Whoever becomes the next prime minister is likely to want to signal their energy and enthusiasm for governing by getting Parliament to work before Christmas. The Royal Proclamation requires MPs to return to Westminster on 17 December.
Following the presumed re-election of Sir Lindsay Hoyle as Speaker and swearing in of MPs and peers, the civil service has indicated that we could see the Queen’s Speech as early as 19 December. That’s assuming a clear-cut election result – if any coalition or confidence and supply negotiations are required, we almost certainly won’t see a State Opening of Parliament before the new year. Whenever it does happen, the first challenge for the new government will be to win the votes on its Queen’s Speech, so proving that it commands the confidence of the Commons.
A lightning quick Queen’s Speech followed by a curtailed debate (it normally takes five or six days) could – just – allow Parliament to begin debating substantive business before MPs retire for the festive season. A Conservative majority government could conceivably attempt the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) on the 23 December. But it seems more likely that it will be the first business when Parliament returns in the new year.
The Brexit plans of both the main parties require legislation. A Conservative government will want to pass the WAB as rapidly as parliamentarians will allow in order to meet the new "do or die" deadline of 31 January for the UK’s departure from the EU. If Labour is to deliver on the promised timing for its Brexit policy, then it will need to draft and pass the legislation for a second referendum in its first three months in office, in parallel with its planned negotiations with the EU.
Only the Liberal Democrat Brexit policy could – at least in theory – be delivered without parliamentary involvement. Prime Minister Swinson could simply write a letter to the EU to fulfil her campaign pledge of revoking Article 50, although such an action would very likely be subject to legal challenge.
In all scenarios, Parliament’s role in dealing with the consequences of Brexit will dominate at least the next year. Under a Conservative majority, this would mean parliamentary oversight of negotiations with the EU on the future relationship and passing bills to implement policy in areas previously overseen by the EU.
The same would be true if a Labour government ended up with Leave following a second referendum. Under a Labour government that saw a Remain outcome from a second referendum, Parliament would need to legislate to repeal the Brexit-related legislation that has been passed so far.
Any new government is going to be keen to move on from Brexit to delivering the rest of its manifesto promises – though that might be an unrealistic aspiration. Brexit will continue to dominate whatever the electoral outcome, but a new government will want to signal its new priorities by holding a budget within a couple of months (February/March). That will also be necessary if it wants to keep levying taxes.
The new government will also set to work with the civil service to refine its policy proposals and work out which will require legislation to deliver. Rightly there will be a lag before that legislation is ready to be introduced – one reason why the first parliamentary session of the next Parliament is likely to be an extended one which runs until April 2021.
A further task for 2020 will be to conduct a proper three-year spending review so that government departments know how to budget for the next few years. That is likely to conclude by the autumn, unless the outcome of the election is particularly messy.
The outcome of the election will obviously be crucial in determining how easy it is for the new government to achieve its aims. Apart from the party balance of the Commons, it will also matter exactly who is elected. MPs’ individual views on Brexit, their previous experience and their wider views on a range of policies will shape the task for the governing party. In the last few years, MPs have had plenty of experience of rebelling and forming coalitions across party boundaries to achieve their aims – it will be interesting to see to what extent these behaviours persist in the new Parliament.
Any sort of outright majority will make life easier – and the bigger the majority the easier things become for whoever is prime minister. Any kind of coalition or looser confidence and supply arrangement will complicate matters – a minority Conservative government would likely struggle to pass a WAB, a minority Labour government might manage to legislate for a referendum, but it would be a slower and trickier process.
Parliament has not made life easy for successive prime ministers, and whatever the outcome of the general election, further challenges will await in 2020.