A flag flying at half mast in Westminster on the day of Margaret Thatcher's funeral in 2013. Photo: Getty
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If lauding Thatcher was cause to recall parliament, why not Iraq?

The people’s representatives should be able to exercise their democratic role, whether it is convenient for the prime minister or not.

MPs from all parties have called in recent weeks for parliament to be reconvened to enable them to debate the ongoing crisis in Iraq. They have met with unbending opposition. But David Cameron’s decision to bring everyone back last year to eulogise Margaret Thatcher might make it difficult for him to resist indefinitely.

Members pushing for the House to be recalled before the recess officially ends on 1 September have been variously dismissed. The PM is “very much engaged from Portugal” they were told. “Recall is not on the cards,” pronounced a Number 10 spokesperson. “No need unless the PM wants to move on from humanitarian aid,” insisted a former minister. “Not for the moment, no,” ruled the Foreign Secretary.

Following the beheading of a US journalist, apparently at the hands of a British jihadist, the Prime Minister cut short his latest holiday in Cornwall but has since gone back. There are still no plans to bring MPs back from theirs.

There are signs that the pressure on ministers may yet become too great to resist though. That’s what happened to Tony Blair in 2002, who wasn’t at all keen to recall parliament to debate his long awaited dossier on the existence or otherwise of weapons of mass destruction. His hand was eventually forced by a combination of MPs and the BBC. The broadcaster offered those wanting to return a parliamentary-style debate at Church House, Westminster, if they wouldn’t be admitted to the House of Commons chamber. Blair eventually relented.

Even then, the hallowed constitutional rituals had to be observed, with the initiative coming not from MPs but the executive, and the PM “representing to the Speaker that the public interest requires” the House meet, and the Speaker formally making the decision.

Speak for yourself

Speakers may occasionally be surprised by a PM’s request – as the present incumbent, John Bercow, certainly was by David Cameron’s decision in April 2013 to recall the House of Commons just five days before it would reconvene anyway. The public interest apparently required that members be given ample and uninterrupted time to pay their tributes to Thatcher, who had just died. Whatever a Speaker’s private doubts, though, they invariably manage to satisfy themselves that the public interest does indeed so require.

When it comes to recalls, the Speaker’s modern-day role seems almost to betray its centuries of constitutional history. At each year’s state opening of parliament we are reminded that this is the person whom MPs elect to stand as fearless defender of their rights against the might of the executive. Yet when those MPs start clamouring to return from recess, the Speaker suddenly becomes a spineless figurehead, tamely allowing ministers to decide when the House meets and what it debates.

If any of them are currently on holiday in Turkey, they might perhaps pay a visit to that country’s parliament to see how a more assertive legislature does these things. The Grand National Assembly was reconvened last March – at the request of the main opposition party and to the unconcealed displeasure of then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – to hear corruption allegations against four former government ministers. Those visiting the Edinburgh Festival could call in on the Presiding Officer at Holyrood, the equivalent of the Speaker there, who can similarly convene the Scottish Parliament without waiting for a ministerial go-ahead.

There’s an important constitutional principle at stake here, and you’d hope a professedly modernising parliament might have addressed it. The people’s representatives should be able to exercise this part of their democratic role, whether it is convenient for the prime minister or not.

Well, the good news is that it was addressed. During Gordon Brown’s prime ministerial honeymoon period in 2007, a government green paper proposed that “where a majority of MPs request a recall, the Speaker should consider the request, including in cases where the Government itself has not sought a recall".

The bad, if not wholly surprising, news is that the House of Commons Modernisation Committee embarked in October 2007 on an inquiry into dissolution and recall, which subsequently disappeared into the Westminster equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. Nothing was subsequently heard: no evidence taken, no report written, no recommendations put forward, nothing.

Body of evidence

It’s clear, then, that MPs who want the House of Commons recalled can’t rely on parliamentary procedures to make it happen. Precedents, though, could prove more promising. Depending on how you count, there have been between 27 and 41 House of Commons recalls since 1949, so there’s a wide choice.

The great majority would have little difficulty meeting most reasonable interpretations of major national or international importance/public interest. In 2013 MPs came back to debate the crisis in Syria, and in 2011 the riots that were sweeping across the UK. In 2002 it was Iraq, and in 2001 the terrorist attacks on the US. The introduction of emergency anti-terrorism legislation after the Omagh bomb led to a recall in 1998.

Alongside these there is David Cameron’s precedent-breaking insistence, to even the Daily Telegraph’s surprise, on recalling both Houses following Thatcher’s death – apparently on the grounds that he, and doubtless many others, judged her “a distinguished parliamentarian and formidable prime minister”. If he continues to reject calls to reconvene now, he may find this decision coming back to haunt him. That’s the trouble with precedents: once you lower the bar, it’s tough trying to raise it again the very next year.

Chris Game does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.