No matter which side of the Brexit debate you may be on, and regardless whether you view the current Prorogation as a normal part of the Parliamentary year (my view), or as some kind of a dastardly Machiavellian plot to take Britain out of the EU with no deal; either way round, I hope that you will agree with me on one thing.
Parliament and its proceedings only work if they are respected, admired and understood by the people at large. Parliament is simply the “place where people talk” deriving from the old French ‘parlez’. Whitehall is where government work is done; Parliament is the place where we discuss what they are doing. If the public’s respect for Parliament is diminished, then we cannot hold the Executive branch to account as they would wish. Now that respect, comes - amongst many other things- from the age-old customs and structures; the building; the ceremony; courtesy and respect; and the primacy of Parliamentary procedure as laid down in the Clerks’ Bible, Erskine-May. If any part of all of that falls away, then it is a very short step to people starting to ask: ‘What is Parliament for anyhow’, and that way lies either dictatorship or anarchy.
John Bercow had some good instincts, and some achievements to his name. He has strengthened Parliament in some ways. But he has also diminished its standing, its procedures and traditions; the invisible mystery which gives it acceptance and respect by all. You may laugh at the funny uniforms, at the ceremony surrounding Monday’s Prorogation; at addressing each other by constituency and in the third person; at gravitas and decency and good manners in all we do; at a rule against clapping, which diminishes proceedings; at a Speaker who is impartial, at an Opposition which is ‘Loyal’; at a functioning Party system. But those things, and many more, are the invisible glue which holds our Parliamentary democracy together. They are the product of 1000 years of development; and we cast them aside at our peril.
That is why the events of this week are so worrying. The Speaker has become more and more blatant in his pro-Remain and pro-Labour bias. He has become ruder and ruder, more and more puffed up and dismissive of others; more and more bullying. On our busy final day’s business, how can he have allowed two hours of sycophantic ‘tributes’ to himself, at the expense of time, amongst other things to discuss Northern Ireland? It is alleged that he knew about, if not actually conniving in, the disgraceful scenes on Monday evening with Labour, Liberal and SNP MPs scuffling round the Speakers Chair; with his open defiance of Her Majesty’s Prorogation of Parliament; with posters being waved, Black Rod ignored, and the Red Flag being sung in the Chamber. These things do nothing to heighten respect for our Parliament in Britain or abroad, and Mr Speaker Bercow did nothing to stop them.
So one of the urgent tasks now facing us must be restoring that mystical, invisible, hard to define element of ‘Respect’ for Parliament. Mr Speaker Bercow’s departure, a General Election in November after an orderly departure from the EU in October, is the opportunity for that renaissance of the greatness Parliament.
The people voted to leave. Theresa May proposed a Deal to make that happen. The Commons on three occasions voted against it (twice personally, switching sides the third time round.) Labour and 21 Tory rebels have now introduced an absurd piece of legislation which prevents us leaving with ‘No Deal’, and hands control over our departure to the EU! That destroys our negotiating stance and tactics with the EU, thereby removing any likelihood of achieving any kind of Deal.
I deeply regret the necessity to remove the Whip from the 21 rebels, many of whom are good friends, and thoroughly honourable and decent people. However, it is a long-standing convention that any MP who votes against his own Government on a matter of Confidence cannot remain a member of that Party. Without that sanction there can be no kind of Party discipline in Parliament, and no Government would be able to gets its agenda through Parliament without it. I hope that a way may be found in the fullness of time for them to be brought back into the Conservative Party in due course
The only way out of the bind in which all of this leaves us is now a General Election. That is why we tabled a Parliamentary motion calling for one at the earliest possible moment- on 15 October. Labour blocked that. It appears that they are now split as to whether that Election should be in October (Mr Corbyn), or in November (Sir Keir Starmer.) There is a massive power struggle at the top of the Labour Party, with them using the Brexit negotiations as a tactic in it. That is both cowardly and hypocritical. Never in the long history of Parliamentary democracy has the Opposition declined the opportunity to have an Election. There can only be one reason for it- that they know they are going to lose.
So at the time of writing (Thursday morning), no-one has much idea what will happen next. Prorogation on Monday as planned? Queen’s speech on 14 October? General Election on 15 October? Or in November? My guess, (and it changes by the hour), is that the House will rise late on Monday evening having agreed a motion on a General Election. Labour will insist that election occurs after 31 October- very probably, as predicted here - on 7 November. Apart from anything else that might well let the Party Conferences go ahead.
