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Politics: What On Earth Is Going On?

We have collected and answered the top 10 questions asked about current politics in an attempt to clarify the situation.

By Bethany Dawson

Two weeks ago, Incite published a brief rundown of what the prorogation means. Do you remember when that was the most confusing thing in politics? Ah, simpler times. Since then, everything has only gotten more complex, so we have collected the top 10 questions asked about current politics in order to clarify what’s happening. Hold onto your horses

1. Who is going to clean up the mess of Parliament next? 

It would be lovely to have a political caretaker whose job is to keep everything orderly and to ensure that chaos does not descend over parliament on what currently happens to be a daily basis. Theoretically, that is the role of the Prime Minister, but Boris does not seem to have the most calming influence on government. So, whilst it would be wonderful to hold the ability to provide a balanced answer to the question of who it the superhero that could save us from this mess, I can’t, and I don’t think there is an answer.

2. Why didn’t the opposition opt for a general election?

In the last two weeks, Boris Johnson has had parliament vote on whether or not they want a General Election, twice. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act (2011), the PM can call for a vote on a general election whenever they want, but it can only go forward if over two thirds (434 votes, or more) of Parliament vote in favour. Despite initial speculations as to the likelihood to this vote being successful, the first vote saw only 298 MPs voting in favour of a General Election, with 56 voting against, and 288 abstaining. This meant that the vote was somewhat of a flop, and the second vote on the topic – which was held less than a week after the first – saw five less MPs voting in favour of a general election. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of support for a General Election came from the Conservative Party and the DUP.

Initially, it might seem very odd that the opposition government – those who want to be in power – rejected the opportunity for a general election: twice. Why wouldn’t they want the public to have the chance to democratically elect them. It would be logical to assume that they were put off by the current political turmoil, maybe having their confidence fettered by the less than consistent state of the polls. Essentially, it’s understandable to assume that the opposition is just too nervous for a general election: that’s why we’ve got clips of Boris Johnson jeering “just call and election, you big girls blouse” at Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons. 

However, this isn’t the case. The opposition rejected Boris Johnson’s call for an election because, according to Corbyn, they didn’t trust Johnson to not move the date of an election after it had been called whilst in the meantime agreeing to a no-deal Brexit. If that happened, parliament wouldn’t have the ability to reject this as Parliament is often prorogued – suspended – for a general election. Since the vote, however, it has gone into Law – through the introduction of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 – that the Prime Minister must ask the EU for an extension to Brexit until 31st January 2020 – in order to obtain a deal. Therefore, it may be that the opposition would feel comfortable to accept a vote for a general election, as Johnson cannot force the UK out of the EU without a deal on the 31st of October. 

3. What is the likelihood of a general election in the coming weeks? 

As addressed, the reason why the opposition voted against a General Election is now defunct as a no-deal Brexit on the 31st of October is now prohibited by Law (although, that doesn’t rule it out completely as there are speculations that Boris Johnson may ignore this Law, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that he won’t). When Parliament goes back into session on October 14th,  a General Election might be called, and here are two ways that that might happen: 

  1.  Boris Johnson could call for another vote for a General Election under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. If he did, this would be the third time he put forward this vote in just over a month. If, as discussed, more than 434 MPs vote in favour of this, then there will be a General Election.

  2. There could be a vote of No Confidence in the Government, which is generally put forward by a member of the opposition, but at this point, it wouldn’t even be surprising to see it come from either side of the benches. 

If this was held, the government would have to vote on the motion: “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.”If this happens, and if a simple majority (50% of MPs plus one) support the motion, then there will be a general election. 

4. Why have MPs voted to extend Brexit, hasn’t it been long enough ?

The answer to this question massively depends on where your opinions lie in regards to Brexit. Some people believe the best thing to do is get out of the EU as soon as possible, others want to leave with a more detailed deal, and some don’t want to leave at all. All of these views, and all views in between, are represented within our Parliament, which is one reason why it’s taking so long: they cannot reach a consensus. To prolong the process of finding a deal – which MPs did by passing the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 – is, theoretically, the way in which MPs will force the Government to find a deal so that we don’t end up in a food-barren and medically rationed state as painted by the yellow hammer document. 

5. What’s the Yellowhammer document?

The Yellowhammer document is a leaked secure government document, meaning it was only meant to be seen by select members of government and civil servants. The document was leaked by, allegedly, a senior civil servant, but the specific details of who that is are unclear.

The document is an overview of what happens in a worst-case scenario no-deal Brexit. It outlines factors like chemical shortages which are necessary for cleaning the UK’s water supply, food shortages and panic buying, of difficulties in getting medical supplies into the country, and of the civil unrest that may ensue. It is not exactly a calming document. 

6. What is Johnson’s strategy and does he even have one? What might be his next move?

My degree in Politics, and the state of the country, would be made a lot simpler if I could tell you what is going on in Boris Johnson’s head, but alas, it’s not obvious. Answers to this question change alongside each turn of the rollercoaster of British Politics.

At the time of writing, the next biggest event to decide Johnson’s fate – and essentially, the fate of our country, is the ruling from the UK Supreme Court as to whether or not the prorogation was lawful or not. If it is deemed lawful, then it is almost certain that the prorogation will continue until the 14th of October, and it seems as though the priority there is leaving, rather than leaving with a deal. Between now and then, it is likely that Boris Johnson will attempt to find a way around extending Brexit to January so that he can take the UK out of the EU on the 31st of October. However, if the prorogation is deemed unlawful and Parliament is reinstated, then any plans that Boris has are likely to be interrupted by votes from the opposition calling for a general election, which will presumably be successful. 

