Yesterday (28th August) Boris Johnson asked the Queen to suspend Parliament and she agreed. Jeremy Corbyn (Labour) and Jo Swinson (Lib-Dem) sent letters to the Queen asking her to refuse BJ’s request but they were too late; she had already given her consent. Very, very few people knew this was going to happen; the day before, Nicky Morgan had said it wouldn’t. She must be furious – but will she resign?
The extraordinary circumstance of Brexit, its extensions and its travails, mean that the current Parliamentary session has lasted 400 days. It is tradition for an incoming Prime Minister to set a date with the Queen for Parliament to resume, initiated by a Queen’s Speech which sets out what we would call the Programme for Government, followed by a couple of days of debate on same.
Boris Johnson, as incoming Prime Minister, seems to be within his rights to do this now, even though he was barely confirmed as PM before Parliament broke up for the summer. But what he has done is ensured that Parliament will be suspended in the lead up to the third date set for Brexit, a date which he has consistently said is fixed: Oct 31st. Parliament will sit for one week (starting next Tuesday, 3rd September) followed by the suspension. MPs will return for the Queen’s speech on 14th October. There is a crucial European summit on 17th, after which there will be little room – and even less time – for manoeuvre.
The day before the suspension, there was an all-party meeting to discuss Opposition strategy for blocking a No-Deal Brexit. They have overcome their differences and shifted their focus from a No Confidence vote to a legislative approach, they were pleased to inform us on the evening news. No rebel Tories showed up at this meeting, although we are assured that there are several and that they will tip the balance against Boris Johnson, his Cabinet, and the enabling support of the DUP.
Meanwhile, the Privy council was moving secretly towards Balmoral and the delivery of Johnson’s request to the Queen to set the mid-October date for her speech. The news broke on Wednesday morning with a letter BJ sent to MPs informing them of the new Parliamentary timetable.
Cue: outrage all round. People are furious at what they see as a fundamentally anti-democratic manoeuvre, preventing Parliament from exercising its role and duty of holding the Government to account and doing so at a time of national crisis. Critics include the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, who called it a constitutional outrage. As did Philip Hammond, senior Tory and, under Theresa May’s government, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Arlene Foster welcomed the move. Well, why wouldn’t she, when her own Legislative Assembly has been suspended for so long it looks as though Direct Rule could return to the North?
Even on the streets (in London) people are talking about this suspension (“prorogation”) of Parliament. They talk about a constitutional crisis, and wonder what it means. The UK doesn’t have a written Constitution as such but it does have a legal framework and long tradition underpinning its legislative and political systems. It’s confusing when politicians talk about ripping up the constitution when there is no such document; but when they refer to a constitutional crisis, this is what they mean: tradition and law find themselves, like the rest of us, in uncharted waters when it comes to Brexit. The limitations of the referendum versus its result; the significance of the outcome; the lies that were told beforehand; questionable sources of – and mechanisms for distributing – funding; Theresa May’s approach to negotiating a deal and all the sorry failures that followed; extension after extension.
But whatever anyone thinks about TM’s approach, it has to be said that she showed up in the Commons, day after punishing day, and faced her critics and her accusers, standing sometimes for 2 or 3 hours through gruelling, marathon sessions of question and insult. In Europe, she cut a lonely figure among all those jocular, backslapping handshaking leaders but she went back, over and over again. She made me think of Michael Collins, sent by DeValera on his futile, fatal errand. Boris Johnson has been called a coward: his approach to criticism appears to be to choke it off at source.
On the other hand, many Leave supporters think he has taken a bold, decisive step and simply outsmarted his opponents. And it has to be said that many people don’t care. They’re either indifferent to politics or they want whoever is in charge to get on with it and bring the uncertainty to an end.
In the late afternoon the crowd at the gates of Downing Street were no bigger than the usual group of tourists with their cameras – the only odd feature was a young woman sitting on the pavement with a notebook, intoning poetry I assumed to be her own, like a biblical message: “Lance the wound …” She was so deeply engrossed in her declamatory trance, it wasn’t in me to interrupt and ask her what she was doing or why, although later I really wished I had.
There was more action up at the Cabinet Office, where a small group of EU standard bearers had gathered, along with a man in a clown suit wearing an unflattering BoJo mask with an inflatable frankfurter-like nose. Occasional shouts erupted. Occasional jeers were offered by passing Leavers. At one stage, a standard bearer came out to exchange insults with one of these, but the police were there instantly to break it all up, before retreating to their unobtrusive but watchful position. A woman called Sinéad who wears an Irish flag (I’ve seen her before, she tries to come to the protests every day after work) has an EU beret on. I’ve tried to find one before with no luck. She tells me I can get them online but as it happens I buy one later from a People’s Vote person, it’s a fundraiser for the Remain campaign.
The crowds thicken after 5. Parliament Square fills up. A coalition of left-wing groups have called a protest rally. They’re in Abingdon Green first, but Lib Dem and People’s Vote placards are there too. Bollocks to Brexit stickers are back, bigger and more vivid than they were before. Dick-tator! Declares one placard. Stop the madness, pleads another – and: This is Bigger than Brexit.The word fascist is in the air. There’s a cardboard cutout of Mosley at the gate leading into the Commons. There are many shocked-looking people who might never have been around these protests before. The speakers describe their own anger and ask the crowd to share it. It’s time to get angry, they say. It’s time to show it. There are new chants: Stop the Coup! Some passers-by are hostile. “Why do we have to put up with this?” I heard one young man ask. Fucksake! is in the air too. Those tossers again. The crowd swells and spills over onto the pavement; people mass at the barriers across the road as well. Parliament Square fills up. The helicopters (police or media?) will be there until late. Next week, when Parliament returns, will be fiery.
The Welsh Assembly (Wales voted to Leave) has been recalled. In Scotland (which voted to Remain), Nicola Sturgeon called BJ a Tin Pot dicator and said this was a dark day for UK democracy and that BJ’s action has brought Scottish Independence closer. I wonder about that. Has anyone considered the effect of introducing a European border to the land mass that is Great Britain?
Both sides are adamant: this is either a cynical manoeuvre to disrupt the democratic process, or it is a perfectly normal application of parliamentary tradition. Tory spokespersons are insisting that they don’t see anything wrong with prorogation now. The opposition have had plenty of time to act before now. This is normal practice, they claim. Perfectly legal.
It may be legal, but is it honest, decent, truthful?
There are legal challenges afoot already. One in Scotland, led by Joanna Cherry and another here in London by Gina Miller.
Walking away from the protest … was that Offred I saw retreating around a corner?