Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Meaningless Brexit deadlines and unresolved critical issues ... may as well call it Stormont

Professor Jon Tonge
Professor Jon Tonge
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

So it's not just Northern Ireland with expertise in the prolonged proroguing of parliament. Boris Johnson's five-week suspension of the Commons is possibly the most thinly-veiled Westminster plot in parliamentary history.

Parliament cast asunder as a democratic inconvenience. MPs will be back in the Commons in September for a mere five days. This after a 39-day summer break.

Thank goodness there is so little at stake, eh?

Boris Johnson's government has railroaded through the most shameless extension of a summer holiday ever, brushing aside the Commons to minimise risks to his "do or die" Brexit, regardless of the consequences of no-deal.

A three-week party conference season, from September 14 to October 2, will extraordinarily become a near five-week parliamentary holiday - at arguably the most critical juncture since the Second World War.

It would be interesting to hear from the Prime Minister what he proposes to do in his freshly awarded vacation immediately following his party conference in Manchester.

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That ends on October 2.

Apparently it takes 12 days to get back to Westminster. Maybe we do need HS2 after all.

Every year, a conference recess motion is passed by the Commons with barely a murmur. This allows the main English political parties to decamp to their respective conferences.

It's normally an uncontroversial three-week break but this year would have been truncated by MPs, given the urgent circumstances. Rightly so.

The idea that a 650-seat Chamber should be suspended to allow 14 Liberal Democrat MPs four days with their fellow obsessives at the seaside seemed absurd for this crucial period.

Alone, the DUP offered support for Johnson's manoeuvre on the grounds that this is the longest-ever Parliamentary Session. True, but it also began with the thinnest-ever Queen's Speech, with few legislative proposals beyond Brexit. So there is no need for extra holidays at a key time.

The odds are very much in favour of the Prime Minister's suspension of parliament getting him over the Brexit line. There are two possible opposition devices of resistance.

One is a vote of no-confidence in the government. The outcome would be uncertain and probably very close. Johnson now lacks a Commons majority even with DUP support.

If the government loses, the Prime Minister would have 14 days to overturn the no-confidence vote, after which there would be an election.

But would the Conservative leader be unduly perturbed if he loses the confidence vote? An election this autumn seems probable anyway. A minimum of 25 working days needs to elapse between the no-confidence vote and the election.

The Prime Minister recommends the date to the Queen. You can bet it will be for a month beginning with N, not O.

Her Majesty will not argue, although the 'advice' of Johnson could be challenged via judicial review if the date was unduly delayed.

Brexit will have occurred on Halloween but its negative effects will yet to be felt. Johnson can go to the country on an "I delivered Brexit as promised" platform with a reasonable expectation of an overall majority. Who knows, he might not even feel the need to get rid of parliament for long periods after? Democracy restored.

An alternative possibility for the Opposition is to grab the parliamentary steering wheel.

It could force a vote to suspend the parliamentary standing orders which allow the government to control the timetable. If successful - a very big if ­ - that might allow the Opposition time to force a vote on requesting a delay to Brexit.

Speaker Bercow might be sympathetic to a parliamentary hijacking, as an antidote to Johnson's proroguing - but would the Opposition win the Brexit stalling vote?

So there we have it for the Commons. Sidelined, amid meaningless or busted deadlines, inadequate procedures and enforced holidays, whilst critical issues are unresolved. They should rename it Stormont.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

Belfast Telegraph


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