No recall: How Cameron can stay on the beach as Iraq stares into the abyss
"Recall is not on the cards." With those six words the prime minister's spokesperson yesterday dismissed the sizeable chunk of MPs who think the Commons should debate the crisis in Iraq. Why, exactly, should No 10 get to decide this?
The case for recalling parliament is a strong one, best articulated by Enfield's Conservative MPs David Burrowes and Nick De Bois. Their joint letter to David Cameron argues:
"What we are witnessing in Iraq is truly shocking and requires a co-ordinated international response. The horrific persecution of minority groups in the region impose both a moral obligation and a duty to our constituents to reconvene so that the escalating crisis can be properly debated with a view to the government being able to seek guidance from and support of the House for policies aimed at ending the killing. It is vital that the House of Commons debate an appropriate response to this emergency."
Two factors, they believe, "demand the urgent attention of parliamentarians": the US' unilateral military action, and the lack of a coordinated military response. Recalls result from urgent situations. Surely, Burrowes and De Bois suggest, the situation in Iraq is sufficiently pressing.
The government is not interested. It has a mixed record on recalling parliament. In 2011 and 2012, phone-hacking scandal and the August riots were judged sufficiently grave to summon MPs back to Westminster. But then came the recall over the death of Margaret Thatcher, which baffled Speaker John Bercow. Last year saw the vote over military action in Syria – a recall Cameron must wish had never happened.
Because of the way Whitehall operates, a recall of parliament is unlikely to take place unless the event in question meets the standard of seriousness matched by previous recalls. Looking down the list, you have some fairly eye-wateringly important events. Suez in 1956; the Kuwait invasion in 1990; the 9/11 attacks; and, in 2002, 'Iraq and weapons of mass destruction'.
Tony Blair didn't want parliament to be recalled 12 years ago, despite vociferous calls from MPs. His government pointed to the Commons' standing orders, which state that the Speaker can only recall parliament when "it is represented to the Speaker by Her Majesty's ministers that the public interest requires that the House should meet". So MPs acted on their own.
Graham Allen, now chair of the Commons' political and constitutional reform committee, recalls: "As we know from efforts to recall parliament before the Iraq war (which started this whole bloody story) MPs cannot recall parliament, neither can the Speaker. We only got a recall on that occasion by organising a meeting of MPs in Church House."
Twelve years on, does the rise of Isis in Iraq match up to this level of crisis? MPs on all sides of the House might feel that the humanitarian scale justifies a recall, but the civil servants advising Cameron, focused on precedent rather than politics, are unlikely to agree.
All of which leaves us asking the question: why is it the government that gets to decide all this in the first place?
The answer is this fits into the category of powers which used to be the crown's, and which has escaped the shift from authoritarian monarchy to democracy. Parliament doesn't even get to decide when it sits. Not much has changed since Charles II refused to summon parliament in the 1630s.
MPs deserve to feel frustrated. "Until we change the rules, it is only the government that has the power to initiate a recall," Allen adds. "So, the very institution (government) that we (parliament) are trying to hold to account , is perversely the only institution that can begin its own accountability!"
I want Parliament recalled to question policy of Govt. It can't happen unless Govt ask for it. This power needs to go to Parliament not Exec
— Conor Burns MP (@Conor_BurnsMP) August 11, 2014
Even before the expenses scandal, there were moves towards changing all this. In 2007, the Ministry of Justice published a green paper which proposed a shift in the rules. "The government believes that where a majority of members of parliament request a recall, the Speaker should consider the request, including in cases where the government itself has not sought a recall," it stated. For many reformers, it looked like a change might finally be about to take place.
But nothing came of it. An inquiry launched in October 2007 was announced by parliament's modernisation committee, but it never completed its inquiry. The idea wasn't so much kicked into the long grass as quietly dropped there, out of sight while Westminster moved on.
Try raising the issue in 2014 and you don't get very far. The government isn't even sure which department is responsible for this now. It's not the MoJ. It might be the Cabinet Office. Or maybe No 10? Which just goes to show that this is not an issue anyone on Whitehall actually cares about any more.
Perhaps they should. Conor Burns, the Tory backbencher, said he had emailed the Speaker requesting a recall to debate Britain's response "to the massacre of Christians and other minorities in Iraq". Systematic beheadings of children are reportedly taking place. And in Britain, MPs are not being allowed to have their say.