Westminster shutdown: is Britain facing a coup?

The British constitution is unlike any other in the world. You cannot find it in a bookshop or read it online. It has no manual or handbook. Instead, it is a delicate assemblage of laws, practices and institutions, built over centuries and held together by a fragile tissue of customs, conventions and understandings. It relies on trust and on a common commitment to its unwritten rules. That has allowed it to adapt and evolve, but leaves it dangerously vulnerable to the abuse of power.

Boris Johnson’s predecessors were often careless with the constitution, but none showed such contempt for its core principles. The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy, in which “the will of the people” flows through our elected representatives. Our claim to be democratically governed rests on this slender foundation: that a government must command the confidence of the elected chamber. By wielding the royal prerogative to silence parliament, Johnson has struck at the foundations of our democracy.

Johnson is perhaps the first prime minister in British history who does not recognise parliament, or a parliamentary election, as the source of his authority. He was placed in No 10 by 90,000 party activists – not much larger than a single constituency – whom he courted through his column in the Daily Telegraph. He appointed Dominic Cummings to the heart of government: a man who months earlier had been found to be in contempt of parliament. Once, that would have disbarred him from office. Today, it is a programme for government.

He will claim a higher mandate than parliament: “the will of the people”, expressed in the referendum. Yet it gave no instruction on the terms of Brexit, a fact Johnson exploited to vote down a previous withdrawal agreement. Once we decide that someone other than parliament should interpret the referendum – that some heroic leader knows more truly what was in the mind of voters – we are walking a very dangerous road.

In the short term, prorogation may succeed. If Johnson goes for no deal, it makes it harder for MPs to stop him. If he wrings some kind of package from the EU, it may frighten some into backing it. If all else fails, it clears the way for a “people versus parliament” election.

But at what cost? Like loggers torching the Brazilian rainforest, Johnson and adviser Dominic Cummings have traded short-term profit for devastating structural harm. They have set precedents that others will follow and scorched the fragile ecosystem of our democracy. “Conservatives” once saw it as their responsibility to protect the constitution. How times change.

Peter Bone

Conservative MP and adviser to Leave Means Leave

Peter Bone. Photograph: Mark Thomas/Rex/Shutterstock
Peter Bone. Photograph: Mark Thomas/Rex/Shutterstock

Yes, there is a coup being attempted, but it’s not by the government. It is by a group of hardline Remainers who refuse to accept the will of the British people.

These non-democrats are trying to seize power from the legitimate government of Boris Johnson, and install a so-called government of national unity headed by Jeremy Corbyn, and stuffed full of uber-Remainers, with not a single Leaver in sight!

The prorogation of parliament by Boris Johnson is a long-overdue restoration of parliamentary democracy. In fact, the shadow leader of the house and other opposition MPs have been demanding this for months. The current session of parliament covers three calendar years and is by far the longest since the civil war. Each session of parliament normally lasts a year. It starts with the Queen’s speech, where the government outlines the bills it wants to get through in the next 12 months, and if it doesn’t get them through in that time, it risks losing them.

The opposition then have a number of days to debate and scrutinise , in detail, the government’s programme. At the end of the debate it can try to amend the Queen’s speech or defeat it. If the Queen’s speech is defeated, it inevitably leads to a general election. It also resets the parliamentary calendar, which, under parliament’s standing orders, allows opposition parties 20 days where they choose the motions to be debated, 35 days when the backbench business committee chooses the subjects to be debated, and 13 days when MPs can introduce legislation.

Proroguing parliament clearly restores parliamentary democracy and is constitutionally standard. This is not an attempt to stop parliament blocking a no-deal Brexit. Had the prime minister prorogued parliament until 1 November, that would have been a constitutional outrage, and I would have been the first to call it out.

If Jeremy Corbyn wants to stop a no-deal Brexit, he has to follow a simple course of action. On Tuesday, he calls a vote of no confidence in the government, and on Wednesday he tries to win that vote. He won’t do that because he knows that he doesn’t have the votes in the House of Commons and, more importantly, he doesn’t have the votes in the country to win a general election.

My message to Jeremy Corbyn is simple – put up, or shut up!

Margaret Beckett

Labour MP for Derby South

Margaret Beckett. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer
Margaret Beckett. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Yes. It’s clever – which is the reputation of the PM’s advisers. It’s also ruthless and improper – which is also their reputation.

Supporters claim having an autumn recess or prorogation and a new Queen’s speech is “normal”. Autumn 2019 finds us on the brink of the biggest constitutional change for more than 40 years. Yet a government without a working majority, led by a PM without a public mandate, seeks the longest adjournment for 70 years. This is not “normal”.

To me this is the latest, most dangerous, manifestation of a rolling coup parliamentarians have been battling since 2016. From the outset, Theresa May sought for powers to be returned to and exercised by the executive, not parliament.

She had to be forced by the courts to accept that MPs should have any voice in the decision to trigger article 50. When detailed legislative changes were required, sweeping and unfettered powers for ministers were proposed. Almost every request for papers to be published or information shared was rejected and fought.

The suggestion that MPs should be allowed a “meaningful” vote on her proposals was strongly resisted.

The approach to government defeats in the Commons – once a matter of concern or at least embarrassment – became quite cavalier.

In Opposition day debates the government stopped voting to defend their policies on any but rare occasions – usually when they thought that they might win.

