Wednesday 18 September 2019

'The idea this is some kind of constitutional outrage is nonsense' - senior UK minister on Boris Johnson's move to suspend parliament

  • Dominic Raab insists only around four days of Commons sitting time would be lost by suspending Parliament for up to five weeks
  • Tánaiste Simon Coveney said Boris Johnson had not yet put forward a "credible" replacement for the backstop
  • Another senior UK minister suggests 'people should take to the streets' of UK
  • 'The referendum result must be respected' - Boris repeats his commitment to October 31 Brexit deadline
File photo dated 23/7/2019 of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab who has confirmed that the UK will continue working with European partners to try to save the Iran nuclear deal Victoria Jones/PA Wire
File photo dated 23/7/2019 of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab who has confirmed that the UK will continue working with European partners to try to save the Iran nuclear deal Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Boris Johnson's most senior minister has dismissed the furore over the suspension of Parliament as "nonsense".

UK's Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State Dominic Raab insisted only around four days of Commons sitting time would be lost by suspending Parliament for up to five weeks before a Queen's Speech on October 14 - a calculation based on MPs leaving Westminster for the party conferences.

He told reporters at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Helsinki: "The idea this is some kind of constitutional outrage is nonsense.

"It's actually lawful, it's perfectly proper, there is precedent for it and actually, fundamentally, for the people watching this, they want to see that we are leaving the EU but also talking about all the other things they expect us to be addressing."

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said Boris Johnson had not yet put forward a "credible" replacement for the backstop.

He told reporters in Helsinki: "At the moment nothing credible has come from the British Government in the context of an alternative to the backstop.

British Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State Dominic Raab arriving to the Informal Meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Helsinki, Finland, Thursday Aug. 29, 2019. (Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva via AP)
British Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State Dominic Raab arriving to the Informal Meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Helsinki, Finland, Thursday Aug. 29, 2019. (Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva via AP)

"If that changes, great, we will look at it in Dublin, but more importantly it can be the basis of a discussion in Brussels.

"But it has got to be credible. It can't simply be this notion that 'look, we must have the backstop removed and we will solve this problem in the future negotiation' without any credible way of doing that.

"That's not going to fly and it's important that we are all honest about that."

Mr Coveney has said the EU will have no problem creating time for further Brexit negotiations with the UK.

He suggested the EU would negotiate five days a week if needs be.

"I don't think there's any problem from a European Union perspective in terms of making time available for negotiations," he said.

"We all want to try to resolve these issues, we want to find a way of getting a deal that the UK are happy with and that the EU is happy with and can accept too. There is no country that wants a deal more than Ireland."

Mr Coveney added: "We want to get a deal that manages a sensible Brexit, that moves us into a transition period that gives us time and space to work out a future relationship.

Boris Johnson. Photo: 2019 Andrew Parsons / i-Images
Boris Johnson. Photo: 2019 Andrew Parsons / i-Images

"But that deal has to be based on the Withdrawal Agreement and it has to be consistent with that, and if the UK wants to remove an element of the Withdrawal Agreement they have to acknowledge that that causes problems and they have to propose alternatives that can solve those problems, certainly in the case of the backstop."

On Boris Johnson's suggestion of negotiations for two days a week, Mr Coveney said: "I'm sure if he wanted five days of negotiations a week, the EU would be OK with that.

"Michel Barnier is there as the chief negotiator for that purpose, he has a team that's ready to go.

"We all want to get a deal."

Mr Coveney said: "We have always said if there are alternatives to the backstop that do the same job, then let's hear them, and if we can work out a deal on that basis so be it.

"But what we will not do in Ireland - and I believe there is strong solidarity across the EU on this - we will not allow a really important element of the Withdrawal Agreement to be removed - i.e. the backstop, which solves a difficult problem, albeit on a temporary basis - and for that to be replaced with something that doesn't stand up to scrutiny and is simply a promise that we'll do our best to solve the problem, but not explain how.

"That is not an approach that either Ireland or the EU will support."

UK shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti said she believed opponents of Boris Johnson had the numbers in Parliament to force through a change in the law to block a no-deal Brexit.

And she suggested people should "take to the streets" if the Government continues its approach.

"My own soundings and those of colleagues in discussions over the last couple of days, in particular since the constitutional outrage, give me greater comfort that minds are now focused, especially on the Conservative side," she told BBC Radio 4's Today.

She said she believed the measure could also get through the Lords: "I know that all sorts of high jinks have been discussed, filibusters and so on, but I believe that there are means of preventing any sort of public school dirty tricks working, even in the House of Lords."

In response to suggestions the UK Government could seek to delay royal assent to any legislation to block no-deal, the Labour peer said: "We do know that we are dealing with a bunch of people who have no respect for our precious constitution.

"If they try any more of this stuff we will use any means necessary to prevent this undemocratic behaviour - that includes people taking to the streets, that includes people taking to the airwaves, that includes people going to court.

"Because they are behaving in a way that is unworthy of a UK government."

Meanwhile, Tory former minister Sir Oliver Letwin, a leading opponent of a no-deal Brexit, said he had been speaking to Commons Speaker John Bercow to establish "what the procedures are".

"There is no question of any MP cooking up a deal with the Speaker - you can't do that, the Speaker has to follow the rules," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"It's perfectly true that I, for many months, have been talking to the clerks and to the Speaker, and that's the appropriate thing for MPs to do if they want to establish what the procedures are.

