Prospect: Parliament is back and staying back – but can it really get anything done?

This article was first published in Prospect Magazine.

Contrary to widespread expectations and the opinions of some of the finest legal minds in the country, the Supreme Court has ruled that the prorogation of Parliament is void. As a result, the Palace of Westminster was yesterday morning once again flooded with MPs, more furious about Brexit than ever and ready to execute the important business of holding the government to account—which we have been repeatedly assured is a democratic catastrophe if set aside for even a few weeks. Over the next month, then, we can expect Parliament to be functioning at the peak of its democratic capabilities.

Now that the Lib Dem and Labour party conferences are under their respective parties’ belts, MPs have gone as far as blocking a three-day recess that would have allowed Conservative MPs to attend their conference. This is political in the extreme. Since no material reason why the Commons must sit for those extra few days has been produced, it is nothing less than outrageous for Tory MPs to be made to waste their time in Parliament rather than attending their own party conference, not least because an election is imminent and party conferences are vital vehicles of grassroots management and rallying.

If Gina Miller and her motley crew of courtroom activists are to be believed, the government is desperate for MPs not to sit because it is petrified of what they might do to its Brexit policy. Since we have also been informed, sternly and repeatedly, that the prorogation was wholly about Brexit and absolutely nothing else, we can also expect MPs to use this hard-won parliamentary time to focus on Brexit, doing everything within their power to derail the government’s ostensibly apocalyptic approach.

The premise of this position is blatantly fallacious. If the prorogation really were a poorly-rebranded attempt to force through a No Deal Brexit, as prominent Remainers claim to believe, the prorogation period would surely have extended up to and beyond the Brexit date. It would also, as the Attorney General pointed out in the Commons this morning, have begun earlier than it did in order to prevent the passage of the anti-No Deal Benn Act.

Even so, in direct contravention to the strident rhetoric churned out in front of TV cameras outside the courts last week, MPs can now be expected to go out of their way to avoid engaging with Brexit on any substantial level, because they know that there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. Anti-government groups are currently juggling the obviously contradictory positions that the Benn Act is airtight—and therefore that ignoring it would be illegal—and that more Brexit legislation is needed before 31 October, suggesting that the Benn Act is not so flawless, after all.

Despite innumerable impassioned statements away from Parliament, when Remainers are asked why this parliamentary time is so important and what they actually want to do now that they have been allowed to return to the green benches, they either talk vaguely of democratic principles or cite the various bills that collapsed when Parliament was thought to have been prorogued and have now been resurrected. These include the undoubtedly worthwhile Domestic Abuse Bill, and the perhaps less than era-defining Public Lavatories Bill.

Surely, though, this is a mere sideshow. Judging by the fervency with which countless Remain MPs spoke of the Very Important Work they had to do on Brexit which necessitated the House of Commons sitting, there must be some Brexit game-changer in their pockets, which can now be whipped out. In reality, of course, they have no such move up their sleeves. The resumption of the parliamentary session is, insofar as Brexit is concerned, pointless.

MPs have spent years slinging mud at one another across the chamber while debating Brexit, with precisely no ground being conceded on any side or consensus being reached. They have had endless opportunities to legislate against the decision they overwhelmingly took in March 2017 when they approved the triggering of Article 50 by stopping the government from taking us out of the EU without a deal. There is absolutely nothing that MPs can do now that they could not do before, and there is, therefore, no parliamentary business of note related to Brexit that can take place between now and Halloween.

This has been obvious from the get-go. When the Commons sat yesterday morning, rather than some ground-breaking Brexit legislation being proposed, we were treated to an urgent question to Attorney General Geoffrey Cox on his legal advice to the government regarding prorogation. Following the stark lack of Earth-shattering revelations to emerge from that, Labour is reportedly planning to use archaic parliamentary procedures to force the complete release of said legal advice.

If parliamentary time truly is as indispensable as MPs have been virulently claiming, why are they now wasting it by mooting what just happened, rather than using it to change our Brexit direction of travel? The answer to this, of course, is that the Remainers concerned had disingenuously already decided that they would oppose prorogation at all costs, and then sought to manufacture reasons to justify their position—hence the insincere arguments about accountability—rather than vice versa. Yet, they are now determined to defend parliamentary time by whatever means necessary.

The core issue, as Lady Hale outlined in the Court, is that this was an attempted prorogation, rather than a recess, meaning that Parliament did not actively consent to it. Before the Prime Minister declared his intention to prorogue, there was no talk of party conferences being cancelled, postponed or shortened. In other words, if the government had not taken a stab at prorogation, Parliament would not have sat for most of the relevant period anyway, thanks to conference recess—and we would have escaped the shrieks about an anti-democratic coup.

On the one hand, therefore, it might be fair to argue that prorogation was an unforced error on the part of the government that has now backfired spectacularly. On the other hand, one would be wise to acknowledge the obvious fact that Dominic Cummings is schooling us all in this game of seven-dimensional chess, and that he will have the last laugh when it becomes clear that losing in the Supreme Court was all a part of his master plan, which ends with a No Deal Brexit and a thumping Conservative majority, presumably with him somehow as Prime Minister. Or King.

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