Archive for the 'Parliament' Category

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Sounding the alarm. Britain’s democracy is under direct threat

Sunday, July 14th, 2019

In two weeks’ time, Britain will have a Prime Minister whose commitment to democracy is contingent. Boris Johnson has repeatedly refused to rule out proroguing Parliament in order to secure a no deal Brexit by 31 October 2019.

Let us call proroguing Parliament by its proper name: suspending democracy. The United Kingdom operates with an executive that is supervised by the legislature. If the executive suspends the legislature (which is what proroguing is), it is suspending the democratic control of itself.

The government would not be able to pass legislation – but governments do a lot of things other than legislate. The Government does not need Parliament to be sitting to pass some delegated legislation. It can exercise its administrative and prerogative powers. It would be doing so without oversight from the MPs elected to perform that role. It prevents MPs from directing the government to change course or from bringing it down.

For that reason, proroguing Parliament is normally only done for a short period. Parliament has not been prorogued for longer than three weeks for 40 years. Parliament’s oversight is not impaired. It has been a largely ceremonial process for transitioning between Parliamentary sessions for at least 150 years.

The most notable political use of this effect was in 1948, when the government used its power to prorogue Parliament not to suspend Parliament’s oversight of it but to fast-forward through Parliamentary sessions in order to override the House of Lords’ veto power under the Parliament Act 1911. Far from frustrating the democratic process, the government of the time was looking to augment the elected House’s power through the use of prorogation.

So what is being mooted by the hardcore Leavers – the use of prorogation to frustrate democratic supervision – is unprecedented in Britain’s modern democratic history. They moot it in order to impose an irrevocable decision (no deal Brexit) on a House of Commons that shows every sign of wanting to prevent that.

Leavers claim to want to prorogue in order to implement the democratic vote to leave the EU. There are a few problems with that claim. First, there is no magic about the date of 31 October 2019. If Leavers have been unable to come up with a plan that persuades a majority of the House of Commons by that date, it is not for them to impose their will.

Secondly, the vote to leave the EU was not a vote to leave the EU without a deal. Vote Leave, as noted above, campaigned on the basis that “we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave”.

And thirdly, democracy did not stop on 23 June 2016. The current MPs were elected a year later. They have their own mandate to represent their constituents. The government and Leave supporters have no right to trample on Britain’s representative democracy.

So it boils down to this: hardline Leavers are willing to take a hammer to Britain’s democratic protections to secure a policy that they want. This is no longer about Remain or Leave, but about whether you have any respect for the democratic process that operates in Britain.

Unfortunately, polls show that the great majority of Conservative party members do not. 67% were recorded in a recent YouGov poll as believing that it would be acceptable to prorogue Parliament in order to prevent Parliament voting against no deal.  The anti-democratic impulse has reached the mainstream.

Now it might very well be in practice that the Prime Minister could not prorogue Parliament in this way even if he wanted to. The decision is for the monarch, not the Prime Minister, and she would be entitled to, and in such a controversial case presumably would, take counsel from other members of the Privy Council first. Few Privy Council members are likely to be supportive of a Prime Minister’s wish to game the system in this way. A decision to prorogue would certainly be judicially reviewed (Sir John Major announced this week that he would do so). The courts might well intervene. So as a plan, it is not even particularly likely to succeed.

But even if Parliamentary democracy could be suspended in this way, proroguing would not just be a crime, it would be an error. Imagine that no deal Brexit was achieved against the will of Parliament by breaking democratic norms. Britain would be a pariah state. The government would almost certainly be immediately toppled and a general election would ensue with government ministers (fresh in their roles, remember, so unfamiliar with their remits) having to alternate between campaigning and dealing with the inevitable snarl-ups that would have come from such a disorderly exit. 

Polling consistently shows that the public already on balance thinks that Brexit was a mistake and if Britain has been forced into the most extreme version of it by anti-democratic means, the Conservatives would be lucky if they were merely electorally eviscerated. It might also prove to be the swiftest route to Britain rejoining the EU.

