Get ready for the disgraceful Long Parliament that refuses to call a general election

BY Iain Martin | tweet iainmartin1   /  7 October 2019

Perhaps there are still a few poor souls left alive who think that Boris Johnson’s Number 10 is operating to some manner of devilish masterplan that will land Britain out of the European Union on October 31st.

Almost everyone else has worked out that there is no secret sauce, no magic loophole, no Prime Ministerial superhero moment, which blasts through the Benn Act, that ridiculous and unconstitutional piece of legislation commanding the government to seek another extension to the interminable Article 50 process. It is the law, it seems. The Benn Act is egregious because it upends the vital notion that in the British system Parliament cannot be the Executive. It can fire the Executive. It can force an election. But it cannot and should not be the Executive, otherwise we end up in a situation like now in which the government of the day is trying to negotiate a treaty while emasculated and powerless. We see the results. Well done everyone.

It was not supposed to be this way, of course. When the Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings blew into office in the summer the idea was that the various explosions he orchestrated would bring the Brexit crisis to a head and finally elicit some form of resolution, so we could leave and it could all be downgraded into the most boring thing in the world, that is never-ending trade negotiations. Trade negotiations never end and they are important (although they’re not that important, the world spins round and business finds a way). But they are deeply boring. And so post-Brexit they could become a second order story while we all get on with the rest of our lives.

It was not to be.

The Cummings strategy was initially clearly designed to ensure an enraged Commons would try to turf out Johnson and the whole thing would collapse into a general election, held either in mid-October (next week) or shortly after Brexit day.

Then the Commons did what Number 10 did not expect. It simply refused to allow a general election. In spite of opposition leaders calling for an election for ages, they simply said “no”. Boris was and is stuck.

Only a Brexit deal would get Johnson out of the impasse. For the reasons mentioned earlier – what with the government being emasculated and having no leverage – a deal looks highly unlikely to appear at this stage. The European Council is in ten days time. The UK needs a deal. The EU needs a deal. But it hard to see how it can happen without some great act of statesmanship in the next fortnight. Do not hold your breath.

What then?

If Boris is compelled to ask for an extension, or if he resigns saying he won’t, the assumption has been that both outcomes result in a general election – soon. An election is coming to sweep away this rotten, knackered Commons, it is said.

A new PM only gets the job promising an election, it is said. The EU extension might be offered in the hope that one is in the offing. But the EU cannot order it – and it cannot force MPs who do not want their seats to vote for it. An election requires a two thirds majority of MPs. Where is it?

Sitting conversing today in Westminster with a veteran observer of the place, we had the horrible realisation that this disgraceful, ruined Commons will probably refuse to call an election even once an extension is granted.

“Oh no,” he said, “they’re going to sit here for another couple of years. Refusing to vote for anything other than more extensions. Arguing about a referendum. Just refusing to hold an election.”

And presumably voting through a minimal finance bill each year to keep the cash rolling.

Would parliament go for this years of gridlock option? I hope not but increasingly I fear the answer is yes. The place is now round the bend. I see tweets from MPs suggesting that it is vital that this messy business is kept away from the pesky voters, unless it’s a Remain-cooked referendum one assumes. Parliament – urged on by Speaker John Bercow – has repeatedly stretched the constitutional boundaries, encouraged or provoked, by the Executive’s actions, of course. This lot – the most brazen MPs – will do anything now.

A general election is very clearly needed instead. It isn’t the final answer – it never is, and sometimes it takes a couple of elections to get movement. Yet an election is the only thing that stands a chance of breaking the gridlock. It’s the “turn it off and on again” moment. Time to hit refresh.

While an election doesn’t solve everything, it at least enables the testing of the claims of the various factions, from Revoke maniacs to Let’s invade Belgium Brexit ultras. A new Commons would have fresh legitimacy.

If they choose not to allow such an election – blaming complications or the need in a crisis to avoid further excitement – it is hard to see the voters being surprised that MPs have yet again behaved appallingly. There will not be much we voters can do about it. Until 2022.

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