//Here’s a pretty kettle of fish

Here’s a pretty kettle of fish

William Davage considers the state of British Politics

 

The largest government defeat in history (a majority of 230) followed by a vote of no confidence in HM’s Government, easily enough defeated given the lack of an overall majority; the oratorical savaging of the Leader of the Opposition by Mr Gove at the end of that debate (reminiscent of the brilliant, elegantly witty speech of Michael Foot in 1979 when he said that the Liberal leader, David Steele had ‘passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever’; the squall over a mouthed (but denied) comment from the Leader of ‘stupid woman’; all this made for engrossing entertainment.

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Beyond the merits of Brexit and how, if at all, it is to be achieved, those heady days saw constitutional and procedural changes that may have more far-reaching, deleterious effects than the principal issue. At the centre of a constitutional coup d’théatre as much as a coup d’état was the Speaker, John Bercow, who is perhaps the most controversial occupant of the chair for years. He allowed a wrecking amendment to a business motion against the advice of his clerks, against precedent and the letter of Erskine May, the Commons’ procedural bible. He argued his good faith, but his impartiality has been questioned. Perhaps he sees himself as a modern Mr Speaker Lenthall who refused to name the MPs King Charles I had come to arrest, claiming that he could not speak without leave of the House. There is a difference between defying the attempted imposition of monarchical power and changing the rules agreed by the House by personal fiat. His defence was that change without such radical action had some historical precedent. In the nineteenth century, when there was no time limit to debates, Mr Speaker Brand introduced the closure of a debate which had lasted several days as the Irish Nationalists filibustered. But he had covert government support, if not connivance. It is different today.

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A divisive Speaker, his controversial decisions are aggravated by his rebarbative oratorical style, veering between florid, circumlocutory flattery, and elaborate reprimands peppered with absurd archaisms: ‘medicaments’ unduly feature. He does not enjoy the affection of the House that enables him to maintain discipline, as did Betty Boothroyd and Bernard Wetherall, nor the commanding presence of Mr Speaker Peel who returned to the Chair after a hullabaloo in a debate under the Deputy Speaker. It simply needed him to take the Chair and stand up for the deafening noise to cease. He might also follow a more recent precedent. During a debate on the Profumo affair a Labour MP, Reginald Pagett, criticized a Conservative Minister, Lord Hailsham, saying that whether in order or not Hailsham was ‘a lying humbug.’ He was not in order. To call a member of the Lords a liar is as impermissible as to say it of a Member of the Commons. The Speaker (Sir Harry Hylton-Foster) did not call Mr Pagett to order, a rebuke to Hailsham more deadly in its silence that Pagett’s in speech.

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The other attempt, supported by the Chair, was to wrest control of business from the Government. If nothing else, lawyers had a field day, led by the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. These were legitimate attempts to pursue a political end by proper means, but the immediacy of the issue and the conflict masked a fundamental constitutional point. The underlying constitutional principle of government is not that the Commons is supreme, although in practice it is, but that the realm is governed by the Sovereign in Parliament. Hence the Sovereign’s Prime Minister and Cabinet, the layers of the administration, are Ministers of the Crown. The business of Parliament is the Sovereign’s. There are Private Members Bills that can become law, but it is rare that any proceed without Government support. Had the Commons subverted that principle and passed legislation against the wishes of the Government it would have been open to the Prime Minister to advise Her Majesty not to sign any subsequent bill into law. By long-established precedent HM acts on the advice of Her Prime Minister. Instead of ‘La Reyne le vault’ we might have heard, ‘La Reyne s’avisera.’

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The political fallout definitively proves that referendums are incompatible with Parliamentary supremacy. Referendums are little more than opinion polls at any given time, despite rhetoric investing them with totemic significance. It is unsatisfactory to assert that Parliament handed over the problem to the electorate. Whatever was decided had to be implemented by Parliament which is not necessarily straightforward, not least when it means disentangling forty years of interdependence. Determining to leave the EU is legitimate, but how that is achieved is important. Process and principle become intertwined.

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The General Election did not help. While some 80% voted for parties that agreed to implement the referendum result, it remained that most MPs elected were Remainers and were being asked to vote against their beliefs. This is not particularly a moral issue; accommodations to conscience are available. It contradicts the principle enunciated by Edmund Burke, accepted for over two hundred years, that MPs were elected to exercise their good judgement and conscience and were accountable at an election. The argument that the present House was elected on the basis of manifestos that accepted the result of the referendum is correct, but cannot be conclusive. Political parties are coalitions and their manifestos are a compromise of proposals that do not necessarily enjoy the total consent of every candidate. Beyond the confines of the political tribe, most electors take a more general view of the parties and assess policies and candidates in a totality and conclude, on balance, where their votes will go. Post-2016, the Commons is comprised predominantly of the losing side in the referendum. That was, and remains, a recipe for what we saw in the months at the turn of the year.

2019-04-01T12:09:47+00:00 March 2019 Articles|