PM prorogues UK parliament: what now for British politics?
3 September 2019
Update - Parliament have voted to block a no deal brexit. Watch the video below for more on what this means.
Last week was a turbulent week in British politics, ending in prime minister Boris Johnson getting permission from the Queen to suspend the UK’s parliament.
We’re going to attempt to make heads and tails of what happened in politics last week, with emphasis on attempt.
Here is our very top-line analysis of what happened last week and what could happen next, from a vote of no confidence to a general election to a no-deal Brexit.
What has happened?
The prime minister (PM) has asked the Queen for permission to prorogue parliament. Prorogation means that the current political session (parliamentary year) – the longest in the history of modern parliament – will end the week of 9 September.
Is this normal?
Yes, normally sessions of parliament are ended in the autumn, so a government can return after the summer break with a new legislative agenda for the year. This is presented by the Queen in the House of Lords, in what is known as the Queen's Speech. This is unusual though in that it is the longest prorogation since 1945.
Why is everyone kicking off?
Some, especially those opposed to the UK leaving the EU without a deal on the 31 October, believe the timing is a little strange to say the least. Under current government plans, prorogation will last for five weeks (including the three weeks MPs normally have off for party conferences). Given the length of the prorogation, it will mean that MPs will have two weeks less to stop a no-deal Brexit (or even more if MPs had voted to cancel or shorten the conference recess).
The PM, as expected, has rejected the claim that this has been called to stop MPs debating Brexit, saying that this prorogation will allow him to “bring forward an ambitious legislative programme” for MPs’ approval.
What does this mean for Brexit?
Well, this depends on who you speak to. Some believe that this increases the chances of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. Others, including the government, believe that the impending threat of leaving without a deal will focus minds in support of a new deal.
Will we get a general election?
Maybe? Probably? There are a few ways this could happen
1. A vote of no confidence
If a vote of no confidence in the government passes, a 14-day period starts during which parliament has time to find an alternative government. Jeremy Corbyn would look to become interim PM, call a snap election and campaign for another referendum. However, the Liberal Democrats and some Tory MPs said they would not support any plan that sees the leader of the opposition becoming prime minister - even on a temporary basis.
There are essentially three broad forms that an alternative government could take: a single-party minority government that is supported by ad hoc agreements with other parties; a formal inter-party agreement; or a formal coalition government.
If no alternative government can be formed within the 14-day period, then a general election will ensue, with parliament dissolving 25 working days before the set polling date. The PM will have to recommend a date for a general election and he is under no obligation to do this immediately. The government recently said they would call an election in the week of 2 November.
Primarily, the biggest challenge regarding a no-confidence vote is that, under the current parliamentary arithmetic, MPs from the governing party would need to vote to bring their own party down for it to pass.
If an alternative government is successfully formed within the 14-day period, united under a no-deal Brexit pledge, then it could seek an extension of Article 50 with the EU. An alternative government could also seek to take no-deal off the table completely, by revoking Article 50.
2. Government calls an election
Johnson could ask MPs to vote for an early election under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. The earliest date for the election would be 25 working days after MPs vote, but it could be after that – again, the prime minister would choose the precise date.
However, this isn’t necessarily going to work in pragmatically: if Johnson picks a date after 31 October, this would exacerbate opposition in the House and MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit would probably vote against it. Then again, he could call an election before the end of the month deadline.
When would a general election be held?
That’s the million-dollar question - no one knows for certain. The PM approach is certainly not without elements of risk. If a vote of no confidence passes, and a caretaker government replaces the current one, it’s plausible that they would look to agree an extension with the EU to avoid the cliff edge of 31 October and then call an immediate election.
Or, if a vote of no confidence fails, the PM could call an election in November regardless of whether he has secured a deal with the EU or not to consolidate power by gaining a majority in parliament. Or, if parliament agrees legislation to stop the PM from leaving the EU on 31 October, he may call an early election and, as has been widely reported, have a “people vs parliament” election. As I said, it’s the million-dollar question.
How does this impact the international development sector?
Right now, there is political consensus amongst the main political parties in support of the 0.7% official development assistance (ODA) target and the International Development Act that binds it in law.
But the sector is much more than just aid, with the political parties all having varying views on issues such as climate change, peacebuilding, trade and investment, human rights, or international partnerships. If a snap election is called, then there will be significant opportunity to influence the future policies of the new government.
What can you do?
If a general election is called, Bond will be publishing a manifesto that will call on the political parties to end global poverty. If you’re a Bond member organisation and would like to help develop this manifesto, please get in touch with Bond’s government relations and public affairs adviser, Paul Abernethy, on [email protected].
Please note that there is a finite window of opportunity to influence the party manifestos, so please do get in touch asap if you’re interested in helping with sector plans – the manifesto will be finalised by Friday 6th September.