Diary Day 1126: we are still in and still fighting.

Diary Day 1126: it’s Guy Fawkes night, a night I have come to dislike. It causes injuries to people and terror to wild and domestic animals. It sounds as if a battle is going on, nightmarish for anyone who has actually been in one. And it celebrates the burning of someone at the stake, a horrible thing. Thanks to the activities of the sinister Matthew Hopkins, witch hunter, there were many such burnings in the part of the world where I was born that I wish I could forget about, having read contemporary descriptions.

Anyway, it is well past 31st October and we are still in the EU. How that happened is convoluted. But in a nutshell, Parliament was again unable to agree on anything. Not to leave with a deal, nor to leave without one. So the EU, anxious not to be blamed for the fiasco, gave us yet more time to sort ourselves out.

On 19th October I was one of over a million people who peacefully but noisily converged on the Palace of Westminster to protest (again) against Brexit and demand a People’s Vote. I gather that German TV using the latest crowd-counting techniques estimated it was more than two million; I wouldn’t be surprised. It was bigger than the previous one which itself was huge.

Parliament was in session even though it was Saturday. That had not happened for very many years. It was due to tedious game-playing by Boris Johnson and his associates who were trying to force their revised version of Theresa May’s deal through the Commons. We were noisy because we wanted MPs to know we were outside. And they did.

I was standing close to the statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square, near the huge screen erected by the organisers. There were speeches. The MPs inside were voting on a key amendment: it was about scrutiny of the legislation to implement the withdrawal agreement, which would determine whether the umpteenth EU Withdrawal Act, the one with a draft letter from Boris Johnson to the EU annexed, would trigger the duty to send that letter. People around me were saying they had a bad feeling. Then the result flashed up on the screen. The moment I saw the Ayes had 322 I knew it must be defeat for the Government! The crowd roared. Everyone roared.

It was a historic moment, overwhelming. It was a battle that had to be won in order to keep fighting, a point to save the match. We are still in and still fighting.

The PM sent the letter, though with childish truculence he refused to sign it, which didn’t matter as the EU officials knew he was bound by law to send it.

I was in Athens last weekend for the ALDE Party Congress. This is a fascinating event attended by dozens of political parties from across Europe. The gossip there was that President Macron was minded to veto an extension to the Article 50 period because he saw no point in one unless for the purpose of a deadlock-breaking event, such as a referendum or general election. A perfectly reasonable stance. In the end he dropped his objection and the EU agreed another extension, because proposals for either or both of those things were tabled in Westminster (again).

And then Hallowe’en came and went, with people celebrating Not Brexit Day. Boris Johnson, who had said he’d die in a ditch unless we left on 31 October, broke that promise as well.

There was a small and very feeble protest by Brexit supporters at the failure (as they saw it) to leave. They just can’t mobilise the numbers. The steam is going out of the Brexit cause with every day that passes.

And now we are plunged into yet another general election. With our primitive First Past the Post system and everyone being urged to vote tactically, which requires trying to second-guess how everyone else will vote, it’s exceptionally unpredictable.

The Metropolitan Police have confirmed that last month they passed papers on the illegal overspending by the Vote Leave campaign, led by among others the present Prime Minister and his close adviser Dominic Cummings, to the Crown Prosecution Service for “early investigative advice”. It has taken them ages to get even this far.

No. 10 is accused of suppressing a report from the Commons intelligence and security committee on Russian infiltration and interference in British politics. It was delivered on 17 October, No. 10 is meant to give clearance and no good reason has been given for delaying publication. The committee chair, Dominic Grieve, has called the decision to hold up publication “jaw dropping”.

John Bercow has stepped down as Speaker. We will miss him.

Diary Day 1097: the issue that may soon confront Her Majesty

Diary Day 1097: In case anyone non-Brit is wondering how it feels to be British just now, when Britain’s Prime Minister threatens to flout the law, and it is headline news when he switches and declares that he will, after all, obey: it feels bad.

This feeling is generating an energy that is building up among decent people. Where it will break out and be directed is unknowable. There is a strong sense now that the wrong people are in charge. Our feeble constitution and broken electoral system enabled this to happen.

The UK Supreme Court has unanimously decided that the lawfulness of the prorogation of Parliament was justiciable, that the Prime Minister asked Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue it for an unlawful purpose and that this was invalid, so that Parliament never ceased to sit. Parliament resumed its session the following day. Thus the law has upheld the supremacy of Parliament.

