What does prorogue mean and how does Boris Johnson plan to suspend parliament?

John Bercow calls plan to close Commons for weeks a ‘constitutional outrage’ 

Zamira Rahim
Thursday 29 August 2019 17:22 BST
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Boris Johnson confirms prorogation of parliament

Boris Johnson has confirmed he will suspend parliament in the second week of September, ahead of a Queen’s Speech on 14 October.

The suspension device is formally known as prorogation. It has been endlessly threatened and debated since January. It has also been much misunderstood.

What is prorogation?

The prorogation device is an ancient feature of the UK’s constitution and marks the end of every parliamentary session. Sessions normally last a year, but the current one began in June 2017, to allow time for Brexit legislation to be passed.

Under ordinary circumstances, parliament would be suspended for a brief period of time in April or May before the beginning of the new parliamentary session. The last time this occurred, without a general election looming, was in 2016.

That year parliament was prorogued on Thursday 12 May and reconvened for the Queen’s Speech and State Opening on Wednesday 18 May, a suspension of four working days. Under Boris Johnson’s plans, the legislature would be suspended for more than a month, which would be unprecedented in today’s politics outside of general elections.

The prime minister’s supporters have said that with the inclusion of a recess for conference season, parliament would only sit for four fewer working days.

But opposition parties agreed last week to block the annual conference recess, which lasts around three weeks.

What happens during prorogation?

Prorogation ends nearly all parliamentary business, including most bills, all motions and parliamentary questions. No new bills or motions can be introduced and MPs are mainly left to constituency work.

The last time a government suspended parliament as a means of bypassing opposition in the Commons was in 1948. Parliament was suspended over the passing of the Parliament Act 1949, the law which reduced the power of the House of Lords.

Mr Johnson claimed that suspending parliament is unrelated to his Brexit plans. He said the Queen’s Speech would set out his government’s agenda focusing on “helping the NHS, fighting violent crime, investing in infrastructure and science and cutting the cost of living”. James Cleverly, the Conservative Party chairman, said the government was merely holding a Queen’s Speech “as all new government’s do”.

But the planned prorogation would severely limit the time MPs have to block a no-deal Brexit. Opposition parties came to an agreement in recent days over blocking such an outcome, after Number 10 repeatedly refused to rule out the possibility.

Can parliament block the suspension?

The Queen prorogues parliament on the advice of the prime minister, so the suspension is a government decision. Mr Johnson confirmed he had already spoken to the Queen to request an end ot the current session. The process does not require parliamentary approval.

In the past, parliament has tried to vote against the suspension – a Labour motion against prorogation was defeated in the House of Lords during the handover from Harold Macmillan to Alec Douglas-Home as prime minister in 1963.

If such a vote were to be carried in the Commons against the government, it would have no legal force. MPs would need to legislate to stop prorogation or act to bring down the government through a vote of no confidence.

Legal challenges are also possible but Downing Street is reportedly confident its decision will withstand any application for judicial review, according to sources cited by ITV News.

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John Bercow, the Commons’ speaker, has previously made it clear he will support MPs if they see fit to legislate from the backbenches. Today, he denounced the prime minister’s plan as a “constitutional outrage”, as did other lawmakers.

“Shutting down Parliament would be an offence against the democratic process and the rights of Parliamentarians as the people’s elected representatives,” he said.

“Surely at this early stage in his premiership, the Prime Minister should be seeking to establish rather than undermine his democratic credentials and indeed his commitment to Parliamentary democracy.”

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