Broken Parliament, Broken Politics
Outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster there is a daily clashes. Pro-European protestors chant ‘stop the coup’ and enthusiastically wave the EU flag. They are passionate, noisy and vast in numbers. For one particular protestor, it is his life. Steve Bray is known as ‘stop Brexit man’ and he has stood outside Westminster every day since September 2017. A menace to TV reporters and arriving politicians alike, Steve has become a symbol to the unrelenting opposition to Brexit. Also, pro-Brexit demonstrators are present, angry at what they believe is a Remainer parliament thwarting the will of the people. The result is ferocious tension and clashes with the police nervously watching on.
These clashes however are nothing compared to the chaotic and ill-tempered scenes inside the houses of parliament. In recent days the proceedings in the chamber have become almost like a reality TV show. A high stakes drama which would be funny if it was not so serious. The events in the Commons these last few days have been almost like a tragicomedy of Shakespearian proportions. Parliamentary proceedings have descended into petty and personal bickering. Tribalism has taken over and fractured the parliament and the entire country. Precedent has been thrown out the window and the UK’s unwritten constitution looms large.
On the 28th of October Boris Johnson and his government took one of the boldest decisions in UK political history and shocked his political opponents. The prorogation of parliament is simply the gap between one session of the parliament and another. When applied as normal, prorogation is simply another standard procedure, however, this is not standard procedure. The timing and result of the prorogation currently in effect is undeniably an attempt from the UK executive to circumvent parliament in its plan to deliver Brexit. Even the speaker of the house, John Bercow, who’s role is totally bound by impartiality described the prorogation as a ‘constitutional outrage.’ The prime minister’s decision sparked not only protests around the UK but also court proceedings. Legal challenges to prorogation were filed in London, Belfast and Edinburgh. So far, the only success in court for the 75 MP’s and peers who took this legal action was a ruling on the 11th of October by the Scottish Court of Appeals, the highest court in Scotland, that the prorogation was unlawful and declared it ‘null and of no effect.’ The case will now be heard on the 17th of September by the UK supreme court.
The news of the prorogation of parliament shocked opposition MP’s and those opposed to Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy of leaving on the 31st of October deal or no-deal. The effective shutdown of parliament made their plan to pass a bill in the house of Commons and the house of Lords to force Boris Johnson to extend the Brexit deadline beyond the 31st of October a lot more difficult. Astonishingly, by the 4th of September, by a majority of 22 MP’s, the opposition parties and some tory rebels passed the Benn Bill. Following this heavy blow to the government the bill was passed swiftly in the House of Lords. The bill stated that unless the UK government could agree a deal with the EU by October the 19th or get a majority in parliament for a no-deal Brexit then by that date an extension must be sought by the European council, which is made up of all the heads of states of EU members. The passage of this bill was such a stinging blow to Boris Johnson as it forces him to go against his promise made in the tory leadership elections that the UK would leave the EU on the 31st of October deal or no-deal.
The result has put huge pressure on prime minister Johnson. He appears to have been cornered by opposition MP’s and to have underestimated their ability to organise and work together to pass the required legislation in such a short time period. His desperation to see the bill fail could be seen when he said he would apply the whip to any conservative MP who voted against the government. In total 21 tory MP voted in this way and have now been expelled from the conservative party. This swift and ruthless action has shocked many in UK politics. Among those who have been expelled were senior figures in the party like Phillip Hammond the chancellor of the exchequer under Theresa May, Sir Nicholas Soames the grandson of former prime minister Winston Churchill and Ken Clarke who is known as the father of the house being the conservative parties longest serving MP of 49 years.
These recent votes have sent shockwaves through Westminster and have split the Conservative party. The work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd resigned citing her objection to the expulsion of her former colleagues and her rejection of Boris Johnson that serious renegotiation talks are taking place with the EU. Also, Boris Johnson’s own brother Jo Johnson resigned from cabinet saying he was ‘torn between family loyalty and the national interest.’
While everybody seems sick of the entire Brexit fiasco, its conclusion is now more uncertain than ever. The prime minister’s next move will undoubtedly define his premiership. Will he ask the EU for the extension and break his promise to leave the EU deal or no-deal by the end of October or will he break the law and descend the UK into political and legal turmoil just as the country faces a potential no deal cliff edge? The hatred evident for him within the Commons means he is sure not to have the option of a snap general election as an escape route. In parliament, there is a particular contempt reserved for Boris Johnson which has further fuelled this astounding debacle. The drama is undeniably entertaining but outside the Westminster bubble, in Dublin, Brussels and across the UK people watch on in horror as the once parliamentary democracy envy of the world descends into a crisis of its own making.
Conor Paterson – Politcs Editor