Tomorrow a Scottish Court will consider what to do if the Prime Minister refuses to send a letter that an Act of Parliament requires him to send to Brussels by the 19th of this month, if the precondition occurs of failing to reach a deal with the EU27. The text of the letter is already drafted and contained in a schedule to the Act. It is argued that the Court could sign and send it on his behalf, or appoint someone to do so.

This is what the High Court of England and Wales can do under section 39 of the Senior Courts Act 1981. Where it has ordered a person “to execute any conveyance, contract or other document”, but the person “neglects or refuses to comply”, the court can nominate a person for the purpose of executing the document. The document executed by the nominated person “shall operate, and be for all purposes available”, as if it had been executed by the person originally directed to execute it. No one has tried this with a Prime Minister yet, but the power is there.

It is unlikely that an agreement with the EU27 avoiding this will be reached, because even if Parliament votes to approve the latest version proposed by the UK Government, the EU27 is not happy with it. And as Mr Barnier has explained patiently often enough, the EU is a laws-based institution. It could not simply depart from its own legal regime to do what the UK wanted, even if it wanted to. And why would it want to? I cannot think of a reason. The EU has every reason to stay united and keep its institutions strong.

But the future is unknowable; and, with an unprincipled liar (as is well known) in 10 Downing Street, put there for whatever reason by an increasingly desperate Conservative Party, and a high quota of unprincipled or simply clueless MPs at Westminster, the future is scarcely guessable.

This morning I happened to pick up a copy of the fifth edition (1966) of Sir Ivor Jennings’ book on the British Constitution. His view was that the sovereign’s “formal” powers were not always merely formal. One example was that if the sovereign thought that the power of dissolution was being put to serious abuse she could refuse to allow a dissolution. It turns out that he was quite right on that.

The issue that may soon confront Her Majesty is whether to dismiss the Prime Minister if he refuses to go.

Meanwhile the EU27 must be utterly fed up with us. But we will still be neighbours in the future, so we have to go on dealing with one another somehow. The wise on all sides know that.

Diary Day 1076: an epic series of parliamentary gambles lost

Diary Day 1076: it is party conference season, and for two days the sun has shone on the calm sea, the golden sands and the Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth.

Yesterday the party conference voted for a policy to revoke the Article 50 notice if the party won a majority in the House of Commons. That was a rallying cry for all backers of staying in our beautiful, peaceful institution, the European Union.

At the same time speculation mounts over the timing of a general election. Boris Johnson must surely already have a secure place in history for an epic series of parliamentary gambles lost: no fewer than seven crucial divisions lost in the first week when Parliament sat since he became Prime Minister. It was a pleasure to see his fury and that of his strategist Dominic Cummings as their calculations went disastrously wrong.

John Bercow, the Speaker, defended Parliament superbly, as was his job. Respect!

Parliament is now prorogued until the middle of next month, but before it rose the upshot was that it passed the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, which requires the Prime Minister no later than 19th October 2019 to send a letter, already drafted for him in a schedule, asking the EU27 for another extension of time if Parliament has not either agreed a deal or agreed to leave with no deal. Section 1(4) provides:

“The Prime Minister must seek to obtain from the European Council an extension of the period under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union ending at 11.00pm on 31 October 2019 by sending to the President of the European Council a letter in the form set out in the Schedule to this Act requesting an extension of that period to 11.00pm on 31 January 2020 in order to debate and pass a Bill to implement the agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, including provisions reflecting the outcome of inter-party talks as announced by the Prime Minister on 21 May 2019, and in particular the need for the United Kingdom to secure changes to the political declaration to reflect the outcome of those inter-party talks.”

Mr Johnson also failed, twice I think, to get the required supermajority for a general election.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom will hear an appeal from Scotland tomorrow on the lawfulness of the prorogation of Parliament. Contrary to expectations a couple of weeks ago, the appellant will be the Conservative Government, because last week the Scottish appellate court ruled that the prorogation was unlawful for being motivated by an improper purpose.

A great deal of chattering has taken place about what the Prime Minister might do in defiance of the courts if the Supreme Court rules against him. But last time a battle like this took place, there was a civil war, Parliament won and the King was beheaded. So the defiance is all just hot air. Johnson is the most reckless prime minister of my lifetime but he is not a complete fool.

Diary Day 1064: two historic moments.

Diary Day 1064: I was at my desk when a notification popped up on my screen from a news site: Philip Lee MP had just crossed the floor to the Liberal Democrats.

It dawned on me that at that moment the Government of Boris Johnson had lost its majority.

The House of Commons was debating the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill 2019, a cross-party Bill. Mr. Hilary Benn MP obligingly tweeted the text of it. If passed, unless Parliament approves a deal first, it imposes a legal duty on the Prime Minister to write to the EU27 seeking a further extension of time. Mr Benn and Sir Oliver Letwin jointly sought an emergency debate on this Bill, seeking in effect to seize control of the Parliamentary agenda from Mr Johnson’s Government.

