Sunday , September 15 2019
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Johnson suspends parliament to force a crash out Brexit

Summary:
On Brexit at least (and who knows what may be next) UK democracy has been suspended. Yesterday the Prime Minister drastically reduced the number of days parliament will sit until we automatically crash out of the EU. On the critical issue of Brexit, the Prime Minister has become an unelected dictator. He intends to use his dictatorial power to restrict the supply of medicines and food to the British people.The device he has used is a quaint part of the UK constitution where the Queen decides when parliament sits or does not sit. Nowadays the Queen has no power so she takes advice from the executive. The Prime Minister instructed his lackeys to ask the Queen to prorogue (the technical name for suspend) parliament for 5 weeks and the queen approved. It is as if the President could shut down

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On Brexit at least (and who knows what may be next) UK democracy has been suspended. Yesterday the Prime Minister drastically reduced the number of days parliament will sit until we automatically crash out of the EU. On the critical issue of Brexit, the Prime Minister has become an unelected dictator. He intends to use his dictatorial power to restrict the supply of medicines and food to the British people.

The device he has used is a quaint part of the UK constitution where the Queen decides when parliament sits or does not sit. Nowadays the Queen has no power so she takes advice from the executive. The Prime Minister instructed his lackeys to ask the Queen to prorogue (the technical name for suspend) parliament for 5 weeks and the queen approved. It is as if the President could shut down Congress whenever he liked, and in particular whenever they were about to do something he disliked.

It was cleverly done, in that it allowed parliament to sit for effectively four days in early September and probably about a week just before we crash out of the EU, so the PM could claim parliament still had “plenty of time” to discuss Brexit. Johnson, like Trump, is a serial liar. As the former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake said, to believe this is anything other than an attempt to critically curtail the chances that parliament can stop us crashing out is an insult to the intelligence.

Johnson knows that only the most foolish will believe the 'plenty of time' lie. But Johnson's big idea that he wants wavering Tory MPs to believe is that the EU will only change the backstop if they truly believe the UK will crash out. This is one more Leave misjudgment about the EU, in a long list of them. The EU do not want the UK to crash out, but they are not going to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland to avoid it. Any UK government not made up of anti-EU fanatics would want to avoid that to.

Like so much in the UK’s unwritten constitution, the Queens right to decide when parliament sits is a hangover from our history that has been allowed to remain because it was understood that the Queen would follow the advice of the Prime Minister (the last monarchthat didn’t had his head cut off) and the Prime Minister would respectthe will of the parliament. In the UK parliament is sovereign, but only because there were unwritten norms that assumed no government would be undemocraticenough to disobey.

Article 50, the process by which the UK is negotiating to leave, also makes an assumption that governments reflect the interests of its citizens. It says that after two years, unless the EU extends that deadline, the leaving country crashes out with no trade deal, and indeed no deal on anything else. It was assumed that no rational government would ever want to crash out and so this deadline was a great incentive to agree to a deal of the EU’s liking. The UK now has a government that relishes the opportunity to leave without a deal, which the government’s own advice suggests will lead to shortages of food, fuel and medicines.

Does this affront to democracy matter if it is restricted to the issue of Brexit, where a referendum voted to leave? It matters because in that referendum the Leave side only talked about leaving with a deal. That is the mandate that this advisory referendum provided - to leave with a deal. So leaving with no deal does not even respect the referendum.result.

Here are some comments by MPs about the idea of a Prime Minister proroguing (i.e. suspending) parliament to get their way on Brexit.
I think it would be a terrible thing that having said we should have more power in this country and trust our institutions more ... and shut the door on parliament”
[Proroguing parliament] goes against everything that those men who waded onto those beaches, fought and died for and I will not have it.”
It is a ridiculous suggestion”
Delivery on democracy while trashing democracy. We are not selecting a dictator.”

Not any old MPs, but now ministers in the Prime Minister’s cabinet. Yet none has expressed any regret at it actually happening, now that they have some power. How far the Conservative party has fallen.

Let’s think about what this actually means if we crash out of the EU. A measure that will have profound implications for most UK residents will come into effect without approval from the House of Commons and with hardly any scrutiny. The official document that sets out the likely impact on food and fuel supplies, medicines and much else remains secret, and no House of Commons committee has had a chance to examine claims that the government has somehow avoided the shortages this document predicts.

You may say that parliament overwhelmingly gave the approval for the government to start the Article 50 process, but on this occasion - and time and again subsequently - MPs have not anticipated how fanatical those advocating No Deal are. They will certainly not have anticipated a No Dealer becoming Prime Minister and suspending parliament to crash out via Article 50. If you had said that more than two years ago you would have been laughed at. UK democracy has fallen a long way in two years.

For those tempted to say this is just one issue and just five weeks (the total length of parliament’s suspension), I would say two things. First, this is hardly a minor issue, but one of the biggest issues that the UK has had to deal with in decades. On this vital issue, Johnson is trying to force an outcome that most people do not want. Second, pluralist democracy normallydoes not end with a bang but in stages of plurality. No doubt when the Hungarian government in 2011 abolished its fiscal council plenty of Hungarians thought little of it. That has been followed by the end of judicial independence and and independent media. It is clear this government also has little respectfor parliamentary democracy.

Will the majority of MPs in the little time they have left do enough to stop us crashing out of the EU? I honestly do not know, but I am pessimistic because only Johnson can extend Article 50 and I now think it is quite likely he will try to frustrate parliament in other ways and that he will ignore parliament if it did succeed. A vote of no confidence may be the only option MPs have. Will Johnson’s suspension of parliamentary democracy unite enough MPs to do this? Again I have no idea, but I can say this.

If Jeremy Corbyn in government did anything similar to this in order to get one of his policies through, I would argue he was no longer fit for office. But perhaps putting power above principle, as the MPs whose quotes I show above clearly do, is today a characteristic of almost the entire right of UK politics? The principle at stake right now is parliamentary democracy itself.

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Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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