It would also represent the most awful precedent. Governments of all stripes could then use it as a cue to take time out whenever Parliament was proving too exacting. Why go to the trouble of passing laws if you can achieve most of what you want by executive fiat most of the time? Jeremy Corbyn also does not have a great affinity with his fellow MPs. Do Conservatives really want to establish a precedent for him to be allowed to act without Parliamentary scrutiny or control should it all get too tough for him?

Alastair Meeks

PS – Interesting fact, if the Queen dies then if Parliament has been prorogued it must immediately be reconvened.  




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If Boris Johnson tries to deliver on his promise of a no deal Brexit on Halloween then a parliamentary vote of no confidence seems inevitable

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

‘Never trust anybody who spells gonorrhoea correctly on the first attempt’ is a maxim that has served me well in life, I might revise that maxim to ‘Never trust anybody who says a no deal Brexit will be fine.’ I suspect many MPs are also guided by the latter maxim.

If Boris Johnson does attempt to take the country out of the EU without a deal (and in contradiction to his claims during the 2016 referendum campaign) then I expect Parliament will seize control of the process, just like they did in March to prevent a no deal Brexit. The difference between March 2019 and October 2019 is that we are likely to have a Prime Minister who, unlike Theresa May, is convinced of the merits of a no deal Brexit.

Indeed Boris Johnson has hinted he would ignore the will of the Parliament. So what happens next? It feels pretty much nailed on Parliament will VONC Boris Johnson attempts to become a pound shop Charles I if he tries to prorogue Parliament or ignores the will of Parliament.

I think Parliament would have to take control of the Brexit process by ousting a no dealer Prime Minister and replacing them with someone who isn’t a supporter of no deal, that means a vote of no confidence (VONC) and exploiting the the 14 day period to choose a new Prime Minister under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act.

The other aspect to this is that isn’t just anti no dealers who could VONC a Boris Johnson government. If man attempts to sell out Northern Ireland then it isn’t hard to see the DUP wanting to get rid of the twice divorced Boris Johnson.

The DUP value the future of the United Kingdom a higher priority than Brexit thus the DUP will not risk the Union just so Boris Johnson’s life becomes easier.

Of course there’s also the possibility that the ERG might VONC Boris Johnson like never before if he doesn’t deliver Brexit on Halloween. Many epithets can be applied to Boris Johnson but consistency and principles are not adjectives you’d associate with Mr Johnson, having resigned from the cabinet because of Mrs May’s deal he ultimately voted for Mrs May’s deal.

My view is that we will we see a Parliamentary VONC sometime this year, the only question is it before Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister or after. Only a planned general election might be the only way to stop the first successful Parliamentary VONC since 1979, so I’m taking the 3/10 on Yes that Paddy Power are offering. The attractiveness of this bet is enhanced is that this bet pays out once a VONC occurs, it isn’t dependent on it being a successful VONC.

TSE



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The final step. Why the leader of the Conservative party does not automatically become Prime Minister

Monday, June 24th, 2019

Professor Brian Cox was once asked to explain string theory in a sentence. His answer: “It’s probably not true.” The same one sentence explanation could be used to explain the theory that the next Conservative leader might not become Prime Minister. But since it’s being talked about quite a bit, let’s have a look at why.

The current Parliament was elected at a general election held on 8 June 2017. It resulted in a hung Parliament. It is forgotten now, because Theresa May held office both before and after that election, just how precarious her grip on power was. She faced two challenges simultaneously: retaining control of her own party and retaining control of Parliament.  

Theresa May stayed in office as Prime Minister for two reasons. First, as the incumbent, she had the right to try to form a government first, just as Ted Heath had in 1974 and Gordon Brown had in 2010. And secondly, because whether or not she was going to be successful, someone had to fill the role until the successful contender had emerged and that responsibility falls to the incumbent.

