A bombshell ruling

“To say we’re in uncharted territory now is only a statement of the obvious.” As the Supreme Court rules that Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament was “unlawful”, former Green Party leader and soon-to-be peer Natalie Bennett reacts to the unprecedented move.

Natalie Bennett
Natalie Bennett
Natalie Bennett

I thought my next few weeks were worked out. I’d be preparing to be ‘introduced’ – sworn in – to the House of Lords, on 15 October, joining Jenny Jones as the second Green Party peer. Now, like everyone else associated with the British Parliament, I’ve got no idea what the coming days hold.

For the Supreme Court this morning made a bombshell ruling, that Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend (prorogue) Parliament and drop all live parliamentary business and start again with a new session was both unlawful and void.

So in legal terms, it is as if it never happened. 

It is hard to find an adjective adequate to describe this. ‘Stunning’ almost gets there.

We’re used to the courts treading slowly, cautiously. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat in courtrooms and heard judges express strong sympathy with the case I was backing (our attempt to insist on the right of job-share MPs comes to mind) but then indicate that the issue at hand was ultimately political and had to be sorted out by MPs.

The runes this morning suggested that the court would rule against Johnson, but the ‘smart money’ was on a nuanced verdict, one that indicated wrong had been done, but didn’t stir up our constitutional arrangements more than necessary to prevent the executive trampling all over the elected MPs.

Instead, what we got, in a unanimous verdict, was a statement that our prime minister – in actions that had the impact of muzzling MPs and preventing their scrutiny of the government’s Brexit approach – had acted against the law. That the unprecedented act that he’d taken would be legally treated as ‘void’. 

His action was entirely reversed by this ruling and the former session of Parliament continues, with bills such as that on domestic abuse reinstated. 

Speaker John Bercow has declared that the House of Commons will recommence at 11.30am tomorrow (24 September) morning. That being Wednesday, it would usually be Prime Minister’s Questions – but, disappointingly, the lack of notice means that will not be the case.

The Speaker has, however, also said that Standing Order 24 motions will be available – the mechanism by which the ‘Benn bill’ blocking a crash-out Brexit was passed. MPs could again take control of the business of the House, potentially forcing the prime minister to face their questions and ensuring he is not able to again prorogue Parliament for any length of time – although some legal opinion suggests he would be in contempt of court if he tried.

As I write we’ve yet to have an official reaction from Downing Street. Boris Johnson was due to be addressing business people in New York about ‘Britain after Brexit’, but all we’ve heard from the Conservatives is a (rapidly leaked) email from their Whips’ Office saying ‘don’t say anything’.

Comparisons with the Civil War are irresistible – it feels rather like we’re at the end of the Personal Rule of Charles I, in November 1640, when the Lords (and the pressure of a Scottish army) forced the King to recall Parliament. This time it is the Scottish lawyers and courts that have been a crucial force.

Charles, of course, was a king, with no thought in his head of resignation. But as Green MP Caroline Lucas said this morning, Boris Johnson surely has to be considering his position.

He’s acted unlawfully, he’s not in control of Parliament, he’s in no position today to be addressing the UN General Assembly about the UK’s place in the world.

Some Tory MPs are reportedly aiming to see the dismissal of his perceived Rasputin figure Dominic Cummings, but we’re surely past the stage of a king being allowed to get away with blaming ‘bad counsellors’ for disastrous decisions. Boris Johnson is the man responsible.

To say we’re in uncharted territory now is only a statement of the obvious. Certainly, Boris Johnson is in no position to be negotiating with the EU and we must be asking for an extension of Article 50 to allow for a People’s Vote.

With our political institutions in such disarray – with the largest opposition party pursuing a fantasy line about renegotiating withdrawal terms when it is clear that the arrangements negotiated by Theresa May will not be significantly changed – there is only one democratic way forward, a People’s Vote to give the people the final say on Brexit. Then we can have a general election to set the direction for the country.

With that vote in view, it is clear the best possible ‘deal’ we can have is membership of the EU. We cannot continue to see the causes of Brexit – the draining poverty and inequality in our country, the educational system in crisis, the natural environment in collapse – ignored in the interests of political wrangling. And an election – with our undemocratic electoral system and complexity of issues – would not produce a clear decision or, quite possibly, even a workable Parliament.

The only way to stop talking about Brexit, to resolve the issue, is to democratically stop Brexit with a People’s Vote. Then we can tackle our pressing issues, including the creation of a modern, democratic – and functional – system of government, one that is based on a written constitution and real control by the people.