The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the Prime Minister’s advice to the Queen to suspend (prorogue) Parliament was “unlawful, void and of no effect” and should be quashed and therefore prorogation did not happen and no step is needed by the prime minister to reconvene Parliament. This has led to the speaker immediately reconvening Parliament.
This really is the kind of case you get once a century. The rule of law and constitutional principles are not normally so interesting! There are many commentators better placed to analyse the Supreme Court’s decision and if you’re really interested, you should seek them out. And read the ruling for yourself. But for those who read this blog, here’s my summary.
There has been much nonsense spread about the Supreme court case. With leavers and remainers entrenched in their polar opposite positions that’s not surprising. But this case was never about Brexit and yet all about Brexit. That is, the judges were asked to rule whether the prime minister had the unfettered power to prorogue parliament. The suspension of parliament is the historic mechanism by which one parliamentary session ends, allowing another one to begin. For football fans, it’s a bit like one season ending with the teams at the bottom being relegated to the division below, the team at the top being crowned as champions, followed by a short break and another season beginning. Except that there is no champion of parliament. And all draft laws not yet passed get binned, having to start from scratch next session.
Our parliamentary democracy was established in the 17th century, making it clear that parliament is the highest authority in the land. The people elect representatives to parliament – MPs – and conventionally the party with the biggest support in parliament forms the government. The government and courts are subservient to parliament: the government proposes laws, parliament passes them and the courts apply them. This means the courts can examine whether the government has also complied with the law. Typically this all happens amid the usual political posturing and tensions but it’s business as usual and nobody outside those small circles notices. Or cares. And the government generally behaves and the courts don’t get involved to this extent.
What made this different in this case was the effect of the prime minister’s decision to prorogue parliament. The court noted that proroguing for a new session normally takes 4-6 days. This was for 5 weeks. This was unlawful because it “had the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions”. That is, it prevented scrutiny of the government’s approach to Brexit since, on 31 October, the default position is that the UK will leave the EU with or without a deal.
The Supreme Court was very careful to avoid politics. Not for fear that the Daily Mail would run another outrageously inaccurate “Enemies of the People” headline – no doubt they will anyway – but because it was only interested in examining compliance with the law. It did this fearless of the consequences.
Rest easy: parliamentary sovereignty is alive and well and the law applies to the government and prime minister, just like the rest of us.