During the intervening period, there was some genuine doubt about whether the negotiations with the DUP would reach a successful outcome. Jeremy Corbyn was demanding the right to get the keys of Number 10. It was not until 26 June 2017 that the Conservative party reached agreement with the DUP on a supply and confidence arrangement.  

The last two years have not been kind to the Conservative party. Brexit has acted as a centrifuge on it, its forces pinning its MPs and leaving them feeling dizzy and sick. It has already seen four MPs break away from its Remain wing, further weakening its already-etiolated control of Parliament. Another of their number has just been ejected from Parliament by recall, meaning that a by-election is pending. The Conservatives’ effective majority, with DUP support, is currently just two.

Many remaining Conservative MPs do not trouble to conceal their dismay at the prospect of no deal Brexit and Boris Johnson. Some, such as Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve, have been making public or semi-public their intention to oppose him in the name of Brexit. The continuing complexities of his personal life and his reclusiveness will be doing nothing to deter them. Several of them are being threatened with deselection, giving them little to lose by going rogue.

To date, no one has ever gone broke betting on the Conservative Remainers failing to follow through. So it must remain by some way the likeliest outcome that most of them will go quietly, at least initially, deluding themselves that they should wait and see. You and I might wonder what they would be waiting to see, but they aren’t called wets for nothing.

Numbers are so tight, however, that even a handful might transform the calculation. Lyndon B Johnson reputedly said that the first rule of politics was knowing how to count. Let’s consider that first rule for a while. If Boris Johnson looks unlikely to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons, what then?

Professor Cox would appreciate that a different first rule, Newton’s First Law of Motion, applies.  Unless and until something happens, the status quo continues. So Theresa May stays in office until she resigns or is ousted. The assumption is that she will speedily resign after the conclusion of the Conservative leadership election campaign. That assumption looks very open to question.

When she resigns, it is her duty (as well as that of other senior statesmen) to recommend to the Queen the person who she believes can be expected to command the confidence of the Commons. If that is not clear to her, she should not make such a recommendation. It is very questionable whether she should resign at all until things become clearer.

Obviously, this would be an extremely unstable equilibrium. Theresa May would have no visible means of support. At any point, she might face a Parliamentary vote of no confidence in her government.  This would presumably pass. We would then enter a period of 14 days to find a government that commanded the confidence of the Commons. Otherwise, a general election is automatically held.

Even after the passing of a vote of no confidence, Theresa May is not obliged to resign as Prime Minister and might well not. After James Callaghan was defeated in a vote of no confidence in 1979, the government continued in office for a further week before Parliament was dissolved. Theresa May might reasonably argue that she should stay in situ until it was clear that a fresh government was capable of being formed that might command the confidence of Parliament.

Political journalists, who have frankly been spoiled in recent years by the speed and variety of political developments, would love the chaos. The rest of us, not so much. Where it would go, goodness only knows. On the track record of recent years, nowhere very good.

In the end, however, Boris Johnson would probably be able to line up enough votes behind him at least to have a shot at proving that he could control a majority. With Labour having lost a more than a dozen MPs from its ranks since 2017, enough independents might abstain or prop him up to justify him being called to kiss hands to test his chances in Parliament, unless rather more Conservative MPs are prepared to take a stand than have already made themselves known – at least half a dozen, I think.  

Even if Boris Johnson tries and fails, a Prime Minister for a few days is still a Prime Minister. At least for betting purposes, anyway.

What might happen after that is still murkier. Perhaps Brian Cox could explain it in 11 dimensions for us. I’m all ears.

Alastair Meeks




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New Rules. Britain’s changing constitution

Sunday, May 5th, 2019

Sometimes it only takes a small change to alter the shape of things radically.  In Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford, the developers of the 80s computer game Elite explained that the introduction of a scoop for a tiny dollop of memory transformed the possibilities, allowing players to become pirates as well as traders.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 is a similarly small change and similarly it allows MPs to play as pirates as well as traders. The Act transferred the power to determine whether a general election should be held early from the Prime Minister to Parliament. In doing so, it took away from the Prime Minister one of her predecessors’ most potent weapons: the ability to make a vote on a policy a matter of confidence in the government.

