How we got to where we are:
With the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU), fast approaching, this is arguably one of the most crucial periods in the nation’s history of parliamentary politics and democracy. Many believed that former Prime Minister (PM) May’s exit deal with the EU, reached in November 2018 marked the end of the controversy surrounding Brexit. Nonetheless, with the deal being rejected by Parliament three times over between November and March 2019, it was soon realised that this was not the case. In a cascade of events following the third rejection, the government was forced to seek a further delay of the exit date to October 31st. Subsequently, PM May announced that she would resign from her post following the election of a new Conservative party leader, which eventually led to the election of the then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, making him the new PM as of July 24th.
Prorogation of Parliament:
Since its inception, it has been the unwavering policy of the Johnson government that the UK will leave the EU on the previously mentioned date, ‘do or die’ (Sky News). Notably, this approach led the PM, on the 28th of August, to seek a five-week ‘prorogation’ of parliament from mid-September to October 14th. Which is over a week longer than Parliament was meant to be on a break. Prorogation is one of the few powers that remain solely with the crown, allowing the Queen (upon advice from the PM) to formally suspend a session of Parliament without dissolving it. Since it is already written into law that the withdrawal will occur on the 31st of October, the likely intention of this prorogation was to allow the government to leave the EU with limited parliamentary oversight of an exit deal, or without a deal altogether.
Taking the Prime Minister to court:
Many noteworthy figures contend that this is a constitutional outrage, as it effectively prevents MPs from having any meaningful say in the few days leading up to Brexit. In fact, soon after the Queen approved the request to prorogue, an MP from Scotland brought a legal challenge in the Scottish Court of Session, arguing that the PM’s advice to the Queen was an unlawful abuse of power. This was followed by a similar case in the English High Court brought by businesswoman Gina Miller and former PM John Major. The Scottish Court of Session ruled that the prorogation of parliament was unlawful. It is important to note that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal on the 17th of September. This could have significant consequences to parliament’s ability to function, and its supremacy over the other branches of government.
No more “No-Deal Brexit”?
A more immediate consequence of the PM’s decision is the loss of the government’s majority. On September 3rd, Conservative MP Phillip Lee defected to the Liberal Democratic party due to his disagreement with the government’s tactics. This paved the way for the newly united set of opposition parties to more effectively take control of Parliament’s business before the early suspension. For instance, MPs were able to push through legislation that bars the government from exiting the EU without a deal. The law came into force on September 9th and will likely pressure the PM into seeking a further extension for the date of withdrawal. More importantly, it may lessen the economic instability and rigidity at the Irish border that a no-deal Brexit could bring.
21 Rebels expelled:
In addition to this, MPs from the opposition and the Conservative’s party blocked the government’s call for a snap general election on September 4th. Per the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the House of Commons needs a two-thirds majority to call an unscheduled general election. By voting against the PM’s request, Parliament stopped the government from regaining a majority, thereby preventing it from forcing through any unwanted deal or legislation. Following this, PM Johnson expelled 21 Conservative rebel MPs who voted against the government. Rather than the threat of expulsion forcing members of the party into submission, many chose to leave the Johnson administration, thereby weakening the government even further. This eventually led to parliament rejecting the government’s call for a snap election for a second time on September 9th by an even larger margin than the first time.
Where are we now?
Immediately after this second rejection, PM Johnson brought the prorogation into effect, leaving it unclear how well Parliament can now oversee a new deal, whether the Supreme Court will end the prorogation, and the fate of non-Brexit related matters such as Domestic Violence Bill 2019. Irrespective, what remains abundantly clear is the vital importance of the British public and international community as a whole, paying close attention to governmental and parliamentary business in the weeks to come.
By Rehan Chaudhuri