Fourteen years ago I sat on a commission chaired by Lord Puttnam and convened by the Hansard Society to examine Parliament’s relationship with the public. We declared in 2005 that “Parliament is currently failing in its democratic duty. Its organisation, procedures and general ethos are now seriously out of date … Parliament needs to reassert itself, to reconnect with the public and become what it has always striven to be — the foundation of our democratic freedoms.”
I wonder what the same group of commissioners, reconvened in 2019, would say about the state of the institution today. Certainly, many worthwhile efforts have been made to improve Parliament’s communications strategy (its website, for instance, is now a very useful and accessible resource). But we would be hard pushed, I think, to conclude that the public’s opinion of our representative democracy had improved; since, in all sorts of ways, the opposite is the case.
Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph blasted the following on its front page: “Public backs Johnson to shut down Parliament for Brexit”. On the basis of a ComRes survey, the newspaper claimed “54 per cent of British adults think Parliament should be prorogued to prevent MPs stopping a no-deal Brexit.”
The poll said no such thing. Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Boris needs to deliver Brexit by any means, including suspending Parliament if necessary, in order to prevent MPs from stopping it.”
Well: first of all, that cosy use of the name “Boris” is scarcely neutral, is it? Second, “agree or disagree” questions in polls notoriously suffer from so-called “acquiescence bias”, the tendency of respondents to assent to proposals rather than disagree with them.
Third, and most reprehensibly, the Telegraph squeezed the figure of 54 per cent out of the survey by excluding the 19 per cent who answered “Don’t Know”. The actual percentage of those who agreed Johnson might need to suspend Parliament was, in fact, 44 — as against 37 per cent who disagreed.
Cue much fury yesterday from rival pollsters and commentators. Much of this was justified, and an object lesson in social media’s constructive function as a real-time watchdog on slippery reporting.
All the same, I find it hard to be sanguine about the finding that even 44 per cent of the public are apparently at ease with the idea that our novice Prime Minister should disband Parliament simply to get Brexit over the line. Lurking in that figure, however unsatisfactory the original poll question and its subsequent reporting, is a degree of both anger and apathy about Parliament, its performance and its function in the coming months, that should alarm anyone who believes in its fundamental role as the cockpit of democracy.
At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe yesterday, Commons Speaker John Bercow said he would “fight with every breath in my body” to stop the PM from proroguing Parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit without MPs’ consent. In the same city, the Court of Session fast-tracked to September 6 the hearing of a petition filed by 70 MPs and peers to prevent parliamentary suspension.
In today’s Times, Philip Hammond, the former chancellor, warns that Parliament will “make its voice heard” and — in a clear dig at Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief strategist — attacks “the unelected people who pull the strings of this government”. Former attorney general Dominic Grieve insists it is “breathtaking, stupid and infantile” to claim that, even in the event of a Commons vote of no-confidence, Johnson can exploit the ambiguities in the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act to postpone a general election until after Brexit on October 31.
Parliament will emerge from the fray with its reputation radically enhanced or dangerously diminished