Labour’s Surrender Bill will meanwhile make any further negotiation with the EU impossible, yet they have also effectively prevented us leaving without a deal. They don’t want a deal, yet they don’t want no Deal either. They want an election, or have said they do, yet they vote against it happening, They have been calling for a Queen’s Speech for a long time, yet work to stop it occurring.
So despite our best efforts, Labour and Tory rebels will have prevented us leaving the EU on 31st October, instead forcing yet another pointless delay until at least January. That achieves absolutely nothing at all, but continuing uncertainty for business and people alike.
It is Stalemate, from which only an Election will release us. Labour must now put aside their terror at losing it and agree to as early a General Election as can be arranged.
The people voted to leave. The Parliament agreed with them, but a significant minority set about thwarting it. The Speaker colluded with the Remainers, as did the House of Lords. The EU wanted us to stay. So we had six interest groups with sometimes competing, sometimes coincidental, sometimes colliding aims and methods of achieving them. The House of Commons more or less accurately reflects the views of the people - split down the middle, although Labour MPs from Leave constituencies are conflicted, as are Tories from Remain patches. (Zac Goldsmith is a good example.) All of that being the case, it seems to me hardly surprising that no Deal has been agreed. But I would go further and say that from the beginning there was no possibility that any such deal could be agreed.
The arrogance of President Macron - making it plain that there could be no discussion over the poisonous Northern Irish Backstop proposals – simply means that any Deal is impossible. Apart from anything else the DUP will not support any arrangement which has the Backstop in it; nor will true Brexiteers; nor perversely will Remainers who want to kibosh the whole thing. The Deal has been voted down on three separate occasions, the first of which was the largest defeat of any Government in history. Which part of that do the Europeans not understand? President Macron: If you will not reconsider the Backstop, then we are leaving on 31 October without one; without a deal and pocketing the £39 Billion as well.
A high-level Commission of transport and borders experts sat before the Summer, chaired by Greg Hands and Nicki Morgan. They produced a carefully considered 250-page solution to the Northern Irish border problem. It’s pretty technical - all to do with electronic number plate recognition and the like. I won’t bore you with it here. The reality is that goods or people illegally brought over the Irish Border, or over any border by any means, will remain black market goods and illegal immigrants. You don’t need Customs Officers peering into the backs of lorries these days. It is all done electronically; it is intelligence-driven; and their main concern is illegal tobacco, alcohol, people, and bush meat. In that respect the Irish border is no different to any other border. These are commodities we do not want in this country and there are well established ways of stopping them.
So, I can see no alternative but a straightforward departure on 31 October. It is true that we will not have a signed, sealed and delivered ‘Deal’ which bureaucrats would no doubt like. But I have every confidence that it would take a very short time for intelligent civil servants to get together and work out bilateral deals on a whole host of subjects with our European neighbours and others. After all most of these matters- the rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice-versa, the carriage of drugs over borders, and a host of detailed and technical matters were all agreed in the 750-page Withdrawal Agreement. Most of that stuff is easily transported into Bi-lateral agreements instead of the multinational catch-all which they had set out to create.
The fact is that there cannot be a deal because of the multitude of interests engaged in the matter; but in reality, we really do not need one. The people voted to leave. That is what we must now do, Deal or no Deal.
I have every sympathy, and wholly understand, the concerns of the very many people who have contacted me outraged at the PM’s announcement that Parliament would prorogue until 14 October, when there would be a Queen’s Speech and the start of a new Parliamentary Session. For they seem to have swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the Remainer propaganda that this is some kind of Constitutional outrage designed to prevent the House of Commons debating Brexit, or even to facilitate a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. Let me try to assuage some of their concerns.
First of all, Prorogation of the House of Commons is absolutely standard practice. It normally happens once a year when the Government has completed all of the business it laid out in the previous Queen’s Speech. It is an important safeguard preventing a government running the session on indefinitely, which would remove an important weapon from the arsenal of the Opposition. If the government has not completed a Bill by the time of Prorogation, then the Bill fails. Prorogation is actually something which oppositions - and constitutional parliamentarians - like, and which Governments by and large dislike.
