Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: It is fantasy to claim Parliament suspension will make a difference

A man waves both a Union flag and a European Union flag on College Green, Westminster
A man waves both a Union flag and a European Union flag on College Green, Westminster
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

It has been the least edifying week in politics since, well, the previous one. As a parliament prorogued was adjudicated by the Scottish Courts to be the action of rogues not pros, the battle moves to the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Although it would be surprising if next week's nine Supreme Court judges send MPs scurrying back to Westminster, most people have long ceased to be startled by any political or judicial developments.

It is difficult to demur from the Scottish Court verdict that the UK government acted with the "improper purpose of stymying parliament". It did. But parliament has proved very adept at stymying itself. To listen to the anguished cries of prorogued MPs, you'd think Parliament was making huge strides dealing with Brexit. All it needed was an extra couple of non-suspended weeks.

Let's remind ourselves of what those affronted parliamentarians managed. They ended the parliamentary session singing tuneless laments which would have seen others removed from a public house, let alone a legislature. The dirges followed an utterly wasted parliamentary term.

At the start of this year MPs rejected Theresa May's EU deal, inflicting the biggest defeat upon a government in parliamentary history. After rejecting that agreement by 230 votes, the Commons repeated the feat by margins of 149 and 58. Not content with stymying this solution, MPs eschewed all others:

Customs Union? No, by 8 votes.

Common Market 2.0? No, by 95.

Second Referendum? No, by 27.

No deal? No, by 240.

Managed No Deal (whatever that was)? No, by 283.

EFTA/EEA? No, by 312.

Revoke Article 50? No, by 109.

The idea that prolonging, not proroguing, the longest parliamentary session since the English Civil War would have sorted things is pure fantasy. At least the Civil War saw the parliamentarians achieve something. And it produced fewer court cases.

The Opposition claimed that the government had compressed the parliamentary timetable. Yes, things got so tight on Monday that the Speaker allowed merely an hour of tributes to himself. That leaves only 14 more days of obsequiousness between the (scheduled) resumption of parliament and his departure.

Beyond Westminster, the grim politics of Brexit did show a few positive signs. Amid denials, there were indications of a DUP shift in position towards a mini-backstop, a Common Trade Area in the agri-food sector across the island of Ireland.

The DUP gave itself political cover, reviving the idea of a Stormont veto on any further all-island alignment and continuing to reject a Customs Union. If one overlooks that by the end of next month the Assembly will not have sat for 1,000 days (and counting) it's a masterplan. If ever a parliament was stymied "for Improper purposes", it's Stormont. Yet, even absent, it has probably achieved as much on Brexit as Westminster.

Agricultural alignment across the border makes obvious sense. It's a Northern Ireland-only backstop but hardly a derogation of UK sovereignty and more a resumption of the "they're Irish cows" approach of Ian Paisley during the BSE crisis.

But taking care of the bacon, beef and butter will only account for one-third of cross-border trade. Machinery, transport and manufactured goods account for another one-third and here the all-island dimension may remain difficult to agree.

Critics of the backstop might grumble that, for the EU, the purist integrity of its Single Market is more important than genuine fears over one of the world's most politically sensitive borders. Detractors therefore argue that the border is being used. The idea that the UK, via Northern Ireland, would infringe the Single Market by flooding it with inferior products may be dubious. A bespoke UK-Irish trading arrangement might not undermine the entire apparatus of the EU market. Technology can provide a partial solution.

Notwithstanding those criticisms, the EU has been consistent in its approach. Having the (huge) advantages of Single Market membership means alignment to its rules. It's the UK's departure from those regulations that will cause the reinvigoration of the border that no one wants. And the backstop remains popular among nationalists, the non-aligned and many unionists.

Political dexterity from the DUP will not harm its election prospects, not least in South Belfast, easily the most Remain-voting of the Party's constituencies. It's here where the DUP will face the toughest fight to hold on. Other parties confirmed their candidates this week and, predictably, any prospect of a Remain pact crumbled amid recriminations and vested party interests. You feel for the lampposts amid the poster wars.

There has been some thawing between Brexit antagonists. Last weekend I attended the British-Irish Association conference at Cambridge University. While the attribution of contributions is not permitted, let's just say that several key players offered thoughtful and positive contributions to resolving logjams. Indeed, such was the positivity and forward-thinking that the first defensive rearguard action I saw all weekend was England's, after heading north to the Ashes Test Match on Sunday - and we know how that ended.

With a Supreme Court verdict and a Liberal Democrat conference next week, the fun remains ongoing. Meanwhile, the government has been obliged to present its Operation Yellowhammer no-deal worst case scenario documents. They present a worrying picture of possible disruption and chaos in the UK. But we've already had that in Westminster for the last couple of years.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

Belfast Telegraph


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