On 29th October 2019, the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019 was passed by the House of Commons, setting the stage for an early UK General Election on 12 December 2019.

In commencing the second reading of the bill, the Prime Minister announced:

It is now a week since Parliament voted to delay Brexit yet again. It is a week since this Parliament voted yet again to force Brussels to keep this country in the European Union for at least another three months, at a cost of £1 billion a month. In the days since then, the Government have tried to be reasonable and to ascribe the best possible motives to our friends and colleagues around the House. […] I have twice offered more time for debate. I offered more time last week and I made the same offer last night. […] I said we were prepared to debate the withdrawal Bill around the clock to allow Parliament time to scrutinise it, to the point of intellectual exhaustion. We must bear in mind that not only has this House been considering this issue for three and a half years, but last week when this Bill was being debated there was not a single new idea and not a single new suggestion. All they wanted was more time, more weeks, more months, when they could not even provide the speakers to fill the time allotted.1

The Prime Minister then lambasted the opposition for its continual delays to Brexit saying that it was seeking to extend withdrawal until the “12th of never”. Speaking of their legally and parliamentary manoeuvring, he chided the House, “When the 12th of never eventually comes around, they will devise one of their complicated parliamentary procedures and move a motion for a further delay and a further extension.”2 The performance of the British economy was under the circumstances “miraculous” given all of the uncertainty created by the delays to Brexit.

In sizing up the prospects of the opposition parties, it was clear that the Prime Minister considered Labour to be particularly vulnerable. While the Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats have both been polling reasonably well, the Labour Party has struggled to gain any sort of traction in the polls.

Jeremy Corbyn in particular was singled out for criticism as a front for socialism and communist influence. Johnson wondered allowed whether Corbyn was “following the precepts of his intellectual mentor, Fidel Castro, whose adoring crowds used to serenade him with the cry, “Revoluciones sí, elecciones no!””3 and predicted that under a Prime Minister Corbyn, the “UK’s wealth-creating system and over-taxation” would be “of a kind that is derived from revolutionary Venezuela”4, and that the UK would face the prospect of two further referenda, one on the EU and another on Scottish independence. He concluded, “We believe in free markets and enterprise and the wealth-creating sector of the economy in a way that causes a shadow of Transylvanian horror to pass over the semi-communist faces of the Opposition Front Bench.”

In response, Corbyn retorted that the Labour Party would be backing the election “to be rid of this reckless and destructive Conservative Government”. But in an unusual turn, Corbyn more or less conceded Johnson’s point about the radicalism of the Labour Party agenda: “We will launch the most ambitious radical campaign for real change in this country…”5

Pete Wishart of the SNP proded the Government for its expediency in delaying the General Election call, before rushing it through at quick notice:

It could all have been settled in October, and the Commons could have been reassembling right now to get on with the business that our constituents find important, but the Prime Minister’s bluff and bluster have brought us here to a deadlocked Parliament, a broken Britain and the spectre of the Government’s hard Brexit still looming over us.6

According to the Explanatory Notes issued by the Cabinet Office:

It is a statutory requirement that Parliament must dissolve 25 working days before polling day. An election on 9 December 2019 would mean the House dissolving at one minute past midnight on Friday 1 November. This would require the Early Parliamentary General Election Bill currently before the House to complete passage through the House of Commons and House of Lords and achieve Royal Assent on Thursday 31 October.7

The Explanatory Notes also indicated that there would be additional costs associated with this General Election as a result of it being called at such short notice.

Bercow’s Final Prime Minister’s Questions

As we reported on 9th September 2019, John Bercow announced that he would resign by 31st October, in consequence of which, the debate on 29th October 2019 was his last in the chamber. In a ‘eulogy’ dripping in sarcasm, the Prime Minister – who, together with many MPs supporting the UK’s emancipation from the EU, consider the Speaker to be a highly partisan holder of the chair of Speaker – wished adieu to Bercow, who had been Speaker since 22nd June 2009.

Mr Speaker, I know that the whole House will want to join me in recording that, after 10 tumultuous years, this is your last Prime Minister’s questions. As befits a distinguished former Wimbledon competitor, you have sat up there in your high chair not just as an umpire ruthlessly adjudicating on the finer points of parliamentary procedure with your trademark Tony Montana scowl, not just as a commentator offering your own opinions on the rallies you are watching—sometimes acerbic and sometimes kind—but above all as a player in your own right, peppering every part of the Chamber with your own thoughts and opinions like some uncontrollable tennis-ball machine delivering a series of literally unplayable and formally unreturnable volleys and smashes.

Although we may disagree about some of the legislative innovations you have favoured, there is no doubt in my mind that you have been a great servant of this Parliament and this House of Commons. You have modernised, you have widened access, you have cared for the needs of those with disabilities, and you have cared so deeply for the rights of Back Benchers that you have done more than anyone since Stephen Hawking to stretch time in this session. As we come to the end of what must be the longest retirement since Frank Sinatra’s, I am sure the whole House will join me in thanking you and hoping that you enjoy in your retirement the soothing medicament that you have so often prescribed to the rest of us. [Emphasis ours]8

The Speaker appeared to take the ribbing in good spirits, but in injecting partisanship into the chair, he has diminished one of the great offices of state in the United Kingdom, and his legacy while considerable, is hardly likely to be positive.

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Footnotes

  1. Source: Hansard. Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. ibid
  5. ibid
  6. ibid
  7. Source: Hansard. Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.
  8. Source: Hansard. Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.
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