Working to make government more effective


The Conservatives' supermajority warnings do not add up

What does a large government majority really mean for the House of Commons?

Keir Starmer, Labour leader, speaking in the House of Commons
Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party, in the House of Commons. Conservative candidates have suggested that a Labour supermajority would lead to a sudden dramatic loss in the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny.

Hannah White argues that whether a government’s majority is enormous or merely substantial – for example 80 seats – the more significant factor for democracy is the attitude a government takes to the role of parliament and the value of scrutiny

The Conservative campaign appears to have switched from offensive to defensive – instead of promoting the new policy ideas which were the focus of the first weeks of the campaign, Conservative candidates are focusing on highlighting the risks to democracy of a large Labour majority.

In his Times column this week, William Hague has written about his experience of leading “a semi-destroyed Conservative party in 1997” – the difficulties of mounting meaningful opposition to a large majority government with only 165 MPs. He is right that the rules and processes of the Commons place responsibilities on an official opposition that are tricky for a much diminished parliamentary party to meet.

Predicated on the assumption that our first-past-the-post system will deliver enough opposition MPs to fill all the roles required – shadowing government ministers, chairing and sitting on select committees and so on – the Commons system would be challenging for a Conservative official opposition much outnumbered by a Labour government – especially if votes for the Liberal Democrats and Reform have also have eaten away at its flanks. This would make it even more imperative for a new Conservative leader elected following a heavy loss to be able to unite the moderate and right wing sides of his or her party.  

It is worth remembering that a much diminished official opposition would also suffer from a loss of short money – the state aid allocated to opposition parties to support them in their constitutional role as the parliamentary opposition – the formula for which relies heavily on the number of seats won.

There is little difference between an 80-seat and 200-seat majority in parliament 

But the Conservative argument that a Labour supermajority would lead to a sudden dramatic loss in the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny is untrue. This is first because the rules of the House of Commons have always provided significant advantages to the party of government – being one of the most executive-dominated parliaments in the world. Curiously, this is a fact that has not appeared to bother the Conservatives for the past 14 years.

The second reason it is untrue is because, sadly, however effective scrutiny may have been in the past – and there has never been a golden age – it has certainly declined over the past decade. 

In reality, apart from the HR problems created for the opposition leader, in parliamentary terms the difference between an 80-seat and 200-seat majority is not material – the most significant factor for democracy is the attitude a government takes to the role of parliament and the value of scrutiny.

For all her affection for the House of Commons, Theresa May decided not to give parliament a meaningful role in the decision on what a Brexit deal should look like. Even with a slim and then non-existent majority she was able to proceed – ultimately to her own detriment – without allowing meaningful scrutiny of her plans, at one stage refusing to allow inconvenient opposition or backbench debates in the Commons for a period of over five months.

Boris Johnson secured a much larger majority and immediately adopted the attitude that nobody should be able to oppose his parliamentary plans. His ministers refused to entertain even the smallest amendments to bills and some were extremely reluctant to appear before select committees. He was free with the creation of new ministerial powers and their exercise – using secondary legislation to pass numerous measures without the possibility of parliamentary opposition. In practice his opposition came more from within his own party than other parties.

A government's attitude to scrutiny is more important than the size of its majority

The Conservative strategy of stressing the risks of a supermajority may pay electoral dividends if it frightens its voters into remaining loyal and not defecting to Reform. But if voters are worried about the prospect of inadequate parliamentary scrutiny, they should have been paying more attention to the permanent, in-built executive dominance of the House of Commons.

Voters who are worried about the prospect of a large Labour majority should be grilling Labour candidates about the attitude that they would take to scrutiny in government. Will Keir Starmer ensure ministers turn up to be grilled by select committees? Will he allow time for challenging debate over Labour’s legislative plans, including the idea of changing the voting rules? Will ministers shift the balance back from secondary to primary legislation, even where the previous government has handed it the tools to proceed without allowing MPs a say? It is the attitude that the next government takes to the role of parliament that will actually make the difference, however large the majority it secures.

What would a supermajority really mean for parliament?

Listen or watch back to our webinar with Lord Willetts, Robert Saunders, Dr Hannah White and Jill Rutter as they discussed what a large government majority would mean for parliament and British politics.

Watch back here
Houses of Parliament in the sunshine. A red London bus is driving by.

Related content