Sovereign risk

Britain’s political crisis intensifies as Boris Johnson persuades the Queen to cut short looming sittings of parliament, severely limiting its options in heading off a no deal Brexit.

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.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

18 comments on “Sovereign risk”

  1. I agree with Anne Twomey’s summary of the options, but I think she is overcomplicating things. There is a simple, straightforward route to prevent No Deal, for which there is plenty of parliamentary time. All that is required is a motion in the House of Commons thus :

    “This House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government and requests Her Majesty to appoint [Ms Amanda Frothworthy] as Prime Minister to form a new government.”

    If duly passed, Boris would have to resign, and if he refused to do so, Her Maj would have to sack him and hire Ms Frothworthy. The new PM would then have plenty of time to request an extension from the EU and do the necessary statutory instruments in Parliament. Such a motion would only require a few hours of the HoC time, which Speaker Bercow would grant in a heartbeat.

    The only question is whether there is any Ms Amanda Frothworthy (or a Mr Jeremy Corbyn, or someone else) who could be inserted in the motion so as to ensure that it passes.

    The proroguing business simply “collapses the wave function” – for three years the cat has been in the box, half alive and half dead. The Remainers now have to put up or shut up – it’s not a question of parliamentary time, either they’ve got the votes to install Amanda (or Jeremy) or they don’t.

    We will see shortly whether the cat is alive or dead.

  2. “The new PM would then have plenty of time to request an extension from the EU and do the necessary statutory instruments in Parliament.”

    Yup…but why would the EU agree to anything other than the deal they have already put on the table??

    For an extension to be meaningful then i’d think that at the very least the UK would have to accept, or table an alternative to the “Irish Backstop” that Ireland and the EU will accept.

    If that doesn’t happen then the farce simply continues along with the ongoing damage to the EU and UK economies.

    Cant work out why the Poms think they have anything like a strong position in negotiating with the EU on this. The longer it gets dragged out the more pissed off and intransigent the EU are going to be.

  3. The EU is likely to agree to an extension because it means a vastly increased chance of a less Eurosceptic deal (such as staying in the Customs Union) or no Brexit (such as with a second referendum). They are both (on balance) wins for the EU and I don`t see the EU rejecting them. Ireland would suffer from the end of the Customs Union (a long of its freight travels by road across the UK), which both options would stop happening and the EU is likely to go in to defend loyal EU member-state Ireland.

    However, the EU might say they will extension for referendum and subsequent renegotiation only, wait on the parliament election. It is what I would do if I was the EU.

  4. An average of the Scottish sub-sample in eight YouGov UK wide polls since JoBo became PM suggests if a general election was called now the Tories would lose 11 and Labour 6 of their Westminster seats. They will still argue that there is no mandate for a second Independence referendum. ๐Ÿ™‚

    YouGov Scottish subsample average since 24th July:

    SNP 44.4%
    Conservatives 19.3%
    Liberal Democrats 12.8%
    Labour 11.4%
    Brexit Party 7.0%
    Greens 4.0%

    Westminster seat projection:

    SNP 52 (+17)
    Liberal Democrats 4 (n/c)
    Conservatives 2 (-11)
    Labour 1 (-6)

  5. swamprat : They will still argue that there is no mandate for a second Independence referendum.

    What would be the point of a second referendum ? If Scotland voted to leave it would simply show that the voters had been bamboozled by populists and agitators, who had lied about the devasting economic effects of leaving. It would be grossly irresponsible to put it to a referendum and in any case, Parliament would be under no obligation to give effect to such a foolish choice.

    In any event Scotland could certainly not leave without a deal requiring Scotland to abide by UK law. Forever.


  6. I suppose there is still a chance that the UK asks for another extension. But the question then becomes, would the EU grant it? Since the EU has said it accepts there will be a Brexit they will consider only two things. Will a No-Deal Brexit now be worse for the EU than extending Brexit negotiations yet again? And how likely is it that a further extension will produce a better deal for the EU?

    I don’t know where the balance of pain would fall when comparing No-Deal damage (Ireland troubles, EU citizens in the UK, …) with ongoing business uncertainty, disrupting “Farages”, and any opportunity costs. Say it’s 50/50. Then the key question becomes how likely is a better outcome for the EU if an extension is granted? I’d say it is unlikely. So while I doubt a further extension will be granted, if it is then I expect it to be conditional and short, to force a different outcome.

  7. The level of discussion of Brexit on PB is very poor. Lee Moore, everything is wrong with your analysis in paragraph 3 of your first comment. The rest of the comments so far in this thread are at much the same level and Adrian Beaumont’s guest columns are also very mediocre.

    I suggest PB sticks to discussing Australian politics, on which it is better informed. There are plenty of good sources of information and commentary coming from the UK which we are able to follow from Australia. I would suggest not The Guardian though, which has become almost completely hysterical. (Although I will admit that this was a good recent opinion piece published by them).

