A mere few months ago, only those with copies of Erskine May on their bookshelves would have likely known the meaning of prorogation. It burst onto the centre-stage of the public debate framed as a tool by which besuited desperados could force their maleficent policies on us by snatching power away from the legislature. A ludicrous narrative was constructed in which a government could do whatever it wanted by phoning the Queen and asking if she wouldn’t mind awfully sending MPs home for a bit. As should be excruciatingly obvious, this can and will never happen.
Unsurprisingly, then, despite what some seem determined to believe, that is not what the Government is doing now. We have a new Prime Minister, keenly brandishing a fresh domestic agenda, nearly two and a half years into thelongest parliamentary session since the English Civil War. Even in a world blissfully free of Brexit discourse and wrangling, those would be excellent and comprehensive reasons why the Government is well within its rights to call a Queen’s Speech. MPs do not have the right to demand the Commons sits on any given day; they have had years to propose anti-No Deal legislation.
Even so, it should come as no great wonder that the Church House Remainer coalition is rather unhappy, as is evidenced by its classless and unimaginative mud-slinging. MPs from all parties hurl straight-faced accusations of a disregard for democracy. This is, of course, despite the fact that the passing of a Queen’s Speech depends on Parliament’s approval. Nonetheless, throw a few references to ‘17.4 million people’ into the irate Remainer tweets and they could almost be a Brexit Party rallying cry.
The most troubling – and concerningly understated – aspect of this uproar is the fact that this rhetoric is being consistently echoed by one John Bercow. Questions have, of course, been repeatedly raised about the Speaker’s ostensible partiality on Brexit, ever since he abandoned his neutrality and told an audience of students in February 2017 that he had voted Remain. Then of course he rewrote Commons rules in January to give his chum Dominic Grieve a leg-up and toss a small but not insignificant spanner into the works of Theresa May’s Brexit plans.
Bercow is edging ever closer to the Remain camp. His condemnation of the Prime Minister’s announcement last week was drowned out by the near-identical censures from the likes of John McDonnell, Jo Swinson, Anna Soubry and Nicola Sturgeon. While they are fully entitled to unreservedly express their view on the Government’s actions, the Speaker is not. The mere fact that he is now consistently saying almost exactly the same things as those MPs is a cause for grave concern. Imagine the shrieks if the reverse were true.
One of the primary objections cited by the Boris-sceptics is the supposed risk of setting a precedent for the use of prorogation to political ends. Remain-leaning Tories in particular have taken to scare-mongering that Jeremy Corbyn could somehow use prorogations for Queen’s Speeches willy-nilly to force through deranged policies of sweeping nationalisation. This is fatuous; the reasons for having one now are ample and extend beyond Brexit. The genuinely disquieting precedent is that of a biased Speaker. It is disturbing in the extreme that we may soon find ourselves with a de facto co-Prime Minister in the Speaker’s chair.
Our parliamentary system only works when the Speaker is of impeccable impartiality. Across the pond, things are done differently; much American political manoeuvring consists of obsessing over the semantics of an ill-important centuries-old text in desperate attempts to discern whether James Madison really meant that everyone should be allowed to carry their six-shooters into Walmart. Our constitution is not codified, nor even written; it walks, talks and, worst of all, thinks.
This undoubtedly grants the Mother of Parliaments a great many advantages over the American structure, but it also brings with it a host of other democratic tripwires, many of which have been catapulted to the fore by Brexit. Bercow sits astride a stallion, hair blowing in the wind, fist raised in a triumphant declaration of power, staring towards Heaven, as he declares unto the people: “I am the Constitution!”
Thankfully, there are checks to the Speaker’s authority. Our structure of government as a whole is rather good at blocking spates of erraticism. What’s more, so far at least, no certifiable craziness has emanated from the Speaker’s chair. But all is not well. However angry he may be, Bercow has no legitimate reason to seek to impede the Queen’s Speech. For now, his conduct is merely “improper”, as the Leader of the House put it.
But the Speakership is the pillar supporting the glorious democratic ceiling above our heads. And that pillar is being determinedly chipped away at as Bercow’s veil of self-restraint rapidly slips away.