3 ways Bercow could stop Johnson’s dirty tricks

by Hugo Dixon | 13.09.2019

The Speaker has said it’s a “racing certainty” Parliament will find creative new procedures if the Prime Minister tries to break the new law saying he has to ask the EU to delay Brexit. John Bercow said last night: “Neither the limitations of the existing rulebook nor the ticking of the clock will stop it doing so.”

We live in a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential democracy let alone a dictatorship. This means that if Parliament wants something enough, MPs can get it. And the Prime Minister has to do what he’s told. If he refuses to, he will get kicked out of office or sent to jail or potentially both.

There are, of course, lots of rules about how Parliament operates. These give immense power to the government about how to run the business of the House of Commons. But Parliament makes its own rules – and, if it thinks the government is unfairly exploiting the rules, it can change them.

When the Prime Minister has a majority in the House of Commons, this isn’t a practical option. But that’s no longer so.

MPs were already flexing their muscles when Theresa May was prime minister. It’s far easier with Boris Johnson as prime minister because he has expelled 21 MPs from his party and lost a couple more. The opposition easily grabbed control of the parliamentary timetable last week, pushing through the emergency legislation ordering Johnson to ask the EU for extra time.

The Speaker didn’t say what types of procedural creativity might be needed in coming weeks. But here are three ideas, which might be needed if the prime minister either refuses to obey the new law or gets up to some other monkey business.

Law to stop a further suspension

The Supreme Court is meeting next week to decide whether Johnson’s advice to the Queen to suspend Parliament until October 14 was illegal. If it rules that it was legal, the Prime Minister might try a second “prorogation”, say until early November. If he then broke the law requiring him to ask the EU to delay Brexit, Parliament wouldn’t be able to kick him out of office because it wouldn’t be sitting.

This problem, however, could be avoided if MPs immediately pass a law requiring the prime minister not to prorogue Parliament again. They could say their approval would first be needed – or that another suspension could only start once the prime minister had secured extra time from the EU.

Force Johnson to resign

Downing Street has been briefing that the Prime Minister won’t resign even if MPs pass a vote of no confidence in him. If nobody else can form an alternative government in 14 days, he would have every right to do so – and there would then be an election. But Johnson’s supporters are suggesting that he might hang onto power even if the opposition could rally around Jeremy Corbyn or another leader.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act only specifies that there isn’t an election if MPs pass a motion: “That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s government.” According to the Cabinet Manual: “The prime minister is expected to resign where it is clear that he or she does not have the confidence of the House of Commons and that an alternative government does have the confidence.” (See clause 2.19) But this is only a convention – and Johnson could theoretically break it, meaning the Commons would never have a chance to show it had confidence in a rival prime minister.

MPs, though, could find ways round such a devilish trick. They could, for example, pass a motion indicating clearly that they were prepared to support a particular person as prime minister. That would give the Queen the confidence to fire Johnson and install the new prime minister. If that wasn’t enough, Parliament could even pass a law requiring him to resign.

Compel PM to hold a referendum

The Prime Minister says he wants an election. So does Corbyn. But lots of opposition MPs think it would be better first to hold a referendum on whether to stay in the EU. If they can persuade the Labour leader that this is a good idea, they could pass a law saying there has to be such a People’s Vote.

The Government would need to spend public money to hold a referendum. So Johnson could try to sabotage such a law by refusing to propose a “money resolution”, making the necessary funds available. Standing Order 48 of the Commons says that only the government can propose such a resolution.

But there is a convention that ministers table money resolutions for all Bills granted a second reading by the Commons, even those not proposed by the government. So, if Johnson broke this convention, MPs would be perfectly within their rights to change Standing Order 48 – and propose their own money resolution.

Dominic Cummings, the Svengali figure controlling many of Johnson’s actions, may dream up all sorts of schemes to flout the will of Parliament. But if MPs are sufficiently determined, they can foil his plots.

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Categories: Brexit, UK Politics

4 Responses to “3 ways Bercow could stop Johnson’s dirty tricks”

  • Cummings is not the only one that is clued up about parliamentary procedure. And there are others with a far more encyclopedic knowledge of how things happen in the house of commons. I think his days are numbered.

  • I really am in two minds about the role of the queen in the present prorogation of Parliament as I am in doubt about her being above politics to the extent that she’ll deliver a fair and even-handed decision on the subject of Brexit. Therefore I can’t say that I trust her judgment on the next batch of issues coming up, including a further request for prorogation. She might well give her assent.

  • Peter van der Mark, our blessed queen hasn’t lifted a finger to help us so far, especially with the prorogation, so I have no faith in her at all. I think she’ll be happy to sell the country down the pan as long as it’s minimum hassle for her and doesn’t threaten the royal family.

    The latest news reports of Johnson saying that he will defy the order to request an extension and thinks that there’s a way to do it without breaking the law are worrying. I don’t think he’s bluffing. All he has to do is sit on his hands until the 31st and we’re out with a no deal.

    I don’t think he’s too concerned about losing his premiership after that, or any other personal consequences to him, such is the influence of his wealthy puppet masters.

    I so wish Cameron hadn’t called that damned referendum.

  • Mikey, I think the queen has either bad counsellors or, what I think happened, that she didn’t listen to those wise people telling her to avoid stoking further fires among her already volatile menials.
    Purely politically speaking Brexit is something foisted upon the country by a mere 23% of the inhabitants, who to a large extent were proven to be of advancing age. With other words, soon those who would have voted against Brexit, younger people, will confront the monarchy with the role it played in enabling the most miserable political shenanigans to bypass the existing democratic ways of this country. If she had wanted to make the life of a future monarch more difficult, then this is precisely the way she should have done it. Now, had I been that wise, white-haired and long bearded person to provide her counsel, I would have told her to decline the prorogation Johnson asked for mainly on the ground of the above-mentioned reasons. If Boris Johnson and his ilk had a good case to push for the hard Brexit they require, then they should make and convince the population to vote for it. Quite another issue for her to bear in mind is the possibility of violence, where up to now for valid reasons the eyes went to the hard-right of the political spectrum. I am not at all sure that furious anti-Brexit factions will take crashing out after what has been done with their interests that easily. My MP, “Mr. Pennant” John Penrose, was quite off-hand about that, he too mentioned violence from the right as the reason to support the ways of Mrs. May. Hope he was right and that remain voters on the whole are more peaceful people than those voting leave.