This Parliament has now been in Session for longer than 2 years and, as I argued in this Column on 4th July, that is the real constitutional outrage, depriving Parliament of one route to control the Government. Prorogation and a new Queen’s speech on 14 October is an essential step toward the renewal of the Parliament, and a setting out of the agenda for the 12 months which lie ahead.
The argument that this somehow or another curtails Parliamentary debate on Brexit is equally wrong. We have had 3.5 years of debate on Brexit, millions of words spoken. And we will of course have the two weeks between 14 October and 31 October when we finally leave the EU for any number of Brexit debates. The House every year comes back for two weeks in September, then breaks for 3 weeks or more for the Party Conference Season. That is exactly what is happening here, give or take a few days. Prior to Tony Blair’s introduction of the two-week September sitting, the House never returned until mid-October.
The outrage, of course comes from those who would want to stop Brexit, or at very least stop a No Deal Brexit. And it is only right to acknowledge that this Prorogation makes their plans harder to achieve. Well if so, then I am very glad of that. The people voted to leave, and that is what we must now do. Frustrating arrogant attempts by others to prevent that happening seems to me to be both wholly legitimate and thoroughly democratic.
So the outrage is misplaced. It largely comes from people who are keen to thwart Brexit altogether; or those who want to ‘take no deal off the table’ ignoring the damage that would do to the PM’s negotiating tactics. I can imagine how frustrated they must feel about that. But then they were frustrated when the people voted to leave the EU in the first place. For them to use extreme language about dictatorship, ruin of our Parliamentary democracy, arrogant self-motivation and the rest merely demonstrates either that they are unfamiliar with the Parliamentary calendar, or that they were previously so determined to stop Brexit that the sudden realisation that they will not now be able to do so sparks extreme use of language.
I welcome Prorogation and the Queen’s Speech as an essential part of holding the Government to account.
People occasionally enquire why I do not spend more Column inches telling everyone what I have been doing on local issues. And there’s plenty I could tell, especially during the long Summer Recess when I have been active in all sorts of local spheres - law and order, healthcare, industrial planning, environment and farming and military related matters amongst many others. I take August off from surgeries (although I unusually had two last week), but the massive email postbag needs to be kept up to date. So aside from a few long weekends (all of our friends’ children seem to be having weddings this year), I am pretty much in and around Wiltshire ‘doing local stuff.’
Despite that, there are several reasons why I do not bang on about it too much. First, it could easily become a form of empty bragging. “Here is the meeting I had with a local business. That proves that I am fully up to date on the economy. Here’s my visit to the GP’s surgery to show my NHS credentials, and here is me up to my knees in a farmer’s field to demonstrate my rural credibility.” Something a bit distasteful about all of that. (I admit that I too may have been guilty of it in previous times.)
Second, too much emphasis on truly local issues (and I am always delighted to take them up with the appropriate authority whether that be Wiltshire Council, the Police or others locally), tends to suggest that my job is to represent Westminster in Wiltshire. It is of course the other way around. My job is in Westminster and crucially importantly in Whitehall taking up constituents’ concerns with Ministers and in Parliament, which I am never slow to do.
Incidentally, it is always worth remembering that I am a Representative, not a Delegate. That means that I cannot argue a case in Parliament with which I do not agree. Some Remainers in particular claim that I ‘do not represent them.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. I do indeed represent them and all 70,000 or so voters in North Wiltshire of all political persuasions and none. I represent them even if I do not agree with them on a particular issue. Their remedy will be in the ballot box, when my majority will no doubt reflect the degree to which I have fairly represented the majority of my constituents’ views on a whole spectrum of matters. Get it consistently wrong, and the MP loses his seat. That is the beauty of the First Past the Post electoral system.
Third, I am sworn to secrecy with regard to constituency cases in exactly the same way as a lawyer or a doctor. I may well be working hard on behalf of particular constituents; but they would not thank me for broadcasting it in my weekly email.
And fourth, at a time like this, with momentous events occurring in Parliament and internationally, with the possibility of a General Election, a new PM and Administration, with international events in crisis in so many ways; with all that happening, most constituent readers might not thank me for a personalised diatribe about how busy I have been locally.
Having said all of that, I am very keen indeed to get Brexit and its associated issues out of the way so that we can indeed start to re-focus on the better running of the country. Like most people, I very much look forward to living in less exciting times, and promise to reflect that happy day in my weekly scribblings.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA