The Sidelining of Parliament During the Twin Crises of COVID & Brexit Could Set A Dangerous Precedent
With a new strain of the Coronavirus circulating rapidly and a hard Brexit imminent, why have MPs not been recalled to Parliament in this time of national emergency?
British democracy is creaking at the seams. That truth may have been less evident this year than in 2019 – when Boris Johnson unlawfully prorogued Parliament, the Queen sought legal advice on dismissing a Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson refused to bring his Brexit Withdrawal Agreement back to Parliament when MPs voted for time to scrutinise it. But two things remain true.
First, our system has been tested and found wanting. We are heading into a hard Brexit, a trade and security rupture with our closest partners that no one voted for in the 2016 EU Referendum or in the 2019 General Election – for the simple reason that voters were not given hard Brexit as an option. On both occasions, people were promised close deals with the EU that would facilitate close trade and security cooperation, but that is not what they will be getting.
Second, the defenestration of his chief aide, Dominic Cummings, has made the Prime Minister no less averse to parliamentary scrutiny. Where his predecessors would have made a point of ensuring that Parliament had the chance to debate important legislation – all the more important in the midst of a crisis, seeing it both as a duty and as safeguard in case of poor outcomes – Johnson does all he can to prevent debate and avoid scrutiny.
He and his leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, have made it hard for MPs to debate and vote on new laws this year. A system of remote debating and voting, which worked well during the first lockdown, was stopped in the Summer and not reinstated for the second lockdown. Rees-Mogg called remote debates and voting an “imitation Parliament” – devaluing the contributions of remotely located MPs, while removing their ability to represent their constituents. Contrast this with the European Parliament which has voted remotely throughout the pandemic, allowing MEPs to remain safe while participating fully in parliamentary business.
Now, the Government stands accused by MPs – including some on its own benches – of deliberately waiting until Parliament had risen for the Christmas recess to revoke the planned relaxation of Coronavirus rules for Christmas and introduce harsh tier four restrictions for London and the south-east due to a more virulent strain of the virus emerging.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on 16 December, Johnson was adamant that the five-day Christmas break would go ahead, despite being fully apprised of the new strain and its supposed impacts. Three days later, Christmas was cancelled. The timing, with new restrictions announced mere hours after Parliament had risen, prompted some Conservative MPs to cry foul.
The Need for Systemic Reform
As things stand, Parliament is in recess until 5 January. By then, the Brexit transition period will also be over.
Whatever your view of Britain’s departure from the EU, it is impossible to ignore that ending existing trading and security arrangements in the middle of an already substantial national crisis – with the country all but cut off from the continent and trade at a standstill due to European wariness of the new British virus strain – is a huge risk. But Parliament will have no opportunity to debate Brexit or the pandemic.
Ruth Fox, chair of the Hansard Society, the UK’s leading source of independent research and advice on Parliament and parliamentary affairs, believes that Parliament should be recalled and that MPs should have the ability to participate in debates and vote remotely restored.
As things stand, she says, MPs will be forced to travel to London against medical advice and the Prime Minister’s own guidelines, which advise against all but essential travel and, for people not in tier four areas, to stay away. The Government, she argues, “has persistently failed to make contingency plans for a resurgence of the virus’”.
The greatest immediate concern is the loss of life caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, closely followed by the risk to the UK’s food security and ability to bring medicines into the country during the Winter, combined with the shape of our future trade and security arrangements with the EU. The latter will last for years rather than days and have a huge impact on the country’s ability to recover from the pandemic.
Fox rightly points out that the Christmas pandemic safeguards were voted on by MPs. Overturning them without parliamentary consideration until 5 January raises serious questions about democratic scrutiny and accountability. Some may see this as of little relevance given the urgency of the hour, but given that Britain’s unwritten constitution operates on precedent and convention, decisions made in emergency can have far-reaching impact. For something to become the norm, it essentially needs to happen once – unless there is a rule or longstanding convention to the contrary.
Johnson and his Government have been able to get away with riding roughshod over parliamentary convention and democracy because the system allows them to.
Once the toxic mix of Brexit, COVID-19 and the most ideological and incompetent Government we have known for generations is over, we must renew our constitution and democracy. The Labour Leader Keir Starmer has already begun this by announcing the launch of a Labour-led constitutional convention and to call for renewed devolution.
Such a convention should not restrict itself to devolution. It should urgently consider electoral reform for the House of Commons to prevent governments elected on a minority of the vote having what is effectively the delegated power of the monarch at their disposal. It should also limit the extent to which Governments can exercise control over how the House of Commons works. It should not be possible for the Government to refuse to convene the Commons at times of national crisis, or to wait until the day after the chamber goes into recess to announce major changes to agreed policy.
Some will argue that our problems are unique to this Government and that, once Johnson, Rees-Mogg and their ilk have been removed, sanity will be restored. This would be exactly the kind of complacent response that we can ill afford. Johnson and his Government have been able to get away with riding roughshod over parliamentary convention and democracy because the system allows them to. Until it is reformed, we are all endangered by a system that allows a dysfunctional and ideological Government to wreak harm on the country.
Reform must come, it must be done with the consent and understanding of the public, and it must be far-reaching. Anything else endangers our future, just as our present is endangered now by a Government out of control.
Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’
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