It was all meant to be so different from Theresa May’s chaotic time in Downing Street, but the last few weeks have not been kind to current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.
He has been attacked for seeking the prorogation (suspension) of Parliament for 5 weeks; he has lost several (critical) parliamentary votes; he also lost his majority in the Commons; and he has been denied the General Election (which many of his critics believe that he secretly craves – despite official statements to the contrary). This last problem having arisen as a result of the restrictions imposed by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 – passed ironically with the votes of Conservative MPs in the more peaceful days of the UK Coalition Government (2010-15). The law of unintended consequences many of the Prime Minister’s supporters will no doubt lament.
The Prime Minister might have felt some relief last week when both the Queen’s Bench Division of the English High Court and the Outer House of the Court of Session ruled in two separate, but connected, cases that his decision to advise the Queen to prorogue Parliament (by using the Royal Prerogative) was not unlawful (see Gina Miller v the Prime Minister & Others; and Joanna Cherry MP and Others, Petition for Judicial Review both 2019).
That was until 11 September 2019), when the Inner House of the Court of Session (Scotland’s Supreme Civil Court) landed nothing less than a bombshell on the UK Government. Lords Carloway, Brodie and Drummond Young issued an opinion that the circumstances which surrounded the proroguing of Parliament was unlawful:
“All three First Division judges have decided that the PM’s advice to the HM the Queen is justiciable, that it was motivated by the improper purpose of stymying Parliament and that it, and what has followed from it, is unlawful. …
… The Court will accordingly make an Order declaring that the Prime Minister’s advice to HM the Queen and the prorogation which followed thereon was unlawful and is thus null and of no effect.”
This decision clearly reverses Lord Doherty’s Opinion in the Outer House of the Court of Session which was issued on 4 September 2019.
Professor Stephen Tierney of Edinburgh University’s Law School referred to the judgement as “remarkable”.
In essence, the prorogation of Parliament was a tactical (underhand?) manoeuvre by the UK Government to make it more difficult for the UK Parliament to scrutinise and block it’s attempt to pursue a no deal Brexit by 31 October 2019. For now, the objective of the Government in this regard have been stopped in tracks.
The UK Government has been given leave to appeal against the decision of the Inner House and the matter will be now be determined by the UK Supreme Court at Guildhall, London.
A link to the full Opinion of the Inner House can be found below:
On 28 August 2019, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson MP announced that he would seek the permission of Queen Elizabeth II, the British Head of State to prorogue (suspend) the sitting of the Westminster Parliament between 10 September and 14 October 2019. The Queen duly acceded to this request – though in her defence she could not really refuse being a mere ceremonial Head of State i.e. without possessing real executive powers
The Prime Minister has argued that there was nothing untoward or sinister about this development and that it was a necessary step to introduce a new Queen’s Speech which would set out the priorities of the Government which he leads.
This did not convince opposition politicians (Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon and Jo Swinson et al) who predictably labelled the move a “coup” i.e. an unlawful seizure of power and the undermining of British democracy. They argued that the move to suspend Parliament for 5 weeks was more about the Prime Minister driving his Brexit agenda through without proper parliamentary scrutiny – not about a new legislative programme.
In any event, the courts have now become involved in the matter: 78 British parliamentarians (representing all strands of political tradition) petitioned Scotland’s Court of Session to have Prime Minister Johnson’s action declared invalid.
A preliminary hearing took place last week and the judge, Lord Doherty was refused to grant the petitioners an interim interdict (a temporary court order) preventing the Prime Minister from carrying out his intention to prorogue the UK Parliament. A full hearing of the Court followed on Tuesday 3 September in Edinburgh, where both sides (the petitioners and the UK Government) set out their respective legal arguments in full.
As of this morning (Wednesday 4 September 2019), Lord Doherty has made his decision whereby he has declined to uphold the petition to prevent the Prime Minister from proroguing Parliament.
A link to Lord Doherty’s opinion can be found below:
The underlying rationale of Lord Doherty’s judgement seems to be that this political and not a legal matter. In other words, it will be for members of the UK Parliament – or ultimately the British electorate – to sort out this matter.
A link to the Evening Standard’s website containing video footage of Lord Doherty delivering the substance of his opinion can be found below:
This will not be the final word on the matter – there are bound to be appeals against Lord Doherty’s judgement (and he may well be relieved to be exiting stage left). I would not be surprised if this matter ultimately proceeds to the UK Supreme Court for a definitive judgement.
This, of course, is one of the problems with having an unwritten British Constitution. In other countries, which have written constitutions (France, Germany, Italy and the USA), there are very clear rules about suspending Parliament or the national legislature. Only last week in Italy, the prominent politician Matteo Salvini withdrew his party (the Northern League) from the Government in an attempt to force fresh, national elections. Mr Salvini miscalculated because the Italian President (the Head of State) decided not to dissolve Parliament and call new elections. Rather the President gave Salvini’s ex-coalition partner, the 5 Star Movement, and the Democratic Party an opportunity to form a new government (which they have duly managed to achieve). President Mattarella was clearly entitled to take this action under the relevant Articles of the Italian Constitution.
This does not mean that, in political systems with written constitutions, the courts have no role. Of course they do. It is an accepted part of the political culture of these countries that a Supreme Court or a Constitutional Court will be the final arbiter of very thorny legal and political issues e.g. the role of the US Supreme Court in legalising abortion (Roe v Wade 410 U.S. 113 (1973)) or same sex marriage (Obergefell v Hodges576 U.S. ___ (2015)). They may be controversial in nature and generate heated debate for decades to come, but very few US citizens would contest the right of the Supreme Court to make such judgements.
As a point of contrast, note the hysteria which was generated when judges of the English High Court permitted Gina Miller’s action to succeed in blocking former Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union without, first, securing UK parliamentary approval (see R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union UKSC 5).
The UK tabloid newspaper, The Daily Mail ran an astonishing front page on 4 November 2016 branding the judges “enemies of the people”. More prosaically, the High Court’s judgement (later approved by the UK Supreme Court in early 2017) was merely clarifying the law surrounding the Prime Minister’s use of the Royal prerogative in foreign affairs. You would not have thought this from the media and political reaction in certain quarters.
In such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that Lord Doherty is only too happy to pass the buck to the politicians … for now anyway …
Watch this space.
The Inner House of the Court of Session (consisting of Lords Carloway, Brodie and Drummond Young) will now hear an appeal by the petitioners against Lord Doherty’s judgement. This is scheduled to take place the week beginning Monday 9 September 2019.
In a separate, but connected, legal challenge, the English High Court rejected a bid by the campaigner, Gina Miller, to have the prorogation of Parliament declared unlawful. Leave to appeal to the UK Supreme Court has been granted.