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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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