20 September 2019, The Tablet

Will Boris obey the Supreme Court's ruling?

Failure to comply would be a contempt of court, for which the Supreme Court could - and would - send the Prime Minister to prison

Will Boris obey the Supreme Court's ruling?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to guests as he hosts a military reception at 10 Downing Street, London.
Jon Nguyen/The Daily Telegraph/PA Wire/PA Images

Judging by their questions, two or three of the United Kingdom Supreme Court judges are worried that whatever order they make on the legality of the Prime Minister's actions, he might not obey it. If they ruled that the prorogation of Parliament was unlawful, would he nevertheless obstruct the recall of Parliament?

No doubt they are aware that some of Boris Johnson's advisers in 10 Downing Street have been saying that he might not obey the law, passed recently by Parliament, ordering him to apply for an extension to the Brexit deadline on October 31 if no agreement had been reached with the European Union. If he was prepared to disobey an Act of Parliament, might he not equally disobey the Supreme Court? 

So after delivering its judgement on Monday, the Court may have to reconvene later in the week to hear what had happened as a result. If his advice to the Queen to prorogue Parliament had been pronounced unlawful by the Supreme Court, members of the House of Commons could turn up to resume the session that the prorogation had terminated, only to find the doors locked on Government instructions.

Then the Supreme Court would have to order compliance, giving detailed instructions about who had to do what, including, in the above case, ordering the doors of Parliament to be unlocked. Failure to comply would be a contempt of court, for which the Supreme Court could - and would - send the Prime Minister to prison.

But this semi-martyrdom may suit his game plan. If and when a general election takes place, Mr Johnson could say he had proved he really meant it when he declared he would sooner die on a ditch than postpone Brexit to some date after October 31. For there he was, behind bars, suffering for the cause. Imagine what the pro-Brexit right-wing press would make of that! It would demonstrate that prorogation really was part of the whole Brexit strategy, but that is what people believe anyway.

One may think this scenario is absurd. But can one seriously disagree with the editorial in the Daily Telegraph on Friday September 20? It stated "It is also, of course, absurd that both Labour and the Tories promised to implement the referendum result in the 2017 general election and yet Parliament has done everything it can to keep us in the EU." Absurd, but not far from the truth. They did, and they have done.

It is true that the Brexit promised by the Tories in their manifesto would be "smooth and orderly", and that promised by Labour would include continued membership of the customs union and close alignment with the single market. Both promised there would be no border between north and south in Ireland. But securing these specific aims and conditions is not what has motivated most anti-Brexit MPs in the months and years since the 2017 election. They want, in the Telegraph's phrase, "to keep us in the EU."

Yet they have not had the courage to do so by the obvious direct route - to pass legislation halting the whole Brexit process and withdrawing (revoking is the technical expression) Britain's notice of intent to leave under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists would support such a move, but to pass, it would also require widespread support from Labour and Conservative MPs. So far they have preferred the route described by the Telegraph - defeating Brexit by guerrilla tactics, while pretending that is not what they are up to.

So conduct unbecoming of a gentleman (or lady) is not confined to the Johnson circle. Brexit dost make us all uncouth, as Shakespeare would no doubt have said. Only one thing would undo this, and put us back on the tracks of righteous democratic legitimacy - a general election, with honest manifestos from every party. And in them - a giant step from the present absurdity towards good sense and sound reason - every party needs to promise two things: the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which has caused a lot of our present difficulties, and the passage of a Prorogation of Parliament Act, to specify exactly when and how one Parliamentary session should come to end and a new one begin. And they should do this regardless of what happens over Brexit.

What do you think?


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User comments (1)

Comment by: diarmaidpo
Posted: 20/09/2019 21:28:53
Some think that the Fixed Term Parliament Act is to fault for all the shenanigans of Brexit. I doubt it. The FTPA is so much better than the old scheme of attaching a vote of confidence to a Bill, which was crude machismo. Give the FTPA time to bed in; don’t restore the muzzle. A generation from now will see our new politicians take it for granted, as the way to do things. And then, beautifully, Lyndon Johnson’s iron law of politics (Martin Kettle, Guardian): that successful politicians must learn how to count will prevail. Parliament & Government will re-learn to parley.
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