THESE are the times that try MPs’ souls. As the day of Brexit approaches, normal political loyalties are being stretched to breaking-point, and the Government’s decision to prorogue — or suspend — Parliament (News, 30 August) has only increased the tension, as this week’s events have demonstrated.
It is an unfamiliar word, but prorogation normally marks the end of one parliamentary cycle, and makes way for the beginning of the next, heralding a Queen’s Speech and a new legislative programme. The current cycle has been unusually long, lasting since the 2017 General Election.
But the timing of this five-week break, on the brink of Brexit, is the critical issue. It prevents MPs abandoning their normal conference adjournment, so they could have continued sitting in the run-up to Brexit Day, which was one possible gambit; and it shaves crucial days off the legislating time available after they return.
They would have three weeks before the UK is due to leave, and would normally spend a week debating the new Queen’s Speech. So what is normally a moveable but uncontroversial feast in the parliamentary calendar has been deployed in a very tactical way.
Is it unconstitutional? The British constitution is, famously, an amorphous mass of precedent and unwritten rules and understandings. And the peculiarity of the current situation is that those subtle constraints are now being stretched by both sides.
On the other side of the argument, methods used to pass a Bill to block a no-deal exit relied on the Speaker, John Bercow, to allow some pretty novel procedural manoeuvres. His argument was that parliamentary procedure was there to provide an orderly framework for decision-making, not to frustrate the will of a Commons majority; but many Conservative MPs were not impressed.
Generations of historians will have endless fun arguing these issues, but the more dangerous point is that each controversy inflicts collateral damage on the constitution and the very idea of an accepted body of rules that govern the working of the State — although, in the heat of the argument, neither side seemed much bothered by such abstract concerns.
And there is more stretching to come: suppose a Bill is passed by Parliament and the Queen is advised by the Prime Minister not to sign it into law. What then? Suppose the Prime Minister finds some other way to defy the expressed will of Parliament, or ignores it?
The veil is ripped from the holy of constitutional holies, and a precedent is set for future governments. Alarm about that prospect adds an unpredictable factor in the minds of some wavering parliamentarians.
IN THE next few weeks, the course of Brexit will be decided by MPs who are ready to break party discipline: Conservatives who are prepared to vote against their Government, to push through anti-no deal legislation, balanced against Labour MPs who are prepared to vote with the Government. In a tightly balanced Commons, the result will come down to a handful of individuals. (We are only part way through the process as I write.)
This is where the soul-trying comes in. It is no small thing for an MP who has spent decades in a party, climbing its hierarchy and campaigning with its members, to escape the web of obligation and loyalty which he or she has built up. Social media at the moment are full of people talking about putting country before party, but it is never that simple. To join a political party is to believe that the best thing for the country is to be governed by that party. So, a Conservative who embarks on a course that could put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street, or a Labour MP who refuses to help defeat the Conservatives, becomes an apostate before his or her chosen tribe.
One Conservative, the former Justice Minister, Phillip Lee, threw off those ties with some panache, staging a theatrical arrival on the Lib Dem benches in the Commons just as the Prime Minister was speaking. Others may be less demonstrative.
The remaining rebels face baleful warnings of deselection and expulsion, but any seasoned politician would know that — even before the Johnson Government took a much tougher line against potential rebels. This week, one of their leaders, Dominic Grieve, dismissed the warnings with Thomas More’s line in the play A Man for all Seasons: “These are but devices to threaten children.” The former cabinet minister Rory Stewart, now among the whipless, dismisses the disciplinary clampdown as “a passing phase”.
He was among 21 Conservative MPs who voted to allow the Commons to debate Hilary Benn’s anti-no-deal Bill, and, as promised, they were notified that the party whip had been withdrawn. The move was telegraphed well in advance, and now a series of eminent ex-ministers and party grandees find themselves cast out.
Without the whip, they cannot be Conservative candidates in a General Election. This will mean little to those already planning to leave, but will, unless reversed, terminate the careers of others who might have expected many more years in Westminster. But it also has implications for the Government, because it makes the business of winning day-to-day Commons votes all the more difficult.
In the first place, the expelled can be expected to ensure that the Benn Bill is passed; then they would probably be disinclined to support Mr Johnson’s move to hold a General Election. In any case, holding an early election would require a two- thirds majority of the Commons, under the terms of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. This was a legacy of the Cameron-Clegg Coalition Government, which has drastically reduced the room for manoeuvre for a cornered Prime Minister, because he or she can no longer nip up to the Palace and call a snap poll at an advantageous moment.
With Labour unwilling to back an early election until the Benn Bill is passed, Mr Johnson could be trapped in office without a majority, and left there to stew. He has made leaving the European Union on 31 October a “do or die” priority for his Government, and failure will supercharge the threat on his flank from the Brexit Party. So, baulked over Brexit, he needs to find some escape route that would allow him to take his case to the voters; but it is hard to see his enemies on all sides allowing him the chance.
That requirement for a super-majority to vote for an early election means that Labour, in particular, could seek to impose painful conditions in return for backing a motion to dissolve Parliament. These could include the date of an election, or some kind of freeze on the Brexit process — perhaps involving a further delay to leaving, which would allow for a new referendum.
OF COURSE, the Government might quit, and hope that no alternative combination could fill the vacuum, which would trigger an election within a fortnight. Would it work? Over the summer, Westminster was entertained by speculation about a “Government of National Unity”, perhaps headed by Mr Corbyn, or perhaps by an alternative figure capable of commanding cross-party support.
But it would be an unwieldy beast involving deadly rivals — Labour, the SNP, and the Lib Dems — working together in wary partnership, while jostling for long-term advantage.
And “National Unity” would hardly be an accurate description for a highly polarising attempt to refight the Brexit referendum. And just imagine the impact of a Government of National Unity on the existing parties. In Parliament, new alignments would emerge; in the country, voter identification with the parties, already in sharp decline, would fade even faster, and there would be a vote to test it — a second referendum, and, maybe, an election as well. You have only to take half a step in any direction from the current political position to find yourself in fantastical territory.
The other thought to hold on to is that the prorogation announcement is probably just the opening move in a much longer dogfight: expect plenty more stratagems and ruses before Hallowe’en.
Mark D’Arcy is the Parliamentary Correspondent for BBC News.