Prorogation As Prime Ministerial Delay Tactic: A Legitimate Parliamentary Tool, Not “Abuse” of Prerogative

UPDATE, July 2019: Please see this post on “Sir John Major’s Hypocrisy on Prorogation” for an in-depth explanation of how Major obtained a prorogation in 1997 in order to prevent Sir Gordon Downey from tabling his report into the Cash-for-Questions Scandal.

Jean Chretien, 2003

As Nick MacDonald and I explained in “No Discretion: On Prorogation and the Governor General”, prime ministers before Stephen Harper have used prorogation as a chiefly political and partisan delay tactic. Few Canadian academics have acknowledged that Prime Minister Jean Chretien also used prorogation as a delaying tactic at least once: in November 2003, probably because the use as delay tactic coincided with a thoroughly logical reason. PM Chretien advised prorogation, ostensibly in order to ease the transition between his government and the incoming Martin government, but this prorogation also delayed the tabling of Auditor General Shelia Fraser’s first report on what became known as the Sponsorship Scandal. Nelson Wiseman commented on that prorogation in “The Use, Misuse, and Abuse of Prorogation.” Despite any political consequences and the duration of the intersession, I fully support the constitutionality of Prime Minister Chretien’s advice; Governor General Clarkson had to accept it and issue the proclamation of prorogation.

John Major, 1997

British Prime Minister John Major may also have used prorogation as a tactic to delay the tabling of an inconvenient parliamentary report until after the general election of 1997. (In the United Kingdom, parliament is normally prorogued before being dissolved, but that intersession normally only lasts for one week at most). On 18 March 1997,  Liberal-Democrat MP Simon Hughes accused Prime Minister Major of abusing the crown prerogative on prorogation.

Mr. Hughes: The Prime Minister yesterday made the uniquely personal decision not only to have a general election on 1 May and to dissolve Parliament on 8 April but that Parliament should be prorogued and sent away this Friday. [Interruption.] Is it not obvious that one of the reasons for that decision and for the unprecedented gap between prorogation and dissolution is that[…] the Prime Minister knows that the report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on cash for questions will be ready on Monday or Tuesday. That report will therefore not be seen by hon. Members in this Parliament and will be hidden until after the general election.

In a wit that so characterizes all successful British parliamentarians (as opposed to our puerile parliamentarians), the Prime Minister took advantage of Speaker Boothroyd’s intervention and all the several minutes of commotion that resulted from Hughes’s question and artfully dodged it:

The Prime Minister: One of the reasons for making the announcement on Monday and arranging for Parliament to be prorogued on Friday was to give the hon. Gentleman time to finish his question. As for Sir Gordon’s report, I have no knowledge when it will be presented.

The Independent also considered the timing of Major’s prorogation as suspicious and cited one of Gordon Brown’s statements:

But Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, said the Prime Minister could adjourn Parliament, putting it into recess, instead of insisting on prorogation – which would allow the Committee to order publication of Sir Gordon’s report. The timing of the election, would not be affected because there is still more than a fortnight to go before the dissolution.

Brown stated the principle correctly, and Major’s preference for prorogation over adjournment at least gives the perception of using prorogation as a delaying tactic – which is perfectly legitimate. In these parliamentary disputes, sometimes the Government gains the upper hand over the Commons, and sometimes the Commons gains the upper hand over the Government. In any event, Major’s final prorogation did not pose any constitutional problems and did not prevent Labour from winning by a landslide in 1997.


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Crown (Powers and Office), Governor's Discretion, Prime Minister's Powers, Prorogation. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Prorogation As Prime Ministerial Delay Tactic: A Legitimate Parliamentary Tool, Not “Abuse” of Prerogative

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