The big lie of the Conservative leadership contest

Candidates are lining up to promise things that cannot be met by this parliament while also pledging to avoid an early election.

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Dominic Raab has a plan: to secure a British exit from the European Union by any means necessary, including by proroguing parliament until the Article 50 process ends and the United Kingdom leaves the EU, deal or no deal.

Prorogation is what happens at the end of a parliamentary session: a statement is read out, nominally on the Queen’s behalf, listing the bills passed in the legislative session and then parliament is mothballed until the start of the next session. Essentially, Raab’s idea is to suspend parliament until 1 November, when we will have left the EU in any case.

In the days when the monarch ruled with parliament, restive monarchs would prorogue difficult parliaments all the time, sometimes indefinitely. But in the modern era, there is no precedent for it in this country, though in Canada, Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper prorogued parliament to buy himself time to avoid a tricky confidence vote.

There are a number of teeny tiny flaws in Raab’s wizard wheeze. The first and biggest is that whatever you might think about the current House of Commons, it is our elected House of Commons: the only part of our government that is there solely because of the votes cast by us, the people. Say what you like about John Bercow, and say what you like about the fact that a majority of MPs decided to turn a blind eye to an independent report saying he was a roadblock to reform over bullying because they thought he would make the right decisions over Brexit: he enjoys his position because he retains the support of more than half of the MPs that we all elected.

The right to be prime minister comes not from what any one political party and its activists decide to do, but from the ability of whoever emerges from the process to command a majority of the House that we all elected. If Dominic Raab, or anyone else wants to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union without a deal, they need to fight and win a majority in our elected House to do so.

Added to that, it can’t be done: Andrea Leadsom has revealed to MPs that she asked the Commons clerks if it could be done and was told that it couldn’t.

One of several crucial differences between the Canadian example and the United Kingdom is that while Elizabeth II is the head of state in both, in Canada, her constitutional role is largely parcelled off to the governor-general, who is appointed by the prime minister. It’s one thing for the governor-general, who is usually a former political figure, to be drawn into politics, but quite another for the same to happen to the sovereign.

If you think that the Queen, whose overarching (and stunningly successful) project has been to protect the British monarchy from the reduction in prestige, popularity and position that has been the fate of almost all constitutional monarchies around the world over the past century, is going to allow the Crown to be dragged into a tussle between the executive and the legislature just to get Dom Raab out of a hole, then I have a palace to sell you just off St James’s Park.

The third is that in practice, our constitution only has one rule, which is that if you have a majority, you can do what you like. Everything else is just noise. If MPs don’t want to be reduced to participants in the Brexit crisis, then they won’t be, it is as simple as that.

And that’s the big lie of the Conservative leadership election, in which candidates line up to promise things that cannot be met by this parliament while also pledging to avoid an early election.

So why aren’t MPs who fear an election lining up behind the likes of Matt Hancock, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove or Rory Stewart? The answer is while they share the Hunt-Gove-Hancock-Stewart thesis that to go for no deal in this parliament is to court an early election and general election defeat, they don’t buy that any of that quartet can avoid an early election – so they might as well go for Boris Johnson, who they believe is still the surefire election winner of 2022.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.