara is in favour of breastfeeding in the chamber. There's certainly no lack of ideas in this contest.


The Commons is to sit this Saturday, for the first time since the Falklands conflict in 1982. On that occasion prime minister Margaret Thatcher recalled the House to hear her statement on the invasion. There have been 21 Saturday sittings since 1900, but it was not uncommon in Edwardian times for the House to do so. In the post-war period there was a Saturday summer adjournment debate in 1949 (no doubt Jim Shannon would have attended) and the House also met on a Saturday in 1956 to discuss the situation in Suez. All pretty low wattage stuff compared to Brexit.


The State Opening is a wonderful expression of British values, or a ridiculous hour of dressing up and looking silly, depending on your view. There are many people in Parliament with a special role to play, such as the Lord Chancellor, who hands her Majesty the speech, and the leader of the Lords, who usually has to carry the Cap of Maintenance. The most important participant is sometimes overlooked. The Queen has opened every Parliament since her accession in 1952, save for two occasions when she was pregnant. She is now on her 14th prime minister and has never put a foot wrong in her 67 years as head of state. We call all unite around our admiration for the way she plays her part.




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