"The action here is on the part of MPs, not on the part of the Speaker."

He added: "I, of course, would like to see the prorogation not happen because I don't think the prorogation is a proper proceeding.

"But, whether it is lawful or not, we will find out in the courts. That's not for MPs to decide.

"What I have been concerned with and will continue to be concerned with is the question of how, in the remaining time if we are prorogued, we can ensure that Britain doesn't make a sudden, disorderly, undemocratic no-deal exit on October 31."

Sir Oliver said he believes "there probably is time" to get a measure to block a no-deal Brexit through Parliament.

But he told the BBC: "It's a foolhardy person who predicts the number of MPs who will vote either way on an issue of this kind and we will just have to see whether we can acquire a majority of the required kind."

He said: "I know that there are a number of my colleagues who feel as I do, that a disorderly no-deal exit is a very bad idea, and they have in the past been willing to come and support efforts to prevent that happening and I very much hope that will happen again."

Sir Oliver said the move could force Mr Johnson to delay Brexit beyond the October 31 deadline.

"I hope that we can take action this coming week so that if the Prime Minister hasn't got a deal in place then he needs to seek an extension."

Former UK prime minister Sir John Major said: "I promised that, if the Prime Minister prorogued Parliament in order to prevent Members from opposing his Brexit plans, I would seek judicial review of his action.

"In view of the imminence of the prorogation - and to avoid duplication of effort, and taking up the court's time through repetition - I intend to seek the court's permission to intervene in the claim already initiated by Gina Miller, rather than to commence separate proceedings.

"If granted permission to intervene, I intend to seek to assist the court from the perspective of having served in government as a minister and prime minister, and also in Parliament for many years as a member of the House of Commons.

"I will be represented by The Rt Hon The Lord Garnier QC and Tom Cleaver, who will be instructed by Herbert Smith Freehills LLP."

After Mr Coveney  said Boris Johnson had no "credible replacement" for the backstop, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer tweeted: "Here's the hard truth: Johnson not even trying for a deal; has not even put forward an alternative to the backstop. If he had an alternative, he would put it forward. Truth is, he doesn't."

European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva repeated Brussels' request for Boris Johnson to produce "concrete proposals" following the Prime Minister's call to increase the tempo of talks.

She said: "Indeed (the PM's Europe adviser) David Frost has asked to meet the Commission twice a week to discuss the UK's withdrawal.

"We have always said from our side that our doors remain open and we have demonstrated, in fact, our willingness to work 24/7 throughout this long process."

She added: "Our position remains that we will need to first see proposals, concrete proposals, from the UK Government that are compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement before we can take these discussions further.

"We have also communicated yesterday that our teams will indeed resume discussions next week."

Asked if the Government was running scared of Parliament in light of the decision to suspend it for five weeks, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "No. What the Prime Minister is doing is taking the opportunity to set out an exciting domestic agenda of what we are going to deliver for this country.

"You've got a Prime Minister and you have got a Government that wants to deliver for every single person in this country and we are going to deliver Britain's exit from the European Union on October 31.

"But there are so many other things we are going to be doing as well."

Questioned on whether he understood why there was outrage over the decision to suspend Parliament, the Education Secretary said: "Parliament was planning to rise for recess for three weeks for the party conference.

"In essence all that has been done is it has added an extra week onto that in order for a Queen's Speech to take place.

"There is an opportunity to debate before Parliament rises and after Parliament rises."

Asked if he had a message for Tory MPs who are considering voting for measures to block a no-deal exit from the EU, Gavin Williamson said: "We fought a general election in 2015 with a clear commitment to deliver Britain's exit from the European Union.

"Britain voted to exit from the European Union - we are going to deliver that and we must deliver that."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeated his commitment to the October 31 Brexit deadline.

"The referendum result must be respected. We will leave the EU on 31st October," he said on Twitter.

Asked about his views on protesters planning to block roads and bridges in light of the decision to suspend Parliament, the Education Secretary said: "We had a referendum to decide Britain's future either within the European Union or outside of the European Union.

"The decision was made for us to exit the European Union - we should respect that and we should deliver on it.

"That is what this Government will do on October 31."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "We are coming up to the last period before we leave on October 31 and in that period Parliament is going to have a lot of time still - they have spent three years debating Brexit, by the way, without actually getting it over the line - they are going to have a lot of time for further consideration.

"What I want to do now, which is I think what most people in this country want the Government to do, is get on and try and get an agreement but, if we can't get an agreement, get ready to come out anyway.

"It's by getting ready to come out anyway that we have greatly strengthened our position with our friends and partners in the EU, because they see that we are serious."

In response to the protests over his decision to suspend Parliament for up to five weeks before October 14, the Prime Minister told Sky News: "My message to them is that I think the worst thing for democracy now would be to cancel the referendum which is what some people are now suggesting - to nullify, to annul that result, to tell people that they were going to be ignored, after all the promises that have been made.

"Because everybody can see what the risk is now. If we frustrate that mandate, if we stop the UK from leaving on October 31, if that's what parliamentarians end up doing, it will do lasting damage to people's trust in politics.

"It will do lasting and catastrophic damage to the major parties in this country and I think this political generation won't be forgiven for failing to honour that promise."

PA Media

Also in Business