Proroguing Parliament and the Trampling of Tradition

Houses of Parliament at dusk. Photo by yrstruly on Flickr (CC licence)

Lost in the noise, this tweet from Labour Stephen Doughty MP:

https://twitter.com/SDoughtyMP/status/1072550760314007552

Events have over-taken this prospect. The Chair of the 1922 Committee received the required 48 letters on Tuesday, and so on Wednesday Theresa May had to weather a confidence motion from Conservative MPs. The opposition parties are keeping their powder dry on a confidence motion of their own. There is now no vote to avoid by proroguing parliament.

Nevertheless, the very thought of such manoeuvring should give us pause for thought. In the case of this Government and this embattled Prime Minister, the tactic would have surely backfired. While proroguing parliament is procedurally allowed, the British public would have considered it somehow ‘cheating’ and taken a dim view. Meanwhile, Members of the House of Commons would have been angry at having been denied the opportunity to censure the Government before Christmas, and would have returned in the New Year smarting for a confrontation.

This scenario would have unfolded because Mrs May is unpopular. She is awkward, lacks charisma, and has no particular political base (they do not chant Oh! Theresa May at Glastonbury). She is a compromise Prime Minister. Everyone’s second or third choice. The Not Boris Johnson Candidate. As Marina Hyde wrote at the time of Tory leadership contest, she is like a piece of dirty laundry that you take out the basket “because it has become, relatively, the cleaner thing”.

But what if she was popular? In such a situation, Mrs May might be able to get away with flouting of parliamentary convention and gaming its obscure conventions. MPs seeking to curry favour with both the Prime Minister and their own constituents would turn a blind eye to such transgressions. Some journalists and many members of the public would seek to excuse the transgression. Other writers, opposition politicians and that geeky section of the public that enjoys parliamentary history and procedure (*raises hand*) would all be incandescent at the manoeuvre, but that would be nothing but sound and fury. A more popular Prime Minister could get away with it.

This exact scenario has been playing out in American politics since 2015. Donald Trump’s god-like status among a certain demographic has allowed him to trample every political ‘guardrail’ that Americans assumed would protect their politics against demagogues. At the same time, Senate Republicans lead by Senator Mitch McConnell abandoned convention and political ‘norms’ when they refused to seat Merrick Garland as a Supreme Court Justice.

I think there are two lessons from these trends in both British and American politics. The first is obviously that we need stronger guardrails. Convention, etiquette, notions of shame and what is ‘proper’ do not work when politics becomes so toxic and desperate. That means that nations need to embed those guardrails into their constitutions and other laws that govern the legislature. Tradition is malleable, but clear laws are harder to ignore.

But the second lesson is that the flouting of tradition in the legislature might be useful warning signal that something is going wrong. When we hear that a ruling party is considering ignoring parliamentary convention, that’s a sign that something is going very wrong. The rumours that Stephen Doughty reported are a harbinger of something disturbing in British politics.

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