Brexit has cast a long shadow over the 2017–19 parliamentary session, with proceedings further complicated by minority government. But the impact of these dual challenges has not been felt consistently across different areas of parliamentary activity.
In some areas, the effect has been obvious: the government has struggled to pass key Brexit legislation, and has had to curtail its ambitions in other policy areas due to its fragile majority. Parliamentarians have had to scrutinise a large amount of secondary legislation needed to prepare for Brexit. And MPs have experienced ever greater threats to their security as political debate has become increasingly polarised.
But elsewhere, the impact of Brexit and minority government has been less straightforward. Select committees have still provided a space for cross-party consensus on a number of issues, and although backbenchers have demanded that ministers regularly explain themselves to the Commons, this has largely been on subjects other than Brexit. Most time in the Commons chamber has been taken up with issues other than leaving the EU, and MPs have debated, legislated and held the government to account on a range of different policy areas.
The combination of Brexit and minority government has, however, had a profound effect on the relationship between the government and Parliament during the 2017–19 session. This has deteriorated over the course of the session, culminating in strong criticism from many parliamentarians of Prime Minister Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament and begin a new session in the run up to the 31 October Brexit deadline. The timing and the length of Parliament’s prorogation has led some to argue that Johnson is attempting to curtail Parliament’s ability to shape Brexit events and has shown “no respect for Parliament’s democratic role in debating Brexit.”
Many of the key themes we have identified from the 2017–19 session illustrate the strained relationship, even mutual mistrust, between the government and Parliament. Control of the parliamentary agenda has been a major battle ground – with the government choosing not to schedule any time for opposition-led debate during key moments in the Brexit process, and backbench MPs using unprecedented tactics to take control of the Commons’ agenda against the government’s wishes.
The limited scope of much of the legislation passed during the 2017–19 session, and the hurdles the government has faced in getting bills through Parliament, also illustrate how the terse relationship has shaped parliamentary activity. Over the same period, MPs have also shown a growing appetite to hold the government to account, asking ministers a record number of ‘urgent questions’, and deploying, and sometimes re-interpreting, little-used methods such as the ‘humble address’ to extract information, and finding the government in contempt of Parliament – for the first time in modern history.
On announcing that the parliamentary session would end, the prime minister told Conservative MPs the prorogation was to allow for a new Queen’s Speech and to deliver a “bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda”. However, the tight parliamentary arithmetic and antagonistic atmosphere surrounding Brexit will make it difficult for the government to make progress with legislation next session. Johnson’s declared stance on Brexit may win over some MPs, at least temporarily, but is likely to alienate others – as will the decision to prorogue Parliament.
With the government losing its working majority (Figure 10) and the 31 October deadline looming, the chances are that the new prime minister will find himself as hamstrung in the current Parliament as his predecessor. This could precipitate an early general election – but there is no guarantee of it delivering a parliamentary majority for any one party.
In any case, it is clear that Parliament’s role and work will remain in the spotlight. Over time, parliamentary procedure has developed to accommodate majority governments relying on strong party loyalty. The 2017–19 session has challenged these working assumptions with a minority government and, in Brexit, a divisive policy issue that cuts across party lines. As the session draws to a close and the likelihood of an election increases, it is reasonable to consider whether it is time once again to return to questions about whether reforms are needed.
The debate over Parliament’s role as a representative democratic institution is also likely to intensify in the coming months, as MPs continue to grapple with outcome of the EU referendum as an exercise in direct democracy. A recent survey from insight and strategy consultancy BritainThinks found that 74% of the public agree that “the UK political system is currently not fit for purpose”, with only 6% agreeing that UK politicians “understand people like me.”
With the potential for an early general election – and talk of such a poll being pitched as a battle between Parliament and the people – it is vitally important that MPs think clearly, and communicate openly, about their role.
The Institute for Government will continue to monitor Parliament’s activities over the coming months and analyse how effectively the institution is fulfilling its functions. As we prepare the next full edition of Parliamentary Monitor, we would welcome thoughts on the most interesting themes from the 2017–19 session and recommendations of the data we should analyse.