Simply, it looks as though his strategy is to take as many steps towards a Halloween Brexit as possible whilst Parliament is not in session. 

7. Was the prorogation lawful or not? 

The act of suspending – proroguing – Parliament is lawful, and generally happens annually. It’s the act of closing Parliament to signify the end of the session (think of it like school closing for summer). Once Parliament is suspended, any motions, bills, or debates that were tabled are no longer to be heard; the slate is wiped clean for a new session. 

This prorogation, however, isn’t as quiet, simple or uninteresting as it would normally be. Scotland’s highest civil court deemed the prorogation unlawful as it concluded it was motivated by the “improper purpose of stymieing Parliament”. Essentially, they suggested it was done to silence Parliament. This conclusion clashes with a previous decision made by the High Court in London, which deemed the prorogation legal. To make the overall decision, the ruling is now headed to the highest court in the UK – the UK Supreme Court – for a final verdict to be made on September 17th. If the prorogation is deemed unlawful, it’s likely that it will be reversed and Parliament will be placed back in session. 

In summary, there’s no final consensus as to whether or not the prorogation is legal, but we should have an answer by the 17th of September. 

8. What was/is the role of the Queen in the prorogation and a general election?

As the head of state, the Queen has to give her approval to all laws and to changes of Government, known as Royal Assent. She had to give permission to allow the prorogation to go forward, she will have to give permission to support the formation of a new Government and Parliament if one was to be formed as per a general election. She could have – theoretically – rejected the prorogation, she could even have rejected the referendum result or the submission of Article 50. However, whilst she is the head of state, the Queen is largely apolitical, and it would be completely unheard of for her to refuse Royal Assent: something that has not happened since 1707. Having said that, however, it would be folly to take any political action off the table at this point of Political chaos.

Simply, the Queen’s job is to approve – or reject – the decisions made by Parliament. 

9. What are the different potential scenarios that may unfold in the near future?

With the amount of sharp and unpredicted turns current politics have taken, it is hard to set out a path for what exactly is going to happen, but here are a few situations that we might be seeing in the near future: 

Parliament could be unsuspended. If the UK Supreme Court rules the prorogation unlawful then it is very likely that it will be returned for session. If that happens, I’d recommend switching BBC Parliament on for a front seat to the drama. Forget Love Island, this is where the real spice is at. 

We could have a general election. There’s little doubt that we’ll have a general election, the question is as to when it will happen. Now that an extension to Brexit has been written into law, it is likely that a vote for a general election – whether this is through a motion as per the Fixed Terms act or through a Vote of No Confidence – will happen very soon after Parliament returns. There is no clear idea of who will win a general election. The gains made by the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats during the recent council elections – and the now six MPs who have defected to the Lib Dems – put these parties in with a chance to gain a significant number of seats in a general election. The top two positions within the polls are being battled out between the Conservatives and Labour, with the Conservatives taking an unsteady lead. It’s likely we’ll have another hung parliament and will see parties scrabble together to form a majority. Jo Swinson – the leader of the Liberal Democrats – has said that she will not form a coalition with Labour, which means that it’s very unclear what would happen if an election resulted in a hung parliament with Labour winning a simple majority. Who would they pair up with to get an absolute majority? On a similar note, it’s unlikely the Lib Dems will join forces with the Conservatives if they were to win a simple majority, as their Brexit strategies are simply incomparable. In essence, there are no clear pairings to make the prospect of a hung parliament a simple one. So, unless one party wins an absolute majority, it doesn’t seem as though the complexities of politics will reduce with a general election. 

We’ll leave the EU. If Boris Johnson ignores the Law cemented into legislature earlier in September, then we will leave the EU on the 31st of October, most likely without a deal. 

Brexit will be extended. On the other hand, if Boris Johnson does listen to the law and does not attempt to circumvent it with the use of obscure loopholes, then Brexit will be extended until the 31st of January in the hope that the extra few months will help the UK secure a deal.

10. What happened to the dog and is Jacob Rees-Mogg still having a nap in the commons?

On the 2nd of September – five days after Johnson announced the prorogation, and on a day of major debates and announcements – our Prime Minister adopted a rescue puppy in what seemed to be a poor, if cute, attempt to distract the headlines away from his shocking inability to maintain peace within the commons. The dog stayed in the media for a matter of hours. It’s not uncommon to see Politicians making valiant attempts to shift the media focus onto a largely unpolitical facet of themselves at a time of chaos. Rees-Mogg did the same, by lounging in the commons during one of the most crucial debates as though he wanted Leonardo Dicaprio to paint him like one of his French girls. The pose was an idiotic, but successful, distraction away from the political and parliamentary whirlwind he is wholly cemented in. 

Being given more details about Parliamentary procedure often brings more clouds than it clears. Simply, there are more and more questions being asked each day, as the complexity of the situation keeps growing. Email ussu.politics@surrey.ac.uk with any more questions for them to be answered in the next edition of “Politics: what on Earth is going on?”. 

Bethany is a third year Politics and Sociology student at the University of Surrey. She writes here in personal capacity and not as Opinions Editor of Incite.

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