After losing the meaningful vote on the Government’s Brexit deal, the Prime Minister has committed to consulting “senior parliamentarians” to try and build consensus around a deal. If she wins the confidence of the House, the Prime Minister has very little time to consult MPs and put a new proposal back to the House that is both credible and negotiable with the EU.
There are precedents for building a cross-party consensus, but never on such a divisive topic, on tight timelines. Given those constraints, it is unlikely the formal structures set out below would serve the Prime Minister’s short-term needs – but they might form the basis of the offer she said she would make on involving Parliament more on the longer-term relationship.
Cross-party cabinet committee
The Government could form a cross-party cabinet committee to review and assess proposals, then to make decisions if or when talks with Brussels resume. There are precedents for bringing parties into committees outside a formal coalition, so this could be feasible with the current minority government.
- The National Security Council was set up in 2010 to oversee all aspects of the UK’s security. It is chaired by the Prime Minister and includes senior ministers from across government. The Prime Minister also has the discretion to invite the Leader of the Opposition, which has reportedly occurred four times since 2010, most recently in July 2015 when Harriet Harman was invited to discuss Syria and ISIS. The Cabinet Office provides no specific guidance on when or to whom invitations can be extended; it is simply to be done at the Prime Minister’s discretion and on Privy Council terms. Its predecessor, Gordon Brown’s National Security Committee, did not involve opposition parties but did bring in external expertise through the National Security Forum.
- The Lib-Lab Joint Consultative Committee on Constitutional Reform was established in October 1996 by Labour and Liberal Democrats in opposition to consider whether there might be sufficient common ground for a legislative programme on constitutional reform. Following Labour’s 1997 election victory, Tony Blair formalised this cooperation into a cabinet committee, which eventually disbanded in 2001.
The Privy Council is one the oldest parts of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. Officially it serves as an advisory body to the monarch; effectively, however, it is a vehicle for executive decisions made by the Government, which are then formally issued in the Queen’s name. The Cabinet itself is a Privy Council Standing Committee.
The Privy Council can establish committees on an ad hoc basis to examine specific issues. For example, the Butler Committee was established in 2004 to examine the operation of intelligence services in the run-up to the Iraq military intervention. Brexit could be considered an issue requiring the formation of a new committee.
The Privy Council has two key features that could make it a suitable platform for a cross-party approach to Brexit. First, its membership composition allows for cross-party representation. Second, its committees can be briefed on ‘Privy Council Terms’ – in a confidential nature. This confidentiality could be useful for reviewing documents or discussing possible options away from the public eye. The Government has already used Privy Council Terms to brief MPs on preparations for ‘no deal’.
However, the Privy Council is used primarily for retrospective scrutiny. It is uncertain how well it would be able to meet the time frames of Brexit decision making.
MPs have, over the past year or so, called for a cross-party commission. But ‘commission’ is a broad term and could refer to a royal commission, parliamentary commission or just a plain old commission. In the past, governments have often used independent commissions (made up of individuals from outside government) to look at contentious issues, but the current calls have been for political engagement and a cross-party group. These are perhaps the least helpful for the Government in the short term, but could provide the basis of cross party cooperation when talks progress to the future relationship.
- The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (2012–13) – a cross-party committee appointed by both the Commons and Lords. Its 10 members were asked to consider professional standards and culture in the UK banking sector. There were five MPs (two Labour, two Conservative and one Liberal Democrat) and five Lords (one Labour, one Conservative, one Liberal Democrat and two non-affiliated/crossbench). It acted as a new model of parliamentary inquiry, and the Commission’s four reports informed the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013. However, it could be successful only in the narrow circumstances in which it operated, and could not easily be replicated for other issues.
- The Smith Commission (2014) – set up by David Cameron immediately after the 2014 Scottish independence referendum to “convene cross-party talks and facilitate an inclusive engagement process across Scotland to produce…recommendations for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament.” Lord Smith, an independent, crossbench peer led the Commission, which contained two representatives from each of the five political parties in the Scottish Parliament. They took two and half months to report, and many of the recommendations were taken on in the Scotland Act 2016. It is seen as ambitious and a key milestone in the devolution process, balancing competing interests; the bulk of its proposals have now been taken forward.
There is scope for collaboration among backbenchers on select committees and these will provide oversight and scrutiny of the Government’s conduct of the negotiations. However, they do not involve the frontbenchers and are not really suitable vehicles for developing policy in a complex area.
Nonetheless, a proposal put forward by Nick Boles MP has suggested a formal role for the Liaison Committee – made up of the chairs of all the other select committees – in setting the direction on Brexit. The Liaison Committee is perhaps the most senior, formal grouping of MPs in Parliament, but it has never played a role similar to the one sketched out by Boles.
All-Party Parliamentary Group
An All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) consists of members of both Houses of Parliament who join together to pursue a particular topic or interest, regardless of party affiliation. APPGs are explicitly cross-party in nature and also provide opportunities for parliamentarians to engage with individuals and organisations outside of Parliament. They can be effective mechanisms for issues-based advocacy, influencing government on certain outcomes. However, APPGs hold no official parliamentary status and it would be difficult to make them part of the formal decision-making process.
A ministerial committee, within the established Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) framework, was set up in October 2017 and is the focal point for engagement with the devolved administrations on Brexit. But the committee has since been criticised as a talking shop which fails to meaningfully engage the devolved governments.
The Prime Minister has already offered a more formal role to a reestablished Northern Ireland Executive on the governance of the Withdrawal Agreement and decisions on the backstop. If that was enshrined in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, the Scottish and Welsh governments would likely press for similar roles and representation.
The Government is likely to have to rely on informal soundings with other parties to try to establish what changes to the already negotiated Withdrawal Agreement are necessary for it to be approved by Parliament.
There are more options for developing a cross-party approach to the UK’s future relationship with the EU, on which EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said negotiations can begin as soon as a Withdrawal Agreement is approved.