This simple change has changed Britain’s constitution fundamentally. The government now is in place at the pleasure of Parliament, not the other way around.

Compare and contrast two weak Conservative governments, both seeking to get difficult EU-related legislation through, both with militant anti-EU factions, both facing Oppositions seeing their first duty as being to oppose.  

In the early 1990s, John Major’s government, with a small majority, was harried through Parliament during the passage of the Maastricht Treaty into British law. When the government was defeated over the Social Chapter, John Major brought the provision back before Parliament as a vote of confidence, which he duly won.  

That government had a dismal lingering half-life from that point on, but with the benefit of hindsight it suffered less from crisis than from exhaustion.

Theresa May’s government is nowhere near as well-placed. It can call a vote of confidence but it cannot call a vote of confidence on a particular policy. So, for example, it cannot call a vote of confidence on whether the country should sign up to the withdrawal agreement that Theresa May negotiated with the EU.

This inability to link a decision on policy to the continuance of the government is central to the government’s current problems. The government can and has won a vote of confidence. When it comes to policy, however, every MP feels the need to put his or her own preferences first.  

Moreover, the government’s inability to secure its own policy agenda on Brexit has encouraged MPs to take back control from the executive and allow the legislature to seek to put a policy agenda together.  

So Parliament forced the government to let MPs have a meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement and then, when the government’s withdrawal agreement was meaningfully voted down, tied the government’s hands so as to seek to rule out no deal and took the opportunity to set up indicative votes as to what the way forward should be. On this central area of policy, the legislature is becoming the executive.

Theresa May can do nothing about that. She commands the confidence of Parliament in a limited sense but does not command the machinery to make it bend to her will. There is no end in sight to her misery and no one has any incentive to help her.

When the executive is a government with a healthy overall majority in Parliament, it can prevail by keeping its own Parliamentary supporters (many of whom are or hope to form part of the executive) in line. When the government cannot exercise effective control over a stable majority, it is prey to the wishes of Parliament.

It is nine years since any party had a substantial overall majority. The implications of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 were masked until 2015 by the size of the coalition’s majority. Since then, Parliament has grown steadily bolder in taking back control, with Conservative hardline Brexiters operating a guerrilla war against David Cameron and George Osborne, even opposing parts of the budget, and then Remain-voting MPs seeking to ensure that Theresa May’s Brexit meant a version of Brexit that they were comfortable with.

Now you might well argue that this is not how it should work.  The classical model of government is that the executive runs the administration and drives the policy agenda, while the legislature merely scrutinises that policy agenda.

You will occasionally hear people declaim about the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament, a fiction that disregards the fact that the monarch has had only a backstop role for at least 200 years, that treats the executive as a surrogate monarch and that overlooks the small technical objection that this is not the way that things work in practice. It’s quite a theoretical model that not only has no grounding in present day realities but can simply be demonstrated to be incorrect. Yet it continues to hold considerable sway.

If we look at things how they are, and not how we might wish them to be, the story is simple, if disconcerting. The executive controls such part of the administration that Parliament has not removed from it, and those parts are presently diminishing. It is a God of the gaps: sweet science reigns.

As I note above, this only really matters when the government does not reliably control the House of Commons. Hung Parliaments and small majorities, however, have become the new normal. What this means is that parties aspiring to power should now be very wary of forming unstable minority governments, which can easily get trapped in office, and look instead to form stable coalitions.

And what it means right now is that the Conservative is going to be left on the rack, with no way out of its torment. Don’t expect either a Brexit deal on terms that the government can accept or a general election in the near term. The ship of state is drifting to the sea bed.

