From an Australian perspective, the latest events in British politics are particularly interesting for what they reveal about the Westminster system, and the role played within it by the monarch or vice-regal equivalent. Thanks the learning experience of 1975, Australians are somewhat better educated on such matters than the British, who had gone a happily long time without the monarch being drawn into constitutional controversy.
That arguably changed on Tuesday with the Queen’s acquiescence in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s request for a prorogation of parliament, which now looks like it will sit for only three days when it resumes on Tuesday week. A new session will commence on October 14, just three days before Johnson’s last chance of striking a new deal with the European Union, and just over a fortnight before the deadline that will trigger a no deal Brexit in the absence of such a deal.
Prorogation can be constitutionally tricky territory, as it involves an exercise of power by the executive over the legislature to which it is supposed to be responsible. As such, the potential exists for a Prime Minister who is losing their grip on power to shirk that responsibility by requesting a prorogation, and a corresponding duty by the sovereign to deny a request should that be the case.
However, the natural tendency is for the sovereign to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt where there is any ambiguity. One example was in Canada in late 2008 and early 2009, when Stephen Harper’s minority government appeared headed for defeat amid the whirlwinds of the global financial crisis. Harper sought and received from the Governor-General a seven week suspension over new year, giving him time to reach a deal that kept his government in office.
The present circumstance might also be considered a case in point in that Johnson has not sought to cancel parliamentary sittings altogether, leaving parliament the opportunity to assert itself through a motion of no confidence. That could lead to a no deal Brexit being averted through an affirmative vote of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn — a difficult bridge for Conservative remainers to cross, notwithstanding Corbyn’s position that he will seek only to extend the Brexit deadline and govern in caretaker mode pending an election.
However, Australian constitutional scholar Anne Twomey writes that this would be extremely difficult to achieve in the time available, given the required procedural steps. Twomey’s conclusion is that the prorogation may have effectively thwarted any move by opponents to head off no deal in parliament. However, it has also been widely reported that the Conservative leadership has been wargaming a “people versus politicians” campaign for an election initiated in response to a parliamentary defeat that Johnson may in fact be hoping to provoke.
Johnson’s stated hope is to carry his government through the attenuated parliamentary sittings, defy skeptics by striking a new Brexit deal that will somehow prove acceptable both to parliament and a meeting of the EU council that will be held on October 17. An orderly exit could then ensue on October 31, followed by an election. The difficulty here is that any deal acceptable to the EU will surely be deemed a betrayal by Brexit hardliners, such that the electoral arithmetic will be complicated by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.