Martin Kettle www.theguardian.com
Why are the members of the UK parliament not holding the government’s feet to the fire amid these multiple crises? The case for them doing so is overwhelming. In the middle of a global pandemic, with coronavirus cases rising again at home, the government has abolished England’s main public health body. The examination and university entrance systems are in real-time chaos. The economy has fallen into recession. Jobs are collapsing by the thousand daily. Oh, and the Brexit talks have stalled.
Meanwhile, a prime minister who can’t cook and who likes to take luxury foreign holidays at someone else’s expense is supposedly out in the rain on a midge-ridden Scottish camping holiday with his partner and a three-month-old baby. Believe that if you wish. What really matters is that Boris Johnson is simply absent without leave.
So where are Britain’s MPs when they are needed? The conventional explanation is that this is simply the usual long summer recess. Parliament almost never sits between late July and early September. MPs have met only twice in August in the last half century – the last time over Syria in 2013. They can be recalled only if ministers want it. Ministers rarely do. End of story.
Except this is not the end. Instead the extremely deliberate marginalisation of parliament under Johnson and Dominic Cummings is emerging into plain sight. The Covid-19 pandemic conceals this, because it is so obviously an exceptional time and because the socially distanced parliament is stuck in second gear. But do not be deceived. We are witnessing the attempted overturning of an established system of representative democracy that can almost be described as a quiet coup.
A year ago next week, three members of Johnson’s then minority government went to Balmoral and secured the Queen’s authorisation to prorogue parliament. That triggered a constitutional crisis over Johnson’s attempts to sideline the hung parliament over Brexit. The crisis was eventually ended by the wrongheaded decision of opposition MPs to support an early election, which Johnson won with a working majority of 87.
Yet any idea that last year’s general election result might signal a return to government through parliament has been confounded by events. As it has turned out, the sidelining of parliament in the prorogation crisis has continued during the Covid pandemic. Sidelining was not just the temporary expedient brought about by the Brexit crisis and the absence of a majority. It is the continuing policy. Johnson has taken his 2019 election victory and proceeded to redefine it not as a parliamentary mandate but as a presidential one.
Conventions are there to be broken. One of these, which had increased before Johnson’s arrival to No 10, is the readiness of ministers – in particular the prime minister – to submit themselves and their policies to regular scrutiny and challenge by elected MPs. The sovereignty of parliament in the British system is, after all, far more than a convention. It is the central pillar of the unwritten constitution. Even with a majority of the kind that Johnson now enjoys, parliament remains in both law and theory the wellspring from which government derives its consent, informal as well as formal.
Johnson is ignoring this – partly because he is not, by deed or instinct, a parliamentarian. He makes far fewer prime ministerial interventions there than his recent predecessors. He avoided prime minister’s questions for months, and is now clearly uncomfortable facing Keir Starmer. He had to be forced to do a session with the liaison committee of Commons select committee chairs; it went badly and he will not do another in a hurry. He does not command parliament from the dispatch box in the way other premiers with large majorities, such as Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, could do. He has no instinct in his body to recall MPs over anything at all.
Cummings, meanwhile, views parliament with the same contempt he reserves for all government institutions. Towards MPs, as to civil servants, he is malignant disdain incarnate. The two of them are never happier than when parliament is absent and they can get on with governing in the preferred, quasi-presidential mode. Johnson’s platform of choice during lockdown was the press conference rather than the Commons chamber. He wasn’t very good at that either, which is why he is now looking for a press conference spokesperson, a move Thatcher’s press chief, Bernard Ingham, has correctly condemned as a “constitutional outrage”.
Which brings us back to the here and now. MPs of all parties should be hopping mad that their voices are going unheard at a time when the entire structure of public health policy implementation in England is being scrapped by central government without the slightest consultation, and the futures of tens of thousands of school-leavers thrown into hazard by avoidable ministerial blundering. It ought to be possible for the Speaker to recall parliament, not just ministers. Though he lacks the powers, Speaker Hoyle should be making his indignation known. Westminster should have taken a leaf from the Scottish parliament’s book and ensured that the Commons could meet once a week during recess if the Speaker chose.
Scotland’s better accountability is a reminder of the chief losers in this. Johnson is in Downing Street because he persuaded a majority of the people of England that they had been rendered too powerless by the European Union. The diminished British parliament was said to embody this loss. English votes took Britain out of Europe in the name of restoring parliament’s sovereignty. Yet, as Johnson and Cummings continue with their centralising and accountability-defying revolution in government, they are doing so at the expense of that parliament and above all of the people of England, whose only democratic voice it is.
- Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist.