Local MPs join in debate as scuffles break out in Commons
Speaker John Bercow blocked from leaving his chair
Speaker John Bercow, Nicola Sturgeon, Brendan O’Hara, Jo Swinson, Martin Docherty Hughes and Ian Blackford.
By Bill Heaney
A scuffle erupted around the Speaker’s chair as some Opposition MPs held up signs emblazoned with the word “silenced” as the Westminster parliament was suspended last night.
The Commons is being prorogued – shut down – for five weeks and will not be returning until 14 October – a move which has infuriated MPs hoping to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
It appears now that there will be no General Election until November.
During suspension proceedings in the early hours of this morning, MPs shouted “No!” when parliament was asked to prorogue.
Unless Prime Minister Boris Johnston and his advisers have a cunning plan, he appears to be boxed into a corner he may never emerge from.
There were remarkable scenes when a scuffle erupted around the speaker’s chair as some opposition MPs held signs emblazoned with the word “silenced” and one tried to stop John Bercow from leaving for the prorogation ceremony in the Lords.
Mr Bercow, who is meant to remain neutral but has often been outspoken throughout his tenure as speaker, said: “This is not a standard or normal prorogation.
“It’s one of the longest for decades and it represents an act of executive fiat.”
He was applauded by the opposition as Labour MPs and SNP members chanted “shame on you!” at government ministers.
The SNP leader, Ian Blackford, told him: “On behalf of those of us on the SNP Benches, may I say that we will be sad to see you leave office at the end of October?
“It is fair to say that you have shown considerable grace and purpose—not just to us, but to Members across this House. We are eternally grateful for the way in which you have conducted yourself, particularly over these last few months—at a time, let us be honest, of constitutional crisis for all of us—and for the way you have facilitated Back Benchers, in particular, in being able to hold the Executive to account and, indeed, in making sure that those of us whom people send to this place are able to do our job to the best of our endeavours in representing their interests.”
He added that like the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, to whom he has become close in recent days, he was grateful he would remain in post until the end of October – “You will always get a friendly welcome in Scotland, and indeed we would love to see you up in Ross, Skye and Lochaber.”
The ceremony in the House of Lords, where the royal assent was heard for the suspension of parliament, was boycotted by Labour MPs who stayed in the Commons to sing the Red Flag as members of the SNP sang Flower of Scotland and the Welsh sang Bread of Heaven.
An unparliamentary rammy ensued with Mr Blackford to the fore and his West Dunbartonshire colleague Martin Docherty Hughes MP and Helensburgh-based Brendan O’Hara MP wading in to Prime Minister Boris Johnston and the Tory Front Bench team.
Joanna Cherry QC MP, forecast by many to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister at Holyrood, supported a move to open up confidential documents relating to Brexit.
She said: “I am a student more of Scottish history than of English history, but our histories are bound together, and I know enough about English history to know that it was secret, unaccountable whispers of poison that brought down Edward II and Richard II. I suspect that this Prime Minister will be brought down by secret, unaccountable whispers of poison, such as those in the unattributable briefings we heard this afternoon.
“Let us make sure that this House and the courts see the contents of the secret whispers of poison that preceded this Prorogation, so that we can all see the real reasons why the House of Commons has been prorogued by an Executive terrified of scrutiny.”
It was resolved that Ministers be directed to lay before the House all the documents relating to what has been called Operation Yellowhammer.
The Speaker said this matter was now law and that the Prime Minister would be expected to comply with it.
Ian Blackford then turned on Prime Minister Johnston to make the SNP case against a No Deal Brexit.
He said: “Our freedoms, our rights and our democracy are today under threat—under attack from a Prime Minister threatening to ignore the rule of law, ignore the wishes of Parliament and railroad against the will of the people. Today is indeed a historic day—a dark day.
“It will be remembered as the day that the UK Government obstructed the people and plunged the UK into an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
“The Prime Minister is not, not ever, above the rule of law. He says that he would rather die in a ditch than write to seek an extension to protect our economy from falling off the cliff edge. If that is the course that he chooses, the Prime Minister must resign.
“Undermining democracy at every turn, the Prime Minister simply cannot be trusted. The rule book has been well and truly ripped up, and with it, democracy and decency have been shredded by a cult of Brexit fan boys in No 10—unfit to govern, unwilling to govern.
“What a despicable state of affairs—that an unelected bureaucrat, the Prime Minister’s lead adviser, is sitting in No. 10 devising and directing an assault on democracy, preventing parliamentary scrutiny and transparency. Should we be surprised? These are the men behind the biggest con in modern times. The co-founders of fake news, who lied to the public during the EU referendum and removed the facts from the table, and here they are again, ducking and diving the truth, seeking to operate Government using cloak-and-dagger tactics, pretending to protect the right of the people when in reality they are crushing the rights of our citizens, strangling Parliament and gagging the voice of the people.”