It was while the Prime Minister was on his feet, responding, in mid-sentence, that Dr. Lee crossed the floor. It was a dramatic piece of theatre.

Conservative whips’ threats, and the threat of deselection for all Conservative rebels, had failed to stop it. Indeed maybe they caused it.

Dr. Lee has put out a lengthy statement explaining his reasons. I would not presume to summarise or paraphrase. But his party has moved in a direction where he is not willing to go, because he is an intelligent and caring man. That is why the party is crumbling around Mr Johnson.

After that, things got worse for Mr Johnson. The Commons voted by 328 to 301, an unexpectedly large majority, in favour of the Letwin-Benn motion. Two historic moments in quick succession.

Consequently the Bill comes back to the Commons today. I expect filibustering.

In other news, yesterday a judge in the High Court in London gave Sir John Major, who was Prime Minister 1992-1997, permission to be added as a Claimant in Gina Miller’s proceedings challenging the lawfulness of Mr Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament. And this morning, a judge of the Scottish Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled, rather timidly, that he wasn’t going to rule, because prorogation was not a matter for the courts. At least, I gather that that was the gist. This is a crucial issue about the powers of the Executive versus Parliament, which has rumbled on since the 17th century (reign of King James I, Bill of Rights 1688, etc). It’s likely that the Supreme Court will quickly be asked to sort out the mess.

Diary Day 1058: a rash move.

Diary Day 1058: a dead cat was hurled on to the table. The unscrupulous Boris Johnson announced that Parliament will not sit until 14th October. He can’t altogether prevent it sitting before then, as there is business concerning governance of Northern Ireland which must be transacted in early September. But Johnson’s tactic is to deprive MPs of time.

He attempts to legitimise the delay by linking it with an announcement that the Queen’s speech will be on 14th October. The speech is written for Her Majesty by the government of the day. She has agreed to the request. There has been no mention in reports of the Privy Council being involved in these shenanigans.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, called it a constitutional outrage. “However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit… Shutting down Parliament would be an offence against the democratic process and the rights of parliamentarians as the people’s elected representatives.”

Other MPs expressed similar views.

If the Government prevails on Palace authorities to seek to prevent the Speaker and MPs from sitting in the Palace of Westminster then it will be interesting. The MPs could sit elsewhere instead. There are several suitable venues. The House of Commons is the MPs, not the building.

In several cities there were spontaneous demonstrations in protest. This is very un-British. I went to the one in Westminster where large crowds blocked Whitehall and then Westminster Bridge. They chanted anti-Johnson messages including: “You shut down our Parliament, we’ll shut down the streets”. Which, to judge from the numbers who spontaneously turned out, I think they could do with a bit of pre-planning and organisation.

Gina Miller has reportedly already launched a judicial review. There is another pending case already on the legality of prorogation in the Scottish court. The Welsh Assembly is being recalled.

The temerity of it. It’s almost as if the Johnson minority regime were not seeing rebels flake away and hanging on by a majority of one with the help of a confidence and supply deal with 10 Democratic Unionist MPs.

But this was a rash move. Leaders of anti-Brexit parties plus the fence-sitting Mr Corbyn met a couple of days ago and agreed a fresh strategy. The opposition is becoming united around stopping a crash out on 31st October. The ERG-dominated Johnson regime’s very weakness in MP numbers is the reason why it made this move. It is rash because it is goading opponents to consolidate as not just anti-Brexit but pro-democracy forces, shaking the usually passive British public into a different mood.

The world looks on in bewilderment at the chaos developing here. But the fundamentals are unchanged. The EU is looking on passively. It is not offering the UK a better deal. It knows what Johnson is, and is unimpressed.

Diary Day 1038: I can’t get Singapore out of my mind.

Diary Day 1038: after crossing the world’s largest country in land area, going from there to one of the smallest as I did a week ago was quite a transition. I can’t get Singapore out of my mind, not only because it is remarkable in its own right but because some Brexit supporters talk of it as a model for the UK economy.

Singapore is a smallish island and collection of islets with a gigantic container port, higher per capita income than ours, lower infant mortality than ours, higher life expectancy than ours, an exceptionally low crime rate and zero tolerance of corruption.

The pressure to conform is immense, though done in a sweetly reasonable way. The government points out the reasons behind rules and regulations and how it’s better for everyone if they are obeyed (public information campaigns on keeping public facilities clean and in good working order and eliminating stagnant water where mosquitoes can breed are examples). Why would anyone rebel when services run so well and all citizens and permanent residents are so well looked after?

