He enjoys an effective Commons majority of 87, but Boris Johnson has always preferred an absent parliament to one that is sitting. When he ousted Theresa May 13 months ago, parliament went straight into a recess which Mr Johnson then tried to extend by prorogation. When the coronavirus pandemic struck in March, parliament went into recess again, and remained absent for almost a month. While thousands of Britons died, and the economy ground almost to a halt, MPs were told to stay at home, while ministers governed by press conference.
Parliament last sat on Wednesday 22 July, more than three weeks ago. It is not scheduled to sit again until Tuesday 1 September, which is more than two weeks away. Yet there are exceptionally urgent issues now facing the country. These include the continuing public health emergency itself, the deepening economic recession, the rising tide of unemployment, the Brexit negotiations and, of course, the effects of Covid on the UK nations’ school and exam systems. A properly functioning parliamentary democracy should be addressing all of them. The UK’s is not. It is therefore not functioning properly.
Mr Johnson has no intention of lifting a finger to change this, not least because he cannot cope with Keir Starmer’s questioning. Instead, he prefers inane photo opportunities. Absence of scrutiny is this government’s modus operandi. Mr Johnson is honing one of the most centralising governments in memory. Ministers, and thus the cabinet, are regarded as marginal. Parliament is seen as actively unwelcome. Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, is busy handing out government contracts to Brexit-backing cronies and waging a war against the civil service. Downing Street is preparing to start a presidential-style briefing system, which Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s splenetic press secretary, has called a constitutional outrage.
In a functioning parliamentary democracy, parliament would now be sitting. The problem is that it can only be recalled by the Speaker on the say-so of ministers, which will not happen. The Speaker is therefore powerless. Over the last two decades, there have been moves to enable other ways of recalling parliament. These have got nowhere, but a mechanism of some sort is urgently needed. Governments must not be allowed to hide from parliament, as the present one is now doing. Where is the indignation and pressure from MPs of all parties, not least Conservatives?
Scotland may offer a way forward. The Scottish parliament held its own long recess this summer, from 27 June to 9 August. Yet Scotland’s legal obligation to review and renew its Covid regulations meant that, on many Thursdays throughout the recess period, the parliament sat anyway. Something like that should have happened in Westminster too. It would have meant that Mr Johnson’s approach to lifting lockdown was scrutinised. It would have ensured Gavin Williamson would have had to answer for the English exam shambles in the way that John Swinney had to for the Scottish one.
Westminster recesses are needlessly long anyway. They are set to suit the government not parliament. Almost as soon as MPs return, they are likely to leave again for the autumn conference recess – even though the conferences themselves will be virtual. This is ludicrous. If there was a will, there would be a way to ensure some Commons sittings through this period. The point of a parliament is to hold government to account. Too often, that is not happening. Much of the blame lies with Mr Johnson. But MPs need more fire in their bellies about the way they are being brushed aside too. If they do not stand up for parliament, who will?