Jolyon Maugham QC is the director of the Good Law Project, who has co-ordinated several of the big Brexit-related court cases, including the Cherry and Miller cases currently at the Supreme Court.
Interviewed on the Remainacs podcast earlier this week, Maugham pointed out that many of the people who cheered on Boris Johnson’s dodgy prorogation of parliament would not be at all happy to see the same power in the hands of a political opponent. What would Jeremy Corbyn do with the power to shut down parliamentary scrutiny when it got too inconvenient?
Well, the recent hullabaloo at the Labour Party conference in Brighton demonstrates that there are plenty of people in the Labour party who share the anti-democratic instincts of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings.
Tom Watson has been a thorn in the side of Jeremy Corbyn, ever since the latter was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015. He has not always followed the ‘party line,’ nor shown any great loyalty to the leader. But as deputy leader, Watson has his own electoral legitimacy and cannot be dismissed.
But then the Momentum leader Jon Lansman hit on a great wheeze – why not just abolish the position of deputy leader? He tabled an NEC motion to that effect, and it seems it was only after pushback from members at conference that the idea was scrapped – there are enough factional opponents of Tom Watson on the NEC to have voted in favour of the abolition.
This is a ploy that is very similar to the Prime Minister’s proroguing of parliament. A power exists for one reason, but you use it for something entirely different and unintended – to shut up your critics.
Pause for thought
When campaigners argue against a policy that infringes, or outright violates, human rights, we very often put forward the argument which asks how one would feel if the powers were wielded by someone less trustworthy and less principled than current ministers. One weird silver lining of the ascendancy of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump is that those kinds of arguments are no longer fanciful hypotheticals, but very real possibilities.
The recent procedural manoeuvres against Tom Watson should cause those who applauded the abnormal proroguing of parliament to pause for thought: Do you really want people like Jon Lansman and Jeremy Corbyn to have the power to guillotine dissent and debate whenever they feel like it? No you do not.
Perhaps a Supreme Court ruling that curbs the Prime Minister’s powers in this area would be no bad thing after all.
Following various Brexit-related court judgments, Leave supporters, in the press and among the general public, have criticised judicial rulings as being biased towards Remain. But they are not such thing. Instead, they are pro-democracy. Or, more precisely, they are pro-scrutiny, pro-accountability, and pro-parliament. The rulings promote a dispersal of power.
The original Miller case in 2017 was brought by self-identified ‘Remainers’ such as Jolyon Maugham and Gina Miller. But it’s effect was to give parliament a proper say on this important issue. It handed as much power to the hard Brexit advocates in the European Research Group as it did to those on the other side. Moreover, the same constitutional principles may, in future years, stop a left wing government (say) imposing a programme of nationalisation, unless members of parliament voted for it.
First published on the author’s website
Image: Press pack outside UK Supreme Court in London, 17 September 2019. Steve Nimmons CC By-2.0