Alastair Meeks




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Forget the Lewisham East by election this will be the most important political event of June 14th

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

TSE



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If the DUP can make Martin McGuinness Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland then we shouldn’t rule them out making Corbyn Prime Minister

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

A Brexit deal that separates the Six Counties from the rest of the UK could rupture the DUP and Tory alliance for years.

Over the last few years many observers on politics, myself included, have made assumptions that turned out be very wrong. Lib Dem incumbency would save them from a catastrophic seat loss in 2015, the electorate wouldn’t vote to make themselves poorer by Leaving the European Union, and Jeremy Corbyn’s backstory & a divided Labour party would see a Corbyn led Labour party pummelled at the 2017 general election to name but three assumption that proved hugely wrong.

But I’m starting to wonder if another assumption might turn out to be similarly wrong, that assumption being the DUP will never do anything that makes Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister. I’m not going to repeat the many reasons why Jeremy Corbyn & John McDonnell are repulsive to the DUP, but then I remember the photograph above.

The DUP went into a power sharing agreement with the political wing of the IRA and made a former IRA Chief of Staff Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. If they can do that then they can easily make Corbyn Prime Minister.

They may do that if Mrs May is seen to betray Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations and see Northern Ireland more aligned with the EU than with Great Britain.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s takes his whip from Rome, will he take his whip with the DUP too?

As an agnostic someone’s Catholicism isn’t really an issue for me* but the Catholicism of the favourite to succeed Theresa May might be an issue for the DUP and for Jacob Rees-Mogg. Throughout the history of the DUP there’s been a lot of things that will alarm Catholics and make you wonder if they’ll ever make a Catholic the Prime Minister.

  1. Ian Paisley Senior said of the European Union it was ‘a beast ridden by the harlot Catholic church.’
  2. When Pope John Paul II addressed the European Parliament Paisley held up a red poster and shouted ‘”Pope John Paul II – Antichrist” and began shouting, ”I renounce you as the Antichrist!”’
  3. When the late Queen Mother visited the Pope in The Vatican he observed ‘Her visit to the Vatican was spiritual fornication and adultery with the Antichrist.’
  4. He also said of Catholics that ‘they breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin.’ I wonder what the DUP think of the father of six Jacob Rees-Mogg and vice versa.
  5. Paisley also said ‘he considered all Catholics to be members of the Irish Republican Army, which he branded as a collective of terrorists.’

Whilst you can argue that Ian Paisley’s time has gone no one senior in the DUP ever repudiated Paisley’s comments, additionally you regularly still see articles like ‘Anti-Catholic bigotry of many in DUP still significant.’

Back in 1994 when the Loyalist Paramilitary the UDA came up with a Doomsday plan in the event of a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. The plan discussed taking Catholic hostages as part of creating a Protestant Homeland. The ”Doomsday” scenario recognises there would be large numbers of Catholics left within the Protestant homeland and offers three chilling options on dealing with them — expulsion, internment, or nullification.

Current DUP MP Sammy Wilson described the Doomsday plan as ”a very valuable return to reality”.  Would Jacob Rees-Mogg really want to ally himself with such a party?

With Jacob Rees-Mogg admitting he takes his whip from the Roman Catholic Church then in some DUP eyes Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister might seem the attractive option.

TSE

*Unless their opponent were a Pastafarian, that would make me more likely to vote for the Pastafarian.



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Betting on who will the the next Speaker of the House of Commons

Sunday, March 11th, 2018

Laying Jacob Rees-Mogg as next Speaker is my strategy

Following the allegations against Speaker Bercow the Tory MP James Duddridge has helpfully reminded us that when John Bercow was campaigning to be Speaker back in 2009 Bercow promised to stand down by June 2018.  But I’m not expecting John Bercow to honour this promise.

It is reported that Mrs May is ‘concerned’ over John Bercow bullying allegations, which could add further pressure on Bercow so I thought I’d look at the next Speaker market, alas there appears to be no Bercow exit date markets available.

