Boris Johnson’s plan to move Parliament to York has been kiboshed. According to yesterday’s papers, the officials in charge of the parliamentary restoration have ruled it out on the basis that it has ‘constitutional implications‘ following interventions by both Speakers.
This is good news, and not just because moving the capital – which moving the seat of government amounts to – is a bad idea. It also provides a helpful check to the slightly hysterical portrait of the Prime Minister as a proto-dictator.
Martin Kettle offered up an example of this in the Guardian earlier this week, when he accused Johnson and Dominic Cummings of ‘silencing’ Parliament. Citing their failed effort to prorogue it in 2019, he then cites a list of what he considers to be warning signs of the Government’s ‘presidential’ style.
Kettle is drawing on a deep well. You might remember David Allen Green’s list of Theresa May’s ‘constitutional outrages’, most of which were outrageous mainly because he did not like the result. Or Andrew Rawnsley calling for a codified constitution on the basis that parliamentary procedure appears “bewildering and arcane” to people who don’t normally pay any attention to it, as if that were not the case everywhere.
Even Anne Applebaum, in her recent book about the rejection of the liberal order by ungrateful electorates, describes Johnson’s decision to remove the whip from MPs who voted against the Government in a de facto matter of confidence as “unprecedented”, rather than the most natural thing in the world.
In Kettle’s case, it’s true that Johnson shows no great affection for the Commons. But then neither did Tony Blair. The increased distance between the Prime Minister and the legislature is a slowly-evolving feature of our constitution, not a Johnsonian innovation. And it’s difficult to square the idea that the Government is deliberately keeping MPs away from Parliament with the fierce criticism it received just in May for trying to bring them back too quickly.
The extraordinary, high-octane parliamentary drama of the past few years have spoiled enthusiasts for politics. Knife-edge votes, floor crossings, and totemic defeats are not the normal means by which the Commons holds the Government to account. In normal times – and a healthy governing majority is the British norm, in the long view – the influence is subtler.
But it is there. We see it clearly displayed in the two Speakers shooting down the York proposals, and in the way angry Tory MPs forced a swift u-turn over A Level results. The institutional and the political legislature, each flexing their muscles.
None of this is to say that there aren’t worthwhile reforms which could make Parliament more effective. In fact, as I have set out previously, such changes will be vital if the Government is to have any long-term hope of taking back control from the courts, quangos, and other elements of the standing State.
But let’s not pretend that summoning MPs back to London so they can vie to record angry clips for their Facebook feeds is a useful benchmark for the influence of the Commons.