25 October 2019

The government might be finding it hard to get its way, but Joe Marshall says it would find it equally difficult to go ‘on strike’ and stop Parliament in its tracks.

It was the infamous ‘No.10 source’ who claimed that the government would effectively go on strike in Parliament if MPs refused to vote for an election. The so-called strike would see the government only introduce the ‘bare minimum’ of legislation and focus ‘everything on securing an early election’, but the terms of the walk out seem to have been revised. Now only Brexit legislation is off limits. This means the withdrawal agreement bill, needed to implement the withdrawal agreement, will remain on ice – though the government could bring it back on a more sensible timetable – but the government will press ahead with its domestic agenda.

This rowing back is hardly surprising. On Thursday, MPs approved the government’s legislative agenda in principle when the Queen’s speech was passed by a majority of 16 – a greater majority that Theresa May secured in 2017. The speech contained several bills that may well make progress in Parliament, despite the fractious politics, MPs are unlikely to vote down efforts to tackle domestic abuse or ensure restaurant staff receive a fair share of their tips.

Repeatedly asking MPs to vote for an early election may not have been a viable option either. After all, the Speaker has made clear that he won’t allow what is substantively the same question to be put to MPs without a change of circumstances.

Parliamentary activity cannot be halted by a government which refuses to engage

Even if the government had decided to go on ‘strike’ and restricted its engagement with the Commons, this wouldn’t have halted parliamentary activity altogether.

The leader of the Commons could have scheduled even less government business (such as legislation) in the House of Commons than outlined in the limited agenda it has already proposed for next week. But this wouldn’t rule out debate in the main chamber. MPs can apply for emergency debates (SO NO.24 debates), and the current Speaker would probably be inclined to allow them. He could even repeat his controversial decision from September and allow an emergency debate on a substantive motion, paving the way for MPs to take control of the order paper to pass the EU (Withdrawal) (No.2) Act 2019 (the Benn Act), requiring the prime minister to ask for an extension to Article 50.

MPs could also have applied to the Speaker to ask urgent questions of government ministers, usually requiring a minister to come to the Commons to respond. The government might have tried to boycott such requests, or send junior ministers instead – a criticism which was levelled at David Cameron’s government. But this could lead MPs to hold the government in contempt of Parliament, as they did in December 2018 under Theresa May’s premiership. Boycotting such requests could also call into question whether ministers are abiding by the ministerial code, which makes clear that ‘ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies’.

Empty-chairing committees would not reflect well on the government

The current Speaker is due to stand down on 31 October, which could shift the parliamentary dynamic. The next Speaker may adopt a more restrictive interpretation of the parliamentary rules and use their discretion to reduce opportunities for opposition MPs to debate in the absence of government business. But given the strength of feeling in Parliament, they would be unlikely to close down all routes completely – and ministers are bound by statute to attend the House of Commons and schedule time for debate. For instance, under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019, a minister must report to the Commons every 14 days on progress made in restoring the Northern Ireland Executive.

Outside the main chamber, the government could instruct its MPs not to attend select committee hearings and boycott other parliamentary activity, such as meetings of all-party parliamentary groups and debates in Westminster Hall. But this could backfire. Select committees, many of which are chaired by opposition MPs, would continue to meet. Empty-chairing committee hearings on issues as diverse as childhood obesity, net-zero targets and food safety standards would hardly be a good look for the government.

The ‘government going on strike’ was never going to close down parliamentary activity completely. Government business may take precedence in the Commons, but it not exhaustive of the work Parliament does. Even if the government had decided not to move any business, MPs would have found ways to debate, scrutinise and represent their constituents. A sovereign Parliament can’t be silenced by a government that – lacking a majority – finds it harder to govern that it would like.