The Paddy Power market below is probably right in having Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle as favourite, he regularly wins praise from all sides of the House when he steps in for John Bercow.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is second favourite, I can see why people think he’d make a good Speaker however I’ll be laying him for the following reasons

I) His focus might be on another job, one that is substantially more influential than Speaker.

II) His socially conservative/Catholic views will be unpalatable to many in the Commons, it is fair to say that Parliament is much more socially liberal than Jacob Rees-Mogg. I suspect Parliamentarians will not want the country to think Parliament is reactionary so that will stop Rees-Mogg becoming Speaker.

III) His views on Brexit might be unpalatable for the vast majority of Parliament that don’t get tumescent over a Hard Brexit that the likes of Rees-Mogg do which again will be a hindrance to his chances of becoming Speaker.

Like the Tory leadership market the next Speaker market is one where I’m fairly confident in betting on who it won’t be rather than who it will be.

(As an aside Paddy Power need to update their market, several of the candidates listed are no longer MPs.) There’s also a Betfair market up on the next Speaker but there’s poor liquidity in that market at the moment.

TSE

P.S. – The Sunday Times are reporting ‘Harriet Harman is preparing to launch a campaign to become Speaker of the House of Commons as John Bercow faces a fresh bid to oust him. The former Labour deputy leader has told friends she is “prepared to throw her hat into the ring” after bullying allegations were raised against Bercow.’



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Westminster watershed. The sex abuse scandal could lead to far reaching change.

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

Don Brind, who first began working at the Palace of Westminster in the 1970s and is still there gives his perspective

When I first heard rumours of media naming and shaming it looked as though this would be Labour story. A lobbyist friend named a couple of Labour MPs who were said to be “lawyering up”.

In the event it has been allegations about top Tories that have made the running. The most serious allegation, however, has been Bex Bailey’s revelation that she was raped at a Labour party event and was discouraged by a senior party figure from making a complaint lest it “harmed her career”.

While it’s generally true that these scandals have the potential to harm the party in power it’s clear that Jeremy Corbyn is as determined as Theresa May to force through change.

I went along to the BBC on Sunday for the Andrew Marr show in my role as a bag carrier for Dawn Butler the Shadow Women and Equalities minister. She was very forthright. She priased Bex Bailey for her bravery but said “a woman shouldn’t need to be brave to get justice”. The two Tory women on the programme Home Secretary Amber Rudd and former minister Anna Soubry were equally impressive.

The main reason I am confident that radical change will happen is that there is cross party cooperation between Tory and Labour women MPs. It’s also significant that getting for half of the PLP – 45% — are women.

Getting it right at Westminster is important because sexual violence and abuse is widespread in society. In the world of work women’s vulnerability is increased by the growth of the gig economy and zero hours contracts and the decline of trade unionism especially in the private sector.

It is also a serious problem in schools, which was the subject of a Commons debate last week  which got virtually no coverage. It was led by the Tory chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, Maria Miller, who said “Two in three girls under the age of 21 have experienced sexual harassment according to the Girlguiding “Girls’ Attitudes Survey”.

“ In our evidence sessions, colleagues heard about children grabbing breasts, pinging bras, lifting skirts and bottom pinching—all those things are a routine part of daily life for schoolgirls in this country today.

“In 2015, a BBC freedom of information request that was sent to all UK police forces found that more than 5,500 alleged sex crimes, 4,000 sexual assaults and 600 rapes had been reported in UK schools in the previous three years, with at least one in five offences being conducted by children on children.”
She said sex and relationship education is now compulsory in law but the Education Secretary Justine Greening – who is also Women and Equalities minister — has yet to issue the necessary statutory guidance to schools.

Maria Miller said “One year on, very little has changed for children in our schools, other than that they now perhaps feel more confident about speaking out and not being ridiculed. Schools already have clear responsibilities to keep our children safe, but those 7,866 reported cases of abuse in 2016 suggest that the way in which schools are handling this problem does not work.

“If we can change things here in a matter of days, why can we not do the same thing for children?”

Don Brind