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Explainer: The British parliament is being prorogued - but could the queen have refused?

Rory Stewart said before that if parliament was prorogued, he would help organise an alternative parliament.

Updated Sep 1st 2019, 12:29 PM

brexit Source: PA Wire/PA Images

TODAY, UK PRIME Minister Boris Johnson requested that Queen Elizabeth suspend the British parliament in a controversial move known as prorogation.

Five hours after his request, the queen acquiesced, in a move that will be the focus of the UK’s rolling constitutional debate. 

Johnson said that he made the request to end the 340-day long parliamentary session, which he accused of “filling time” and holding back key Brexit legislation. 

However, House Speaker John Bercow said that the move amounted to a “constitutional outrage” and that it was “blindingly obvious” that it was being done to “stop parliament debating Brexit”.

Former Tory leadership candidate Rory Stewart said previously that he thought it was highly unlikely that parliament would be prorogued, but added that if it was, he would help organise an alternative parliament to try to stop a no-deal Brexit.

The move to prorogue parliament is a complicated one, which is exacerbated by the queen’s involvement in stopping and starting parliamentary sessions, as well as the fact that the UK has no written constitution and instead relies on precedent. 

prime-ministers-questions Source: House of Commons

During prorogation, motions or questions can’t be tabled and almost all parliamentary business comes to an end. 

The queen has granted a request from Boris Johnson to suspend parliament from 9 September at the earliest, until 14 October. An annual Conference Recess Motion sees the House of Commons break up to hold party conferences from 14 September to 2 October this year.

The House of Commons is to return next week, after breaking up for a summer recess a day after the appointment of Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister.

Is this unusual?

Ronan McCrea, Professor of Constitutional and European Law at University College London told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke this morning that normally, prorogation lasts for a few days between sessions of parliament.

Here, they’re proposing to stop it for five weeks and there’s been nothing like that in decades.

“It probably could be seen as unconstitutional in the British sense because Britain doesn’t have a written constitution – so unconstitutional means unusually bad behaviour rather than illegal behaviour.”

But he added that what was “pretty audacious” and “out of line” with practices over the last few decades, is that they’re pretending that it’s not about Brexit.

The Hansard Society told the Guardian that this was the longest prorogation since 1945, and would prompt legal challenges. 

 In March, during a series of votes on how to take Brexit forward, a majority of 321 MPs voted against a no-deal Brexit at any time, with 278 voting in favour. It’s the only clear majority for any Brexit option that the House of Commons has had.

When House Leader Jacob Rees Mogg was asked to stop a “chaotic” prorogation, he responded to say that the House of Commons has passed the Withdrawal Act and the Article 50 Act, and that “mere motions” such as the one above on no-deal, count for naught. 

“…We would have an erratic, changeable and irregular system of government,” if they did, he said.

Could the queen have refused to prorogue?

Although Queen Elizabeth is understood to have expressed her disappointment in British politicians’ “inability to govern”, as she is bound by precedent, she has no other choice but to grant a request to prorogue parliament. 

“In theory yes, but in practice no,” McCrea said earlier today. “The queen acts on the advice of the Privy Council, which is her senior ministers. So in this case, the queen will follow the advice of her prime minister and ministers to prorogue parliament.”

“The only issue that might affect that is if parliament indicates it has lost confidence in Boris Johnson, but that hasn’t happened yet. She will almost certainly just accept the request, that’s what she has to do.”

Former British Prime Minister John Major has said that in his opinion it would be “almost inconceivable” for the queen to deny the request; he’s also threatened to take the British government to court if it pushes for prorogation.

The House of Commons Library said that in practice, “this process has been a formality in the UK for more than a century: the government of the day advises the Crown to prorogue and that request is acquiesced to”. 

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It’s been suggested by some commentators that the move could be forcing those against a no-deal to put forward a vote of no confidence in Johnson, which had been sidelined yesterday by opposition parties in favour of legislating against a no-deal Brexit.

Passing legislation is a long, complicated process, comprising of debates and amendments that would require breathing space on the House of Commons’ legislative agenda.

If a vote of no confidence is put forward instead, it could take up legislative time needed to debate no-deal legislation – another possible chess move by Johnson’s team. 

In a counter move by anti no-deal MPs, there have been reports that the Court of Session in Edinburgh will tomorrow consider a petition backed by more than 70 parliamentarians aimed at blocking Boris Johnson’s prorogation bid.

Is this the end of Boris Johnson?

boris-johnson-becomes-pm Source: Dominic Lipinski

Former attorney general Dominic Grieve told Radio 5 Live today that he reckoned the government would collapse over this issue and that he would “certainly” vote down a Tory government that “persists in following a course of action that is so unconstitutional”.

If the Prime Minister persists with this and doesn’t back off, then I think really his administration will collapse. I don’t see how a Prime Minister who persists with this will last until the 31 October.

John Tongue, a Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool, said that it was a “very very blatant device by the government” and an “obvious move to truncate debate”. 

He said that because of the recesses for the party conferences, there was no reason why the parliament couldn’t sit “up until 13 September and then resume on Wednesday 3 October”.

I think what this does is makes the vote of no confidence more likely – this I’m not sure that Boris Johnson and the Tories will win it.

“So, we’re probably looking at a general election.”

If Johnson loses a vote of no-confidence, he has 14 days after the vote to win another one, which isn’t likely to happen in this very polarised debate on Brexit.

If he doesn’t win a second one, or doesn’t try, parliament will dissolve and a general election will be called within 25 days. 

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