Johnson Prorogues Parliament
The process of ending a parliamentary session in the UK is known as prorogation. Typically, a parliamentary session lasts for a year, but the current session has gone on since the general election of June 2017, making it the longest session for four hundred years. During the cessation of parliament, the government prepares its Queen’s Speech which lays out its plans for the next parliamentary session.
Parliament is to be prorogued from 10th September until 14th October 2019, resuming immediately before the EU convenes to discuss Brexit (amongst other things) and just 17 days before the UK will crash out of the EU unless an extension to A50 notice is requested and granted. The five-week period is the longest prorogation since 1945, typically, the process lasts for 5 days (mean figure, the median is 9 days) from 1930 until now.
The controversy is not so much to do with prorogation per se, but the extraordinary length of it coming, as it does, during a critical period during the Brexit process. Johnson’s critics claim that it is an anti-democratic ruse to prevent parliament from properly scrutinising government actions and limiting parliamentary time to debate Johnson’s “no deal” Brexit plans properly. The decision, taken by use of the Royal Preroative, has been challenged in the courts, but (so far) found to be lawful. It is likely that the matter will be reviewed by the UK’s Supreme Court.
Such was the anger generated by Johnson’s ploy that parliament fast-tracked the Benn Bill which prohibits a “no deal” exit; unless the PM has negotiated a deal with the EU or can persuaded the Commons to vote for it, he is required, by law, to ask the EU to grant an extension until 31/1/2020. This is where it gets completely crazy. The government has confirmed that it will comply with the law, but Johnson has stated that he will not request a further extension and reiterated that the UK will leave the EU at the end of next month. On the face of it, these positions are contradictory.
According to legal experts, the PM can’t simply ignore the law without placing himself in contempt of court (he has two days to demand the extension, giving him until 19/10/19, allowing time for an urgent judicial review). He would also fall foul of laws governing the behaviour of people in public office (a statute which theoretically could see a prison term of up to life imprisonment). It is beyond any doubt that Boris Johnson will not risk his personal freedom for Brexit, but exactly how this political drama will play out is anybody’s guess.
One of the final acts of the parliamentary session was to debate a motion brought by the government which called for a general election. The government was unable to muster the 2/3rds of all parliamentarians needed to trigger an election, since opposition MPs feared that Johnson could use the dissolution of parliament to force through a “no deal” exit.
The opposition will still have time to call a vote of no confidence in the Johnson government when the new session of parliament begins. Whilst this could trigger a general election, if it passed, it would also open a 14-day window where a new administration could be formed, should it be able to gain the confidence of the House. It is a sign of the depths of the constitutional crisis facing the UK that government sources have suggested that Johnson might refuse to recognise such a government and not advise the Queen to offer the premiership to its leader.