He added: “I am deeply concerned about what is happening, about the proroguing of Parliament and about the fact that the Government have pushed it through on the votes of three members of the Privy Council, against the express wishes of the majority of Members of this House. That concerns me and, as democrats, it should concern us all.
“I said this last week and I will say it again: the SNP wants a general election. We want the opportunity to bring this Government down, and we are going to take it.
“We want the opportunity for the people of Scotland to have their voices heard, to make their choice over their futures. We want the opportunity to stop this Prime Minister from ripping us out of the European Union against our will.
“Members can jeer all they want, but this Prime Minister has lost Scotland. He has lost the support of the old Scottish Tory leader. Things are really that bad for the Prime Minister and for this shambolic, failing Tory Government. The matter is simple: we want an election but we do not want it on the Prime Minister’s terms. This is a Prime Minister obsessed with running down the clock, a Prime Minister who cannot be trusted and a Prime Minister who is seeking to shut Parliament, so that he can drive us off the cliff edge. We are not falling for it.
“The Prime Minister thinks he can treat Parliament however he wants. He thinks he can ignore the people of Scotland and treat our Scottish Parliament, our Government and our citizens as second-class citizens. Scotland will not be ignored.
“Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. Scotland voted overwhelmingly for the SNP, to oppose the Tory Government here in Westminster. And Scotland will have the chance to vote to say that this Prime Minister and this Government do not represent the people of Scotland and our wishes.
“Since the referendum, we have been treated with contempt, shouted down, with our voices silenced and our interests side-lined. Let me put the Prime Minister on notice: the election is coming.
“My message to the Prime Minister is this: respect the will of the people of Scotland.
“Once the threat of a no-deal Brexit is removed from the table, the SNP will act—and we urge others to act—to bring down the Tories, oust this Prime Minister and let the people have their say. Once we are safe in the knowledge that we are not leaving the European Union at Halloween, the days of this Government will be over. “When we return in October, we expect the Opposition parties to work together to bring this Government to an end. We have had enough of this dictatorship; enough of the deceit, the fake news, the sham fighting, the games and the stunts.
“We have had enough. I say to people across these islands who are feeling lost, forgotten, anxious and worried about the future, that our time is coming. We will keep fighting for you.
“Where we can, we will work in the interests of the people across Scotland and the UK, to protect our economy from the Brexit catastrophe. We will create the circumstances and find a way to strip this Government of power, end the democratic deficit and give the people back control.
“An election is coming, and the SNP will ensure that post the suspension period, when a no-deal Brexit is off the table, the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to choose their future; to choose to be citizens who want to be part of Europe; to choose to live in a country that is outward looking and welcoming; to choose to live in an independent Scotland focused on opportunity and fairness, free of broken Brexit Britain. The Prime Minister is warned: his days in office are numbered.”
East Dunbartonshire is represented by the Liberal Party leader, Jo Swinson, who said: “You cannot be surprised that the Liberal Democrats are a party that wishes to stop Brexit.
“In a general election, where we will stand to secure a Liberal Democrat majority, such a Liberal Democrat majority Government would indeed revoke Article 50.
“This Government and this Prime Minister have no mandate for a no-deal Brexit that they are trying to force on the British people. It is clear that he has no plans for securing a Brexit deal. He is not entering into this in any spirit of seriousness. How does the Prime Minister seriously think that with the previous occupant of that role having tried to negotiate a deal over the course of three years, he and he alone can achieve in four weeks what she failed to do and fight a general election at the same time—what arrogance.
“If he were serious about getting a deal, he would be negotiating hard in Brussels, not running away from the responsibility of the job that he now holds and said that he wanted for such a long time.
“A general election cannot be guaranteed to resolve this issue one way or the other. The best way to do that is to hold a people’s vote on the Brexit deal. That is the best way to resolve this crisis—to give people the choice of the Brexit deal that has been negotiated or remaining in the European Union.
“I do not believe that there is a majority for any specific type of Brexit in this country, and we could determine whether that were the case in a people’s vote. The Liberal Democrats are crystal clear: we want to stop Brexit.”
The Prime Minister protested: “I earlier urged the House to trust the people, but once again the Opposition think they know better. They want the British Prime Minister to go to a vital negotiation without the power to walk away. They want to delay Brexit yet again, without further reference to those who voted for it, handing over to Brussels an extra £250 million a week for no purpose—enough to upgrade more than five hospitals or train 5,000 new nurses. And most egregiously of all, not only have they refused to choose the way ahead; they have now twice denied the British people their say in an election.”
He added: “Meanwhile, the Government will press on with negotiating a deal, while preparing to leave without one. I will go to that crucial summit in Brussels on 17 October, and no matter how many devices this Parliament invents to tie my hands, I will strive to get an agreement in the national interest.”
