August 29, 2019, by Emma Rayner

Prorogation of the British Parliament: A constitutional coup?

Writing today in the Greek Daily TA NEA, Dr Aris Georgopoulos, Assistant Professor in European and Public Law at the School of Law,  shares his thoughts on the prorogation of the British Parliament…

Dr Aris Georgopoulos

The decision of the British Prime Minister to ask the Queen to prorogue Parliament immediately attracted accusations of a constitutional coup, violation of democracy and it led to the fall of the pound. The Prime Minister’s recommendation foresees the start of the new Parliament Session on 14 October with the Queen’s Speech, namely two weeks before exit day (31 October). The remaining period is too short to allow Parliament to legislate against a disorderly Brexit.

To understand this decision, we must approach it at two levels: Legal and political.

From a legal point of view, the decision falls entirely within the powers and responsibilities of the Executive in accordance with the British constitution. The Queen, although theoretically, could dismiss the government’s motion, in principle, is constitutionally obliged and expected to accept and act in accordance with the recommendation of a Government which commands the confidence of Parliament. The current government, albeit marginally, commands the confidence of Parliament at least for the time being. Although other interpretations of the constitutional rules, based on arguments for abuse/misuse of this specific executive power having as its true aim to prevent Parliament from legislating against disorderly Brexit, are possible, however legally speaking the actions of the Prime Minister appear to be within the legal boundaries of the Constitution, or to be more precise are not manifestly outside these boundaries.

From a political standpoint the Prime Minister’s decision is intended to prepare, in his favour of course, the political landscape before the forthcoming  – and in my opinion inevitable –parliamentary elections. More specifically Boris Johnson wants to push the parties of the opposition and the pro-European rebels of his party to overthrow his government by passing a vote of no confidence in the two weeks after the start of the new Parliamentary Session (14 October) and to form between them a caretaker Government, whose purpose would be to request the extension of the withdrawal deadline (31 October) and call for national elections.

In these elections, Boris Johnson will promote the narrative that he is the true defender of Brexit and that the system did not let him deliver the latter despite his best intentions. This will enable to rally around him the Brexit vote  – annihilating in the process Nigel Farage’s new party who topped the European elections – and at the same time divide the remain vote in many parties. In the context of the first past the post electoral system such a development would be a recipe for a comfortable if not sweeping victory for Boris Johnson. In other words the Queen’s speech on 14 October, in essence, will not contain the government’s legislative programme but the Conservative party’s electoral manifesto.

The Prime minister knows very well that the country is not ready for a disorderly exit; nor does he want to face the crisis that will occur  – even though he pledged before his election to the Conservative leadership to take the UK out of the EU on 31 October come what may. So the move is a first-class decoy that would exculpate him, without losing face or political capital, and enable him to emerge politically stronger out of the imminent political upheaval.

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