MPs from all parties have called in recent weeks for parliament to be reconvened to enable them to debate the ongoing crisis in Iraq. They have met with unbending opposition. But David Cameron’s decision to bring everyone back last year to eulogise Margaret Thatcher might make it difficult for him to resist indefinitely.
Members pushing for the House to be recalled before the recess officially ends on 1 September have been variously dismissed. The PM is “very much engaged from Portugal” they were told. “Recall is not on the cards,” pronounced a Number 10 spokesperson. “No need unless the PM wants to move on from humanitarian aid,” insisted a former minister. “Not for the moment, no,” ruled the Foreign Secretary.
Following the beheading of a US journalist, apparently at the hands of a British jihadist, the Prime Minister cut short his latest holiday in Cornwall but has since gone back. There are still no plans to bring MPs back from theirs.
There are signs that the pressure on ministers may yet become too great to resist though. That’s what happened to Tony Blair in 2002, who wasn’t at all keen to recall parliament to debate his long awaited dossier on the existence or otherwise of weapons of mass destruction. His hand was eventually forced by a combination of MPs and the BBC. The broadcaster offered those wanting to return a parliamentary-style debate at Church House, Westminster, if they wouldn’t be admitted to the House of Commons chamber. Blair eventually relented.
Even then, the hallowed constitutional rituals had to be observed, with the initiative coming not from MPs but the executive, and the PM “representing to the Speaker that the public interest requires” the House meet, and the Speaker formally making the decision.
Speak for yourself
Speakers may occasionally be surprised by a PM’s request – as the present incumbent, John Bercow, certainly was by David Cameron’s decision in April 2013 to recall the House of Commons just five days before it would reconvene anyway. The public interest apparently required that members be given ample and uninterrupted time to pay their tributes to Thatcher, who had just died. Whatever a Speaker’s private doubts, though, they invariably manage to satisfy themselves that the public interest does indeed so require.
When it comes to recalls, the Speaker’s modern-day role seems almost to betray its centuries of constitutional history. At each year’s state opening of parliament we are reminded that this is the person whom MPs elect to stand as fearless defender of their rights against the might of the executive. Yet when those MPs start clamouring to return from recess, the Speaker suddenly becomes a spineless figurehead, tamely allowing ministers to decide when the House meets and what it debates.
If any of them are currently on holiday in Turkey, they might perhaps pay a visit to that country’s parliament to see how a more assertive legislature does these things. The Grand National Assembly was reconvened last March – at the request of the main opposition party and to the unconcealed displeasure of then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – to hear corruption allegations against four former government ministers. Those visiting the Edinburgh Festival could call in on the Presiding Officer at Holyrood, the equivalent of the Speaker there, who can similarly convene the Scottish Parliament without waiting for a ministerial go-ahead.
There’s an important constitutional principle at stake here, and you’d hope a professedly modernising parliament might have addressed it. The people’s representatives should be able to exercise this part of their democratic role, whether it is convenient for the prime minister or not.
Well, the good news is that it was addressed. During Gordon Brown’s prime ministerial honeymoon period in 2007, a government green paper proposed that “where a majority of MPs request a recall, the Speaker should consider the request, including in cases where the Government itself has not sought a recall”.
The bad, if not wholly surprising, news is that the House of Commons Modernisation Committee embarked in October 2007 on an inquiry into dissolution and recall, which subsequently disappeared into the Westminster equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. Nothing was subsequently heard: no evidence taken, no report written, no recommendations put forward, nothing.
Body of evidence
It’s clear, then, that MPs who want the House of Commons recalled can’t rely on parliamentary procedures to make it happen. Precedents, though, could prove more promising. Depending on how you count, there have been between 27 and 41 House of Commons recalls since 1949, so there’s a wide choice.
The great majority would have little difficulty meeting most reasonable interpretations of major national or international importance/public interest. In 2013 MPs came back to debate the crisis in Syria, and in 2011 the riots that were sweeping across the UK. In 2002 it was Iraq, and in 2001 the terrorist attacks on the US. The introduction of emergency anti-terrorism legislation after the Omagh bomb led to a recall in 1998.
Alongside these there is David Cameron’s precedent-breaking insistence, to even the Daily Telegraph’s surprise, on recalling both Houses following Thatcher’s death – apparently on the grounds that he, and doubtless many others, judged her “a distinguished parliamentarian and formidable prime minister”. If he continues to reject calls to reconvene now, he may find this decision coming back to haunt him. That’s the trouble with precedents: once you lower the bar, it’s tough trying to raise it again the very next year.