Oliver Cromwell’s speech attacking the Long Parliament in 1653 has gone down in history. “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.” At more recent moments in Britain’s past, Cromwell’s words have been called into service once again by later generations, most famously by Leo Amery in the 1940 Norway debate in a speech attacking Neville Chamberlain’s handling of the war with Germany, which ended with those selfsame Cromwellian phrases and which helped trigger Winston Churchill’s arrival in Downing Street three days later.
It is more than possible that Boris Johnson, a tinpot Churchill now auditioning to be a tinpot Cromwell, may invoke those words yet again when he calls for a general election in the House of Commons on Monday. Last Friday, Mr Johnson summoned his inner Cromwell and told the BBC that the British people must be “released from subjection to a parliament that has outlived its usefulness”. In a parallel briefing, No 10 was even more blunt, telling reporters: “If parliament refuses to allow Brexit and refuses to allow an election, then what’s the point of parliament?”
Well, here’s the point of parliament. And here’s the point of this one. The Long Parliament had sat for 13 years when Cromwell called for it to go. The current parliament has not yet sat for two and a half, which is less than half of its term. It is not even close to outliving its usefulness. Contrary to Downing Street’s lies, this parliament does not refuse to allow Brexit. Indeed it voted for Brexit only last week in the shape of the withdrawal agreement bill. But this parliament does not want Britain to be bundled out of the EU with no deal or on terms that threaten jobs, the economy, peace in Northern Ireland or the union with Scotland. This government does not care about any of these things.
This parliament should absolutely refuse to be bullied out of existence, least of all by such a government. It should be clear, as this newspaper is clear, that Mr Johnson’s sole aim is to achieve a Conservative majority that would scrap all of this parliament’s hard-won efforts to soften Brexit and would replace them with a deregulatory wilderness that would be catastrophic for our people. This parliament must stay in place to stop this.
As so often, the truth is the opposite of what Mr Johnson says. This parliament, elected in 2017 when Theresa May tried – and failed – to get a large majority for her hard-Brexit terms, has plenty of usefulness left in its tank. This parliament has had to develop a uniquely detailed knowledge of the issues and implications involved in Brexit. This parliament has learned that it is now facing a double-dealing administration led by a prime minister whose word cannot be trusted. This parliament is therefore supremely well qualified to decide on the subject. The point of this parliament is that this is absolutely not the time for a parliament of novices, over whose eyes the wool could be pulled more easily.
Last week, parliament voted for the withdrawal bill and called for more time to scrutinise it. Mr Johnson refused. Since then, it has become clear why he did so. Last Tuesday he told Labour MPs who were considering voting for the bill that “there can be no regression” from existing employment rights after Brexit. This was untrue. Last week ministers were given a Brexit department paper which says Britain is open to “significant divergence” on regulatory provisions and workers’ rights. In other words, the reason Mr Johnson wants this parliament out of the way is so he can deliver a Brexit that weakens rights and regulations more than he is letting on.
Britain has no need of an early general election. It needs to get this phase of Brexit sorted first. This parliament was elected to do that. It is the fault of the May and Johnson governments, not of parliament, that it has been so difficult. Mr Johnson’s intemperate goading undoubtedly make things worse. But it is the point of parliament to keep him in check. MPs are making a good job of that. If the ghost of parliaments past could join Monday’s debate it might even say to them: In the name of God, stay, and finish the job.