Labour Party Annual Conference Interrupted By Supreme Court’s Decision On Boris Johnson’s Suspension Of Parliament

Photograph Source: Steve Nimmons – CC BY 2.0

I was attending the 2019 Labour Party conference as a member-delegate when proceedings on the third day of the conference were interrupted at 10.30am by the televised announcement of the UK’s Supreme Court decision on Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament.

The Supreme Court heard this case the week before. The hearing was occasioned by the divergence of opinion between the High Courts of England and Scotland on BoJo’s suspension of parliament.

The English court decided BoJo’s decision was a strictly political matter, and hence not “justiciable”.

The Scottish court took the opposite line, and decided that not only was this decision “justiciable”, but it also represented a violation of the UK’s unwritten constitution, inasmuch as BoJo was using an ancient statute—prorogation—to allow the executive to do a run-around parliament’s sovereignty, and was thus illegal.

The hearings were a spectacle. BoJo had his team of lawyers and the plaintiffs who brought the case against him had a team headed by the splendidly-named Lord Pannick, one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers.

Pannick made mincemeat of BoJo’s lawyers, and when 2 justices of the 11-justice Supreme Court dared to express their scepticism about the particular legal point he was making, they received a beautiful disquisition, in plain English, on the area of law at issue. The disquisition was authoritative as well as elegant, and its effect was withering—the two justices lowered their heads, and looked like whipped curs about to slink away with their tails between their legs. The looks of grudging admiration on the faces of several of the justices showed that the pleader in front of them was a better lawyer than they could ever hope to be.

Pannick’s argument regarding the justiciability of BoJo’s prorogation was based on the simple principle that an executive circumvention of parliament’s sovereignty (such as his) would be completely outside the reach of the law if the judiciary (in this case the English high court) somehow deemed it to be purely political and thus not liable to any kind of judicial oversight.

The Scottish high court had upheld the case against BoJo’s prorogation by finding the latter to be both justiciable and, more than that, also unconstitutional and illegal because it amounted to an abridgement of parliamentary sovereignty.

Lord Pannick’s case in support of the Scottish court’s decision was based on the Elizabethan jurist Sir Edward Coke’s definitive delineation of parliamentary sovereignty: “Of the power and jurisdiction of the Parliament, for making of laws in proceeding by Bill, it is so transcendent and absolute, as it cannot be confined either for causes or persons within any bounds….”

Where the question of legality was concerned, Lord Pannick seemed to have won all the legal arguments concerning the executive’s subservience to parliament.

But nothing could of course be definitive until the Supreme Court delivered its verdict.

When it did there were gasps— the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Scottish High Court, and not only had BoJo acted illegally, but the Supreme Court’s decision that he had done so was 11-0.

The Supreme Court left it to the Speaker of the Commons to reconvene parliament, which he did as soon as was feasible.

This meant that Jeremy Corbyn’s conference closing speech had to be brought forward by a day, and shortened as well. He was due to make several major policy announcements, but the Supreme Court ruling had put everything else in the shade, so these were saved for a later day.

Even so, some major initiatives were announced at the conference:

+ A Green New Deal was passed, with the aim of reducing Britain’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2030. Somewhat predictably, this was opposed by unions and business leaders.

+ Prescription charges in England will be scrapped, bringing it into line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

+  Legal aid, cut by the Tories, will be reintroduced.

+  “Ineffective” prison sentences of less than 6 months will be ended, except for violent criminals and sexual offenders.

+  Private schools will be abolished and integrated into the state system by scrapping tax breaks and seizing their assets.

+ John McDonnell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer/finance minister, pledged to reduce the average working week to 32 hours – without a loss of earnings – within a decade.

+ Universal Credit, the punitive welfare measure introduced by the Tories, will be scrapped—it inflicts hardship on the vulnerable and makes it harder for them to get back on their feet, while also costing more to administer than it saves.

+ A commitment was given to “extend” freedom of movement after Britain leaves the EU. Labour will also close down all immigration detention centres if it wins the next election.

+ Labour undertook to halve the use of food banks in its first year in office, and to end the need for food banks within 3 years.

+ Loopholes in the tax system whereby individuals avoid paying tax on UK income by claiming they are domiciled abroad will be closed.

+ The UK will stop the arms trade with Israel and Saudi Arabia until they comply with international law.

This is a radical agenda, designed to overturn decades of Thatcherism and neo-Thatcherism (i.e. Blair’s New Labour governments).

Apart from the Supreme Court verdict, two other problems landed on BoJo’s plate.

Both BoJo’s sister, Rachel Johnson, and the former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, the latter booted out of the party by BoJo for opposing a hard Brexit, have said that BoJo is backed by hedge-fund donors who have bet billions on shorting the pound in the event a hard Brexit. These currency speculators need a crash-out no-deal Brexit that sends sterling tumbling in order for them to reap their gains.

John McDonnell has written to the government’s most senior civil servant, the cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, requesting an investigation into BoJo’s alleged conflicts of interest with these currency speculators, brought about by his accepting their donations while pushing for the hard Brexit they desire.

The sexually incontinent BoJo got into another spot of bother over a buxom blonde American “entrepreneur” named Jennifer Arcuri.

The Sunday Times reported that Johnson was a regular visitor to Arcuri’s London apartment, and that she regarded him at the time as “one of my best friends”. Newspaper accounts report Arcuri as confiding to several friends that she was having an affair with BoJo at that time.

While Mayor of London BoJo backed Ms Arcuri for a UK visa (which she received), and also took her on jet-set trade missions. Despite her lack of business experience, BoJo steered £126,000/$155,000 in public contracts her way. These contracts were intended for UK businesses, and a hastily registered UK company in Arcuri’s name turned out to have the address of an apartment then rented by her.

As I write investigative reporters are digging into Arcuri’s business dealings, and BoJo has been referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), which investigates complaints of misconduct regarding police in England and Wales.

The IOPC is involved because, in his capacity as mayor, Johnson headed the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, a position equivalent to police and crime commissioner for London. The complaint alleges that BoJo failed to declare an interest in the allocation of public money to a close friend while he was mayor.

So far BoJo has refused to comment on his dealings with Ms Arcuri.

Also as I write, the Tories have a 12-point lead in the latest opinion poll.

Labour need not feel anxious about this—the Tories had a 20-point lead over Labour in the leadup to the 2017 snap election and still managed to lose their overall majority, while Labour got its biggest share of the vote since 1945.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.