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The real democratic question

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  • Leadership

Yesterday my colleague Ed Cox joined the widespread condemnation of the proroguing of Parliament. We enjoy a debate at the RSA, so here is my rather different take.

The willingness of large parts of the British political and media establishment to fall into the trap being set for it by Team Johnson is remarkable. The proroguing of Parliament has been undertaken to elicit exactly the response it is receiving.

The public are being told by the opposition and various commentators and celebrities that democracy is at an end. But next week Parliament will meet and most folk will wonder what all the fuss was about.

This has the neat psychological effect of making the public more sceptical about other (more credible) warnings of doom – for example, over the consequences of no deal.

All the hysteria also helps convince the EU that the Johnson administration is willing to be big, bad and bold – something that is helpful in seeking concessions on the backstop and other matters.

Suspending Parliament narrows MPs' choices 

There were two key tactical reasons Theresa May failed to get her deal across the line.

The first was that from early on it became clear there are three options for the UK – leaving without a deal, leaving with a deal, or not leaving. None of these options has a majority in the country or Parliament.

Second, MPs could individually vote for whatever options they wanted without having to take responsibility for the overall outcome, which was deadlock.

But after the EU summit in October, MPs will face a clear choice. Either support the new deal Boris Johnson has managed to negotiate (probably substantively similar to the May deal but superficially different) or effectively vote for leaving with no deal.

In other words, in a situation with three options the one which is consistently the most popular among the general population (remain/second referendum) will simply not be up for consideration.

It is this - not the loss of four Parliamentary days from the timetable – that is the real democratic issue.

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  • Theresa May's key tactical failure was triggering Article 50 without a plan for what Britain wanted from the deal. The three options you outline are stark, but they assume that the deal TM put to Parliament is the only deal Britain could get. And that is not true. A longer Brexit negotiation timetable could get Britain a better deal and into a better position to manage the impact of leaving. 

    Although the prorogation might have been intended to elicit this response and set the People vs Parliament, it is also a gamble. And I think Parliament and the People are right to bet against it and aim to keep all three options on the table.

    In 2016 government lied to the people and told them it would implement the outcome of the referendum, whichever way they chose. The only way out of this deadlock is to go back to the people for a mandate. That is what Parliament should aim to do.

  • I also agree with your explanation Matthew. I've been most disappointed so far though by the hypocritical behaviour of a number of MPs in pretending to accept the referendum result yet doing their utmost to thwart implementation of Brexit by chicanery and parliamentary devices. And then crying outrage when similar means are used to enable Brexit.


    The other great disappointment is the apparent prevailing view that it is acceptable to have a parliament in limbo, not executing any legislative agenda of note, but arguing endlessly without reaching resolution. One thing no-one voted for in 2016 was 3+ years of stasis.

  • I agree with this. Yelling "Fascism" is inaccurate and conceals the real issue. The goal of the government is to get a Brexit resolution in the house and it is, viewed from No10, a rational option tactically. And that word is the problem. Politics has become very tactical and to win the immediate battle is prioritised. Sadly the damage to democratic norms and conventions will be long lasting and potentially we will see the end of the Union as a consequence. Strategic disaster.

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