  8. Honest Bastard, I have looked for other news outlets. Like The Guardian, Sky News has a section devoted to Brexit. The few continental news sources I can read (German) seem to have moved past frustration now (they see it done) and into using Brexit induced drama as insights into British democracy, tinged perhaps with a little amusement. But with no background in British politics I can’t weigh them. So I’d be interested in any suggestions. Your Guardian link seems to agree with my take that Brexit will happen, and without a deal.

  9. Late Riser, twitter is a good resource if you use it selectively. Follow individual journalists and commentators who have written articles you find insightful. They’ll tweet links to newly appearing articles and retweet other insightful commentators.

    For example, Matthew Goodwin (@GoodwinMJ) is a good account to follow. He’s written a book on populist politics (advertised at the top of his stream) and tweets interesting polling and analysis.

    He can also be found on the website UnHerd, which I find has good Brexit analysis (amongst other things). Peter Franklin is an interesting contributor there.

    For left wing, Brexit supporting positions I would suggest Kate Hoey (@KateHoeyMP), George Galloway (@georgegalloway) and the collective Labour Leave account (@labourleave). Obviously I am giving away my own bias here.

    BrexitCentral can be a useful resource. They also have a twitter account (@brexitcentral). They are pro-Brexit but not strident in their position. Their daily summaries (found on their website) are helpful in doing a review of the day’s media, with long quoted extracts.

    I’ll leave it there for now. Hope this has been of some use to you.

  10. Oh and P.S. – anyone who is describing the recent prorogation as a ‘coup’ can be dismissed immediately as not worth listening to or reading. There are sensible Remains supporters who I respect, and they too denounce this hysterical rhetoric.

  11. Thanks again HB, if you happen back to this thread. I’m enjoying Peter Franklin, and looking forward to some of the others you mentioned.

  12. Thanks for the feedback LR. Glad you found Peter Franklin a useful recommendation.

    For your ease of further exploration here’s a direct link to Matthew Goodwin’s most recent article on UnHerd:

    How to understand the rise of national populism: A post-liberal reading list

    I second his recommendation of the French geographer Christophe Guilluy.

    And here’s the link to his author page listing all his other articles there:

    Here’s the direct link to the BrexitCentral daily round up of media that I mentioned above:

    It’s useful in giving the top couple of paragraphs of Times and Telegraph Brexit articles that are behind a hard firewall.

    I also look at the Spectator (which is nothing as ‘feral’ as the Australian version, a site I don’t read). Some informative articles and good analysis there but also some that’s mediocre. It has a soft firewall but that’s easily bypassed if you disable javascript on the site.

    Finally, I hesitate to recommend this site as their articles on environmental matters are uniformly moronic and highly irresponsible, e.g. “Why shouldn’t Brazil be allowed to burn its forest down?”. But their articles on Brexit and UK politics can be good, particularly for understanding the Brexit mindset. I’m talking about Spiked. All their content is free to read. Authors there I’d recommend are Fraser Myers and Tom Slater. Brendan O’Neill, another of their writers, I find problematic in that I think he’s far too much an ideologue (particularly, a libertarian ideologue).


  13. The prorogation has a high chance of not surviving all of the challenges thrown at it.

    Not being an expert in the relevant law, I can`t rule out at least one of the legal challenges defeating it.

    There is a high chance that the House of Commons will pass a motion opposing the prorogation and it may be of the type that can actually force the Government/Queen to cancel the prorogation.

    There is also a reasonable chance that a monition of no confidence will pass, either installing someone (Corbyn or a moderate) who will directly scrap the prorogation or force it to be cancelled (or at least) to allow the parliament a chance to pass a motion of confidence in a new government.

    There is even a decent chance that not just the individual prorogation but power of prorogation itself will be on the chopping block. It is an unnecessary and undemocratic relic of the “devine right of kings” age that should not have survived the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9.

  14. Tom, it’s a bit late to still be in only the first stage of grieving (denial). You’ve had three years now to accept the result of the 2016 referendum. But here you are still clutching at straws with wild claims that only confirm that you are indeed very far from being “an expert in the relevant law”.

  15. Brexit or no Brexit, prorogation to subvert the will of Parliament is bad. It was bad in Canada in 2008-9, it is bad in the UK now. It is Charles I style behaviour.

    As far as I know, all non-Tory British MPs (not including Nothern Ireland MPs) oppose the current prorogation and so do some of the Tories and that is likely enough to force prorogation to be dumped before it is implemented as there are days of sitting before then.

    The UK Parliament does have the power to scrap prorogation and in the current climate, all it needs is an act of Parliament.

    That is all with or without anything being agreed about Brexit.

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