William Davage considers an extraordinary week in British politics
The morning of the prorogation of Parliament, I read these words of the prophet Habakkuk (1.3–4): ‘Outrage and violence, this is all I see, all is contention, and discord flourishes. And the law loses its hold and justice never shows itself.’ It summed up a remarkable week of parliamentary and political discord, unprecedented since the disruption caused by Irish nationalists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While many will have viewed the scenes with horror and despair, for political junkies there was much to savour.
It must have been the worst week any Prime Minister, not merely a new Prime Minister, has had to endure. Six defeats in one week. A disastrous session of Prime Minister’s Questions when what might work on the hustings did not translate to parliamentary scrutiny. Feeble jokes and bluster rarely work in that atmosphere. When a member of his Cabinet asked why he was being dismissed, the laconic Clement Attlee replied: ‘Not up to the job.’ Even some of his supporters must fear that might be the verdict, on this showing, for Mr Johnson.
Backbench members ‘seized control of the Order Paper.’ Jacob Rees-Mogg’s classic defence of convention cut no ice. His languid sprawl along the front bench was too much of a throwback to a previous age. A law was enacted requiring the PM to apply to the EU for an extension of Article 50 if no agreement had been reached at the summit in mid-October. When the PM indicated that he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than ask for an extension, so loud was the clamour that he was not going to obey the law, so heightened was the cut-price rhetoric, that any careful subtlety of the linguistic construction was lost. It was followed by a motion criticizing in advance what the PM may or may not do. But such a distrust of the PM stems from his poor track record in public and private life.
Rebellious Conservative MPs, grandees and big beasts in the political jungle to the fore, were deprived the whip in droves and effectively de-selected. It did elicit the best line of the week from the grandest of grandees, Sir Nicholas Soames, that he had taken the serial disloyalty of the PM as his inspiration.
The Commons denied the PM a dissolution for a General Election, having failed to achieve the support of two-thirds of members under the terms of the iniquitous Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which overturned constitutional convention: always a dangerous approach in a system that depends on checks and balance within accepted conventions. This legislation was passed by the coalition government, the price exacted by the Liberal Democrats, as was a referendum on a change in the voting system. Its comprehensive defeat showed an unwillingness by the electorate to tamper with the system. A Humble Address was passed to require publication of the Operation Yellowhammer report (which assessed possible outcomes of ‘no deal’) and related behind-the-scenes manoeuvres, not least by special advisers to ministers. Not the first time that éminences grises have emerged from the shadows blinking into the light of scrutiny.
If the government suffered a series of defeats, the various opposition parties did not cover themselves with glory. Mr Corbyn’s cliché-strewn rhetoric and feeble parliamentary style did not match the seriousness of the occasion. Emily Thornberry engaged in the extraordinary contortion that, as Foreign Secretary, she would negotiate the best deal that could be accomplished from the EU and would put it to the country in a referendum with a Remain option for which she would campaign. In effect, campaigning and voting against her own negotiated agreement. At this point even Lewis Carroll would have laid down his pen as even he could not have envisaged such a topsy-turvy world.
The Speaker announced that he was stepping down, at the latest on 31 October. Doubtless he championed the Commons against the executive, but he tore up the rule book, Erskine May, that delineates the conventions and the balance between the executive and Members of Parliament; he became more partisan and combative than the unwritten constitution expected. It is a long way from the greatest of 19th century Speakers, Sir Arthur Peel, or of more recent Speakers, of happy memory, George Thomas, Bernard Weatherill and, supremely, Betty Bothroyd.
This political and parliamentary maelstrom is rooted in the incompatibility of a binary referendum with a system based on parliamentary supremacy, which, in reality, means the supremacy of the House of Commons. MPs are elected by the voters to represent them and to use their judgement on the issues of the day. If they fail in that task, the voters can eject them at a subsequent election. But the articulation of that principle, most notably, in the 18th century, by Edmund Burke in a letter to his Bristol constituents, is drowned out by raucous voices that lack any constitutional or historical hinterland, or express contempt for the checks and balances, precedent and procedure.
It is difficult to see any resolution to this toxic mixture of competing systems and modes of governance, not least in a Parliament without the overall majority of one party; with party leaders who do not rise to the seriousness of events; with the fissiparous nature of parties, seeping members, either by expulsion or resignation; with sloganizing rather than debate; with heightened rhetoric rather than reasoned argument; and with an unwillingness to listen.