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Fair or Unfair?

Dr Pravin Jeyaraj considers the matter of Parliamentary time and the Tory Conference.

Yesterday, Parliament voted against a few days’ recess for the Conservative Party conference. The margin was tight, with 51% of the MPs present in favour of not adjourning and 49% against.

So, whilst the conference goes ahead, Conservative MPs and government ministers may well have to manage their time between attending debates in Parliament and attending the conference in Manchester. This is a two to three hour train ride from London.

On the face of it, this does seem unfair, given that Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs were both able to attend their respective party conferences in the last two weeks. However, there is more complex back story to today’s vote.

Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs were only able to attend their party conferences because the Prime Minister advised the Queen to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, advice that has since been declared unlawful by the Supreme Court.

In a press release, the government said its reason for prorogation was in order to have a new Queen’s Speech. However, as the Supreme Court noted, the usual practice was for a prorogation of four to six days in the run-up to a Queen’s Speech. There was no particular reason given to the court as to why the prorogation had to be for five weeks.

Government ministers and Conservative MPs publicly referred to the usual practice of Parliament taking a recess so that MPs could attend party conferences. But there is a difference between prorogation and recess. With prorogation, Parliament completely shuts down; with recess, the House of Lords still meets, oral and written questions can be asked of the government, committees can hear evidence and outstanding legislation does not come to an end. Furthermore, prorogation is imposed on Parliament by the government, while a recess is voted for by MPs. It was not enough for the government just to say that Parliament was usually on recess so the amount of sitting time lost was about four or five days.

If the Prime Minister wanted a new Queen’s Speech, he only needed to advise the Queen to prorogue from 7 October or so. It was up to MPs to vote on whether to take a recess or not. There had been some speculation in the press in August that some MPs were considering amending the motion for autumn recess, in order to put forward a backbench bill to extend Article 50.

When Parliament resumed after the Supreme Court quashed the prorogation, MPs were keen to hold the government to account over the issue. Trust between Parliament and the Government was already low due to the prorogation. One would reasonably have expected that the Prime Minister would show some remorse over the matter. But, from his whole performance during his statement and subsequent questions, it looked like that his strategy was to go on the attack and to portray himself as being blocked by Parliament from ‘getting Brexit done’. Trust was so low that he did not appear to give MPs the reassurance they sought that he would comply with the terms of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 2) Act. The debate became very heated on all sides.

It is not surprising, therefore, that MPs voted against a recess for the Conservative Party conference. According to news reports, it was partly due to catching up on the time missed during an unlawful prorogation and partly due to a desire to hold the Boris Johnson to account at Prime Minister’s Questions for his performance on Wednesday.

Whether this is fair is, I suspect, open to debate but there are definitely good reasons for doing so.

© Dr Pravin Jeyaraj 2019

Image - MD Beckwith, Wikimedia Commons

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