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Bishops will return to Lords, as ‘cracks begin to show’

24 September 2019

PA

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, announces that Parliament will return

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, announces that Parliament will return

BISHOPS will return to the House of Lords, after the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the Prime Minister’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful and void.

The Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, who convenes the Lords Spiritual, confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that, like MPs, the bishops in the Lords were ready to return. Although 26 bishops are eligible to sit in the Lords, typically only one or two appear for ordinary business.

But despite Bishop Urquhart’s deadpan statement — “Bishops will play their full part as usual in leading prayers and in scrutinising legislation and government business” — these are extraordinary times. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously, after a three-day hearing last week, that Boris Johnson’s advice to the Queen that Parliament be prorogued for five weeks (News, 13 September) was unlawful.

Delivering the judgment, Lady Hale, the president of the Supreme Court, said: “This court has . . . concluded that the Prime Minister’s advice to her Majesty was unlawful, void and of no effect. . . The prorogation was also void and of no effect. Parliament has not been prorogued.”

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, announced on hearing the news that the House of Commons would reconvene on Wednesday morning.

Bishop Urquhart said: “The Supreme Court’s conclusion, published today, shows the constitution working with the checks and balances that are to be expected.

“Parliament will now return, with the House of Lords meeting tomorrow, Wednesday 25 September.

“It is not surprising that, in the opinion of the Court, five weeks’ prorogation is far longer than the normal four to six days necessary to prepare for the Queen’s Speech.

“I trust that the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary will be respected and upheld at this critical moment in our democracy.”

Mr Johnson, in New York, said: “Obviously this is a verdict that we will respect and we respect the judicial process.” But he went on: “I have to say that I strongly disagree with what the justices have found. I don’t think that it’s right, but we will go ahead and, of course, Parliament will come back.”

Speaking after the decision was announced at the Labour Party Conference, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Opposition, said that Mr Johnson should “consider his position”.

He said: “The Prime Minister acted illegally when he tried to shut down opposition to his reckless and disastrous plan to crash out of the European Union without a deal. But he has failed. He will never shut down our democracy or silence the voices of the people. . .

“The Government will be held to account for what it has done. Boris Johnson has been found to have misled the country. This unelected prime minister should now resign.”

Dr Elliot Bulmer, a constitutional expert, said on Tuesday: “We are not living in normal constitutional times. With the political constitution under such strain, it is not surprising that it has been necessary for the courts to step in. Things run along quite well on informal understandings in this country until someone steps in and changes things.

“The British state is founded on a constitutional bargain from the late-17th and early-18th centuries. It was a bargain between Crown and Parliament, Lords and Commons, Anglicans and Dissenters, England and Scotland, those who owned land and those who did not. . . This was the Hanoverian constitutional bargain. I would argue that this bargain has now been stretched, and has been for several years, Brexit has just accelerated it. This is the pulling apart and fraying of the bargain.”

We haven’t “grappled” with the constitution fraying, he said: “There has been a degree of complacency and inertia about this. . . We didn’t have to go through a revolution, we have sailed through, muddling on.

“It is like when you build a house and keep putting extensions on it: you eventually outbuild your foundations, and the cracks start to show. We have reached the limits of the current constitution to grow organically.”

The Revd Dr Philip Murray, Assistant Curate of St Peter’s, Stockton-on-Tees, a former lecturer of constitutional law at St John’s, Cambridge, said on Tuesday that it was a “very good decision . . . well-reasoned and quite succinct”, and that there was “no novelty” to it.

“All the Court was doing was applying very well established legal principle. It grounded its judgement in well-established precedence.

“The reasoning here is absolutely orthodox, and lead the court towards perhaps an unprecedented decision, but this was in the mainstream of constitutional law.

“It is re-establishing constitutional law: the Government has limited power, and those powers have to be enacted in accordance with the law.”

He was “surprised” by the unanimity of the ruling. “Because of the political circumstances, Lady Hale would have wanted a clear voice from the Supreme Court.”

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