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A Very British Coup

Following the proroguing of Parliament on Monday evening, Beatrice Barr discusses what prorogation really is, and explores its precedents within British political history.

In Mike Bartlett’s 2014 play, Charles III, the nation is plunged into constitutional crisis as the fictional king withholds royal assent from a bill which would limit the freedom of the press. Wrestling between his sense of public duty and his constitutional ability to pursue what he deems the moral choice, King Charles undermines a century of constitutional precedent and exploits the royal prerogative to stop the bill – and revolution breaks out. Whilst this is may be mere fiction, such treacherous politics does not currently sit too far from our reality; just last week, remainers in the Commons showed zealous support for a very similar plan.

Remainers were supposedly once the liberal moderates of British politics. With this status in mind, what could possibly have driven their hardcore wing to call on Her Majesty to defy a Prime Minister, in a scheme which sounded more like a bad Radio 4 drama than centrist politics? Only hours before this farce, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to prorogue Parliament, in a bid to inhibit MPs from preventing a no-deal Brexit, had been revealed. For one bizarre moment, the Queen appeared to be the only way out.

The first problem for the public was how to hashtag the event; a crisis we find ourselves in every time British politics switches on its pantomime mode. While politicians were falling over each other at the door of Balmoral, Twitter was struggling with its conjugations. Prerogue? Proroge? Prorogue. #prorogue? #prorogation? The Google Trend shot to peak interest rapidly. 

The second problem was that this was all, well, entirely legal.

The royal prerogative – long the concern of only constitutional scholars and the occasional politics A-Level student – is one of the more arcane peculiarities of the British constitution (or, rather, lack of). Yet, it is simultaneously the founding principle of executive government in our country. Defined broadly as the authority, privilege, and immunity of the monarch, its real practical significance is the monarch’s ability to refuse assent for a law passed by parliament. Political power is exercised by the Crown-in-Parliament, and the Queen governs on the advice of her ministers; this means that, in practice, she gives her assent to any law that Parliament passes. However, the Queen has one secret weapon: supreme political authority. When the new Prime Minister prorogued Parliament last week in order to lubricate the passage of a no-deal Brexit and by-pass the Tory infighting that has plagued the EU debate, the Queen’s overruling power was the sole weapon that Remainer Twitter hoped might be brought to use.

It doesn’t matter if the remainers were serious in their aspirations. It matters that the Queen was, for a moment, a viable way out. It’s a drama fit for the stage, not for Parliament, and it looks like something out of another century. Both opposing sides had put all their hopes in covert elements of our uncodified constitution: the Brexiteers in proroguing Parliament, and the Remainers in the possibility of the Queen saying ‘no’. 

Although surprising to most of us, proroguing Parliament is a weapon that Prime Ministers have used before. Though more associated with Charles I and the Civil War, it has been used as recently as 1997, when John Major used it to avoid the Cash for Questions scandal. This is, ironically, the very same John Major who last week joined Gina Miller, of Brexit legal-challenge fame, in challenging the prorogation in the courts. This was, undoubtedly, a noble aim, yet one which Major must surely have known was doomed to failure, as a consequence of his own hypocrisy. Yet just as the prospect of an unelected Prime Minister preventing the legislature from sitting to consider a bill which might undermine his legislative agenda is an insult to representative democracy, so is the prospect of either side using the Queen – an unelected, hereditary and typically ceremonial monarch – to block or encourage Brexit legislation. 

Parliament is now currently being prorogued for a whole month, thanks to an ancient constitutional procedure. The Commons tried to stop a no-deal Brexit, and Boris Johnson responded in the most cruelly logical way possible: by purging his own party. He soldiered, or perhaps snowballed on, with a majority of negative 43. Tories as blue-blooded as Nicholas Soames, the grandson of no other than Churchill, found themselves rejected by a party they no longer recognised – not unlike the Yvette Coopers of the opposite benches. The purge was self-perpetuating: Amber Rudd quit the government and the Tory Whip, either martyring herself or conveniently regenerating her reputation following the Windrush scandal. Johnson clamoured for an election: ignoring the absolute inevitability of a hung parliament, an election presented the opportunity to get the majority he needed to “get on with it”. But Parliament wouldn’t let him; Boris was left scuppered, again by the inconvenience of a majority having purged his own party. 