Concern was expressed even in the Conservative party, at this unprecedented but ingenious way of making the expressed view of the House of Commons nugatory, or meaningless, in its effect.

For almost three years, government used and abused its considerable powers to control what MPs were allowed to debate and when, often hindering or even preventing the House of Commons from expressing its view on the government’s handling of Brexit.

When final proposals were known, debate and decision on them was delayed, week on week, month on month, blaming those who it was feared might not support the government. Then, when the government could delay no longer and it went down to the biggest defeat in our parliamentary history on its flagship policy, even this defeat was just ignored, and the government pressed on regardless.

The parliament to which we were told sovereignty was being restored has been steadily sidelined, ignored and has now been silenced.

So it is a coup – but it’s just the latest step in the incremental trashing of our unwritten constitution, as longstanding conventions are disregarded and discarded. Dangerous precedents are being set.

Michael Chessum

National organiser for Another Europe Is Possible

Michael Chessum. Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA
Michael Chessum. Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA

An unelected prime minister is attempting to prevent parliament from meeting because it might disagree with him. His aim is to drive through Brexit – deal or no deal – by an arbitrary date in late October. In doing so, he hopes to solidify a huge parliamentary majority in a snap election marked by a rightwing populist campaign demonising foreigners and what he will decry as the political elite. He is, as Britain’s 20th Etonian prime minister, apparently not a member of this elite himself.

The longer-term aim of Johnson’s plan goes much deeper. Brexit Britain is to be a deregulated country, brought closer into the orbit of Trump’s America. Workers’ rights, food standards and environmental protections are to be undermined. Public services and the NHS will, as made clear by the US government, be up for sale. Naturally, there is little to no public support for this agenda, and no majority for it in parliament. So Johnson does not want to allow either the public or MPs to vote on it until it is too late.

Parliament has not been completely shut down. The press is still free. But not all coups come with tanks and internet shutdowns. Yes, we have our civil rights – but try telling that to the millions of migrants who face a future of uncertainty, and even deportation, if the government goes ahead with abruptly ending free movement. The executive is waging war on the legislature, and it might win if we do not mobilise to stop it.

This government is not going to be persuaded by strength of argument. It must be forced to reverse course. Hopefully, the opposition parties will win this week in the Commons, but as citizens we must understand that we cannot rely on parliamentary process, or the judiciary. The little democracy we have was fought for, bled for, by mass movements which stretched the boundaries of legitimate dissent. If protest movements are not willing to disrupt, they are toothless.

The suspension of parliament is not some maverick act of hubris. The shutting down of democracy, the attacks on rights, the absurd claim to represent the people while denying them agency – these are the essence of the Brexit project. Brexit is not the end – it is a tool to entrench power and privilege, to divide working people against each other, and aggrandise the sociopaths who fronted the Leave campaign and now occupy No 10. This absurd, dangerous moment is the natural conclusion of Brexit. This is its true meaning.

We are witnessing the growth of a huge movement in defence of democracy. From Monday, we’ll be protesting daily at 5.30pm across the country. Join us at stopthecoup.org.uk.

Meg Russell

Director of the Constitution Unit, University College London

Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament has sparked demonstrations under the banner #StopTheCoup. But is this outrage justified?

Make no mistake, to prorogue like this is far from normal. Yes, a short prorogation (usually a few days) happens routinely between one annual parliamentary session and the next. But this five-week prorogation is the longest since 1930. It has also been triggered in the midst of a political crisis, with the clock ticking down to 31 October. It immediately follows a five-week summer break, during which MPs could not scrutinise the government’s Brexit policy. Indeed, Johnson has faced just one day of parliamentary scrutiny since becoming PM. Should the prorogation go ahead, that would become one week’s scrutiny over almost three months. By 14 October, when MPs are set to return, fewer than three weeks would remain until the Brexit deadline.

No 10 insists that parliament was already due to break up for weeks for the party conferences. But this is disingenuous, for two reasons. First, it had not yet been decided. And second, MPs were the ones who got to choose – and looked increasingly likely to reject this. Prorogation denies them the choice. He has also largely scuppered the chances of a no-confidence vote. We knew the opposition parties were discussing this, but had not yet agreed on their alternative prime minister. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act provides 14 days to appoint an alternative government. But the prorogation cuts across this – and would leave as little as 24 hours to get organised after such a vote.

So Johnson’s actions are unprecedented, and appear designed to undermine MPs’ desire to scrutinise his government, or even to remove it from office. In a parliamentary democracy, where the government is accountable to parliament, and exists only because it enjoys parliament’s confidence, this is deeply problematic. Hence the various court cases challenging prorogation.

Does this amount to a constitutional coup? In short, it’s hard to define what’s “unconstitutional” in a system with an unwritten constitution.

Proponents would argue that Johnson has not broken the letter of the law. But our constitution relies on conventions and precedents, not just law, and those very clearly have been broken. A “political” constitution such as ours is a fragile thing, which depends on key players respecting norms and traditions. If they fail to do so they undermine it gravely.

The dangerous precedents that would be set by prorogation apply around the world. Governments must not be able to shut down democratic legislatures just in order to dodge inconvenient scrutiny. This is an executive power grab, and when MPs return on Tuesday they should reject it loud and clear.

All Rights Reserved for Robert Saunders

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