British Westminster – A Sorry Tale

British Westminster – A Sorry Tale

At no time in the modern history of the British Westminster parliament have we seen a government so pitted against its parliament and now the highest Court in the land. 

At no time in the modern history of the British Westminster parliament have we seen a government so pitted against its parliament and now the highest Court in the land. 

A very basic chronology is:

The Cameron Conservative government held a referendum in June 2016 with 51.89% of votes cast to leave the European Union. David Cameron then stepped down and was replaced by Theresa May as Prime Minister.

Ms May was unable to secure a successful vote in the British parliament on any deal agreed to by the European Union because a number of Conservative MPs voted with Labour against all the proposals she put forward.  She resigned in June 2019 and was replaced by Boris Johnson the next month.

Unable to get backing from the parliament to leave the European Union without any deal, Boris Johnson then sought to prorogue the parliament for around five weeks until 14 October, two and a half weeks prior to the final exit date (from the EU) of 31 October.

Johnson then formally advised the Queen, by telephone, to prorogue parliament between the 9th to 12th September and to hold a Queen’s Speech on 14th October.  On 28th August, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Privy Council, Mr Mark Harper, chief whip, and Baroness Evans of Bowes Park, Leader of the House of Lords, attended a meeting of the Privy Council held by the Queen at Balmoral Castle resulting in an Order in Council proroguing the parliament between those dates.

Throughout this entire process the Queen acted, as she is obliged to do, on the advice of the government and the Privy Council. 

There were appeals brought by members of parliament before the Court of Session in Scotland, which ruled that prorogation was illegal. A Guyanese-British business owner and activist, Ms Gina Miller appealed to the High Court of England and Wales which ruled that the matter was political and was therefore not justiciable.

Ms Miller then appealed to the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the United Kingdom.  The court looked only on whether the advice given by the Prime Minister to the Queen was lawful and the legal consequences if it was not and held that the decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue parliament was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification. 

The court held that the Order in Council to which the advice led was also “unlawful, void and of no effect and should be quashed” and therefore the prorogation was also void and of no effect and that parliament has not been prorogued.

It is difficult for people in Australia to understand all this, because our system has not been so politicised as that in the UK.  The problem that Boris Johnson faced was that a 2011 Act of parliament, brought in under the Cameron government, required fixed-term elections with a general election is scheduled for the first Thursday in May of the fifth year after the previous general election.  The only way in which a general election could be otherwise held would be if there was a vote of no confidence in the government or a vote of two-thirds of the House of Commons.  Not having a majority, Johnson was not able to muster a two-thirds vote and therefore resorted to the proroguing of the parliament.

On reflection, he should not have done this and even if he and his government considered that the advice tended to the Queen and the Privy Council was sound, he should have considered the implications of so doing, particularly since he did not control the parliament.

Of course, what should have happened a month or more ago is that the parliament should have held a vote of no confidence against the government.  The Queen would then have asked the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, and possibly others to try to form a government and when that failed, call a general election.  However, elements within the parliament did not want an election but they continued to disrupt the proceedings of the government thereby making the parliament unworkable.

Therefore, the ultimate blame must lie with the parliament and the Speaker, John Bercow - who seems to be acting rather like a second John Pym, the Speaker who brought about the English Civil War of the 17th-century.  All have been politicking at the expense of the people.


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