I have inevitably received a large amount of correspondence on the matter of proroguing Parliament. As confirmed here on the official Parliamentary website prorogation in of itself is a perfectly common constitutional and lawful procedure used most years by Governments to refresh their legislative agenda. The Queen’s Speech setting out a new agenda has been a typical feature of the Commons calendar since I was elected in 2015, though not recently since the current session has been much longer than usual with the last State Opening on 21st June 2017.
Of course, I realise that those of you who have corresponded with me are well aware of the constitutional ‘normalities’, but these are self-evidently not normal circumstances and the question is whether the use of prorogation as a tactic of Government right now – given that this inevitably curtails debate on Brexit – is reasonable in the position where we find ourselves as a country.
In the recent leadership contest, I attended all of the ‘one nation’ hustings where a key question of candidates was: ‘would you prorogue Parliament to allow a no deal Brexit to take place?'. The media have drawn attention to the often strong commitments against the use of prorogation given by leadership candidates at those hustings, some of whom are now senior Cabinet Ministers. But it is worth emphasising what colleagues like myself viewing those proceedings understood that question to mean – specifically, whether the candidate would support the suspension of Parliament until the moment Article 50 expired, in effect using prorogation as a contrivance to guarantee an EU departure with no agreement in place. I well remember how the Prime Minister himself described this as a ‘Gormenghast’ proposal. i.e. a rather ghastly stratagem redolent of science fiction fantasy.
Indeed, had the prorogation now agreed lasted beyond October 31st it would have been an abuse of power, not so much Gormenghast as akin to a banana republic, forcing a no deal Brexit by denying Parliament the chance even to debate such an outcome. However, in reality, the change to the Parliamentary calendar is not as dramatic as one might imagine from the headlines we are seeing. As has happened every year since I was elected in 2015, we were due to return next week from the summer recess for a fortnight sitting followed by a three week recess to allow the party conference season to proceed. The net difference in lost sitting days between this planned recess structure and the prorogued calendar amounts to a handful. This does not mean that the reduction in sitting days is an ideal outcome and I’ve no doubt that most of my constituents would expect us to be sitting through these tumultuous times. The point is that due to the conference recess – which I repeat is a perfectly standard event, like the Queen’s Speech – we would not have been sitting for much of the weeks ahead anyway.
Most importantly, far from proroguing Parliament beyond Brexit and forcing ‘no deal’, it is now guaranteed that Parliament will debate and vote on whatever new deal emerges from the EU Council on 17th October. Given that the Council’s timing is in their hands not ours, it would have been impossible for Parliament to vote on a newly agreed and negotiated deal prior to that date. And with prorogation the Speaker cannot stop the Withdrawal Agreement Bill from being put to the vote once more, though all of my colleagues would be hoping that if it returns we would have amendments to the backstop that assuage the concerns of most MPs that in turn ensures a deal can finally pass. It is a fact of basic negotiating common sense that achieving such a concession from the EU will be more likely if Parliament is unable to bind the Prime Minister in a way that undermines his ability to reject terms, in extremis. As it happens, I have always believed that a deal would be done at the last minute and that possibility has arguably been strengthened rather than undermined by prorogation.
This is why we should also look at this from the point of view not just of Parliamentary democracy, crucial as that is, but also in the context of a Government seeking to negotiate changes to the Withdrawal Agreement from the EU, and above all, from the point of view of millions of frustrated leave voters. Parliament legislated for a referendum that both main parties said they would respect, in their manifestos of the 2017 general election. Both the referendum and Article 50 were passed with huge majorities, and those millions of British people who voted to leave have felt a breach of trust at seeing attempts to execute our departure being constantly delayed by what they may perceive to be Parliamentary ‘shenanigans’, including from many MPs opposed not only to a no deal departure but to leaving the EU at all. Indeed, the day before prorogation was announced the media was full of lengthy coverage of plans to ‘thwart’ no deal from MPs who support very divisive alternative policies such as a second referendum. To be clear, I share many of the concerns felt about no deal which guarantees the end of free trade between us and our largest trading partner, an outcome that cannot be consequence free. But the fact so much ‘anti no deal’ activity could derail Brexit altogether makes it unrealistic not to expect the Government to seek tools to reduce the likelihood of the referendum being overturned. But this will be ‘tit for tat’ and it is inconceivable that this latest step will result in anything other than a heated response when Parliament returns next week.
Ultimately, the crux of our context that shapes where we stand is a failure to agree within Parliament, and I believe that this is mirrored in the country, on the best way to execute the referendum result. Both outer flanks - ‘no dealers’ and ‘no Brexit’ MPs - have conspired to defeat any compromise in the hope that both could triumph. They cannot. On the contrary, I remain of the view I have held since the referendum that the only sustainable way ahead is to honour the democratic vote and leave, whilst doing so on a sensible basis, departing gradually via a transition and negotiated settlement to minimise disruption and paving the way for a prosperous future with certainty restored. This is much closer to the promises of the official ‘Vote Leave’ prospectus of 2016 than a no deal WTO Brexit, which was never even mentioned in the referendum campaign itself; and certainly closer than revoking Article 50, which would be profoundly undemocratic. In a starkly divided country beset by political crisis, unable to move on, compromise is the only way forward that offers a chance for us to both resolve the impasse and reunite.
Thus, whilst I have many reservations about prorogation, it seems to me that we have just simplified the position that was always the reality before us – the EU will have to compromise with us, and enable a new deal to go before Parliament. MPs will then need to compromise to pass the new deal, so that we can finally move on as a nation. But much could happen in the days ahead to upset the course of events and, somehow, we must hold our nerve as a nation and try to find a way forward.