On the other hand, of its 5.6m inhabitants, about 1.6m are non-resident. I assume they consist of a huge army of documented migrant workers. Everyone is fingerprinted at the airport. I suspect that few can get into Singapore undocumented and no one could avoid detection for long.

It is diverse in ethnic origins and religious orientations and no single religion is dominant, at any rate at governmental level, though I gather some churches are quite pushy.

A quarter of the land is artificially reclaimed mangrove swamps, spaces between islets and coastal areas. According to the researches of Lim Tin Seng, a Librarian with the National Library of Singapore, in his article “Land from Sand”, the land area has increased from 578 to 719 sq km since the island was claimed as a British colony in 1819. This was achieved by engineering projects commissioned by the colonial authority and, since independence in 1965, by the Singapore government. The legal issues are intriguing, not least for the neighbouring countries’ territorial waters.

What does the Singapore city-state have that other countries don’t? A deep water port and a geographical position ideal for sea trade. The British East India Company saw the potential. Now Lloyd’s List ranks Singapore as the second biggest container port in the world. (The biggest is Shanghai, and most of the top ten are in China, apart from Singapore, Hong Kong, Busan in South Korea and Dubai in the UAE.)

By contrast, in parts of Siberia the population is 3 persons per sq km. Those parts are thousands of miles from any major economic activity. It was to open up Siberia to economic development that the Czar ordered the construction of the Trans Siberian Railway and gave land away to Russian peasants and former serfs to encourage them to settle there.

Singapore is one degree (less than 150 km) north of the Equator, so it has a tropical rainforest climate, with no distinctive seasons, high humidity and abundant rainfall. But with hardly any land available for growing crops, it must import most of its food apart from seafood. Singapore has almost no natural resources.

Hardly any of the tropical rainforest is left. So much is lost in this highly artificial city-state. At the same time Singaporeans are highly aware of their natural heritage. The botanical gardens are fabulous and there are small areas of conserved rainforest.

There is an exhibition on at the moment, at the national museum, which represents by a continuous light show and music the life cycles of the rainforest. Whoever set up that exhibition wants Singaporeans to understand the natural heritage they have almost lost. A visitor who allows the time to let the show sink in gets a memorable experience of the continuity and interrelatedness of the rainforest.

Singapore is a fascinating and in many ways admirable place. But as a model for the UK, it’s bizarre that some Brexiters see it as workable. It seems to rely on 28% of the population being migrant workers: not quite consistent with the Brexit rhetoric. UK ports are dwarfed by Rotterdam and don’t have a hope of changing that. And Singapore is a wonderful place to do business in part because it has eliminated corruption and established mutual trust. Is that even on Brexiters’ radar?

Brexiters should engage their brains and look at where Singapore’s success actually comes from and avoid fatuous comparisons.

Diary Day 1034: if a single MP crosses the floor, the government majority is gone.

Diary Day 1034: while I was in Siberia there was a big protest in Moscow, during which I gather the police made over 1,300 arrests, although the protesters were lawful and peaceful. The electoral authorities had disallowed the nomination papers of many opposition candidates for election to the local government body in Moscow, by finding fault with some of the signatures collected in support of their candidacies.

The nomination requirements are onerous – each candidate has to collect signatures from a percentage of the electorate for the seat, meaning about 5,000 signatures.

Curiously, the authorities did not find fault with independent candidates, who I understand are closet United Russia supporters — United Russia itself is not fielding candidates under its own name and emblem.

The head of the electoral commission condemned the protests as “political”, the irony of which would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

There is no point in taking the matter to court. The courts are part of the government. Russians understand this.

This is how easy it is for a ruling regime that feels under threat to subvert a nominally democratic process.

The young people of Russia do not want this, I feel sure. They want to be part of the global youth culture with freedom of self-expression and of movement. I have perceived it in every city we stopped at.

From Vladivostok I flew to Singapore. Stepping out of the spotlessly clean, air-conditioned airport into the tropical night air was like plunging into a a warm bath. But they manage. The buildings, cars and even the underground rail system are air-conditioned. Everything works beautifully in that well-ordered city-state.

In the morning, sipping breakfast tea, I was idly watching BBC Asia Business News on TV when a breaking news item came on: Jane Dodds, live, giving her acceptance speech as the winner of the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election.

The Boris Bounce did not save the Conservatives from defeat. Now the Conservative-DUP government has a working majority of just one. If a single MP crosses the floor, the government majority is gone. The Far East of the world knows what this could mean for Brexit.