Although surrounded on all sides, the Prime Minister didn’t stop there. Far from offering more funding to schools, social care, state pensions or any other friendly institution which might distract from the Tories’ internal implosion, he chose to make a speech against a backdrop of police recruits. To say the least, the PR wasn’t positive. One recruit fainted, having waited in the sun for an hour for a Prime Minister who seems to treat public engagements like the editor’s desk of the Spectator. If a backdrop of the police forces wasn’t dystopian enough, Johnson’s failure to aid the fainting woman didn’t help. To top this all off, his speech was, well, shabby.

The blunders of the rest of the week are so many as to blur into one. First of all, the new PM proved that he’s still not quite outgrown Eton, labelling the leader of the opposition a “great big girl’s blouse”. Neither has he outgrown Oxford, as documents were published showing the PM to have described David Cameron, who famously beat him to a first, as a “girly swot”. ‘Stop the coup’ protests continued across the country. 

Johnson’s failures have not only humiliated his premiership, his right-hand man and his party, but have given Britain the most viable opposition its had in years. Whilst Jeremy Corbyn appeared, for the first time, as the most competent leader in PMQs, Jo Swinson raked in the new defections – the most in the Lib Dems’ history. 

Britain is left to its third Tory PM in as many years, with a majority-less Prime Minister who has more respect for the counsel of his Moriarty-wannabe right hand man, Dominic Cummings, than the grandees who he fired from his party. Chaos with Ed Miliband looks quite appealing after all. 

The peculiarities of the English constitution have made their way from theatre to the theatre of politics; the decisions which provoke revolution in Charles IIIare mild in comparison to the realities of the past two weeks. To steal the words of another political drama, it’s all a Very British Coup. 

Britain’s curious constitutional framework holds ultimate responsibility for the drama of the last week. We are very good at concentrating on the ceremonial role of the monarchy, their extravagant weddings and their private jet flights, rather than on the ultimate constitutional power which an activist monarch could exercise at any time. We typically assume that such a monarch would provoke revolution, as in Charles III. But during the month in which Parliament was prorogued, Philip Hammond was kicked out the Tory party and Jacob Rees-Mogg turned up at Balmoral, can we really be so sure?

The English constitution relies far too heavily on tradition, convention, and the Queen not stepping out of line to be an active player in politics. Such flexibility has traditionally been its strength: Britain banned handguns with a simple majority, whilst the American constitution all but prevents gun control. Critically, the guardians of the British constitution are MPs (though the role of the Supreme Court grows); the guardians of the US constitution are political appointees who serve for life. 

Such flexibility means that the fundamentals of the constitution have remained largely intact for the past 500 years. The constitutional reforms of New Labour introduced some rigidity with devolution and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, but none struck the sanctity of the simple majority.

The simple majority has been Brexit’s greatest hurdle from the start: there was no majority for May’s deal or for no-deal – only for some sort of pipe-dream deal that doesn’t exist. This very hurdle is preventing Johnson from calling an election, even with his negative parliamentary majority. 

The ways in which different nations have sought to subvert this fundamental democratic principle are based inextricably within their political culture. Proroguing Parliament under the guise of a Queen’s speech reminds us that the procedures of the British constitution have hardly developed since the Civil War; indeed, they have hardly developed since the very founding of America. This says almost as much about our political culture as Jacob Rees-Mogg turning up to Balmoral in a double-breasted suit to lobby the Queen, then falling asleep later during a Parliamentary debate. For a PM with the tactics of a Union hack and the attitude of a columnist, a constitutional loophole to avoid a majority is an obvious tactic – and one which says more about our political culture than anything else. 

It’s tempting to visualise the way Brexit would play out if Britain had the constitution of America: constitutional amendments, two-thirds majorities and perhaps a major constitutional convention. There would be procedure, in a way which doesn’t exist in Britain. But to imagine this is to ignore the predestiny of the Brexit process: with a constitution like ours, there would never have been any other way. 

But perhaps no constitutional arrangement would be better. Perhaps we might be better off with constitution which tends towards conservatism, thanks to a Supreme Court bench whose simple majority is right-wing, such as in the US. Or maybe we require a political culture whose tradition of popular action means strikes prevent almost any meaningful change, as in France. Every democracy has its own methods of self-inhibition – isn’t it fitting that ancient procedure should be our methodology?

British politics is founded in a ceremony of traditional power which we would very much like to ignore. Yet, the past two weeks have forced us to acknowledge that we can no longer remain ignorant. We are compelled, now, to recognise the fragility of our political framework, and understand the inconvenient truth that the Queen, and words such as ‘proroguing’, are still as relevant as ever before.

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