To this, Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn replied: “I think we have had quite enough playground politics from the Conservative party. The one thing the Prime Minister did not say was that he was going to obey the law of this country. He did not say that he acknowledged or accepted three votes that have taken place in this Parliament.
“At his request, the House is now apparently due to be prorogued this evening for one of the longest prorogations in history simply in order to avoid any questioning of what he is doing or not doing, simply to avoid discussion about Yellowhammer [the Brexit papers], and particularly to avoid any discussion about the proposals that have been put to the European Union that he has or does not have or that do or do not exist. This Government are a disgrace, and the way the Prime Minister operates is a disgrace.”
Emboldened by the reaction to his previous contributions, Ian Blackford came back to say: “I should perhaps congratulate the Prime Minister, because at least he has been consistent. He has lost every vote he has brought to this House since he became Prime Minister.”
Luke Graham, the Tory MP for Ochil, said: “I think many of our constituents will be confused. They will be confused because a Labour party that has asked for a general election for two years has turned one down, because the Liberal Democrats are acting anything but democratically and because the SNP is so arrogant that it says it speaks for all of Scotland, when no one party speaks for all of Scotland.”
Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP), part of which is Helensburgh and Lomond, said: “Could you advise me how I register my anger and deep frustration at the outrageous and profoundly undemocratic suspension of this Parliament?
“With barely seven weeks before the UK is due to leave the European
Union, my constituents are deeply worried, understandably so, that, as the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) said at the weekend, this Government have no interest in securing a deal and are hell-bent on pursuing a catastrophic policy of no deal.
“Along with every other part of Scotland, my constituency voted overwhelmingly to remain. We are facing profound and devastating effects on our tourism, farming and fishing industries, and surely the least that my constituents could expect is that their Member of Parliament is able to represent them in this Chamber at this most critical moment?”
His SNP colleague in the contiguous constituency of West Dunbartonshire – Speaker Bercow introduced him thus: No set of points of order would be complete without the product of the elucubrations of the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire – was entertainingly funny about this most serious manner when he made this contribution in a broad, Glasgow accent:
“On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether you could advise me on process for what is supposed to be the mother of Parliaments. [Interruption.] Non-sober Members on the Government Benches should maybe wheesht a wee bit, especially those who cannae haud their drink. If the Government do not meet the obligations of a vote of the House in the next few weeks, what is open not only to Members—who have overwhelmingly rejected the Government’s position not only on a general election at this time but, more importantly, on implementing the decisions of the majority of Members in relation to a no-deal Brexit— but to you, as Chair of this House, to assure not only me but my constituents that a Government who do not listen to the so-called sovereign Parliament are therefore undermining fundamentally—[Interruption.] The hon. Member should maybe wheesht a wee minute. I have told him once; I will not tell him again. The fact that he is not even able to take a chair—he is sitting on the flair—says mair about him than any other Member in this House. If the Government will not implement the law of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, what is open to you, Mr Speaker, and the House to ensure that they do?”
Speaker Bercow replied: At this stage it is a hypothetical question, because one would need to look at the specifics, but what I would say to him is that if there is a dispute as to what a law means, or what compliance with it looks like, that is ultimately justiciable, and therefore it is to be expected that it would be the subject of a court ruling. These are not uncommon matters, so it would be a very high-profile situation in the circumstances with which we are dealing, but it does seem to me that Members should reflect upon these matters, and think about their options and the attitude of their colleagues, in the cool light of day. That is not necessarily best achieved by a furious focus at 12.51 in the morning [which was the time on the Commons clock when the question was put].”
MPs will not return to the Commons until little more than two weeks before the Brexit deadline on 31 October. They had only been sitting for four days following their six-week summer break before parliament was suspended.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn branded the prorogation “disgraceful” and said Boris Johnson “appears to be wanting to run away from questions”.
The Speaker finally got out of his chair and left escorted by Black Rod applauded by the Opposition. Labour MPs shouted “shame on you!” to Ministers.
One commentator said: “These are absolutely extraordinary scenes.”
But the government says it is the usual proceedings in the run-up to a Queen’s Speech, which will be held when parliament returns and will set out policies and plans for the coming year.
According to House of Commons Library statistics, parliament has not been prorogued for longer than three weeks in the last 40 years.
The Queen formally approved the prorogation after three cabinet ministers travelled to Balmoral last month.
This week, the Court of Session in Edinburgh will make a ruling on a case brought by a 70-strong group of cross-party MPs which argues that proroguing parliament is unlawful and unconstitutional.
A separate case brought by Remain campaigner Gina Miller and former prime minister Sir John Major to stop the parliamentary suspension was rejected, but the pair are in the process of appealing.