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Government's Grip on Parliament Radoslaw Zubek and Thomas Fleming

In Britain, the government dominates parliament. This claim is a staple of “textbook” descriptions of British politics, so the government’s struggle to secure parliament’s support for its Brexit deal has been widely seen as evidence that Brexit has challenged – or even overturned – this conventional wisdom. But perhaps recent events can be better understood as an acceleration of pre-existing trends. The Brexit process may have challenged the government’s ability to control parliament, but it was pushing at an open door.

The government’s recent difficulties largely flow from not being able to rely on three institutional advantages - the confidence vote procedure, control of the parliamentary agenda and the weakness of committees - all of which had been eroded by recent institutional reforms that predate Brexit.

Confidence vote procedure

Governments’ ability to elicit loyalty from their backbench MPs was substantially reduced by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). Historically, governments had been able to declare votes to be a “matter of confidence” – defeat on such votes would prompt the dissolution of parliament and a general election. Potential rebels were forced to choose between supporting a policy they dislike or evicting their own government from office. However, the FTPA, which limited prime ministers’ power to call elections, ended the possibility of this “parliamentary nuclear option” for securing MPs’ support and played a crucial role in allowing the parliamentary Brexit deadlock.

In the first “meaningful vote”, 118 Conservative and 10 DUP MPs voted against the government, but then backed the government in the following day’s no confidence vote. Without the FTPA, Theresa May would have been able to force MPs to confront these choices simultaneously, offering them a choice – her Brexit deal, or a general election. John Major used exactly this approach to get Eurosceptic Tories’ support for the Maastricht Treaty in 1993.

Control of the Parliamentary agenda

Since the early twentieth century the Commons’ formal rules have granted the government substantial power to decide what parliament debates. However, procedural reforms in 2010 weakened this power by creating time in the parliamentary agenda when backbench MPs could decide what was debated. The government still determines the timing of these debates, but cannot determine their content. And in fact, on multiple occasions in early 2019, MPs voted to suspend normal procedure, and instead let backbench MPs set the parliamentary agenda, for example to hold a series of “indicative votes” on alternative Brexit proposals.

Weak committees

The weakness of the UK parliament has often been traced to the weakness of its committee system. Powerful committees are conventionally seen as a source of influence for opposition parties, and the UK’s committees usually fare poorly in international rankings. However, parliament’s committee system has been substantially strengthened in recent years. Changes under New Labour introduced salaries for select committee chairs, encouraging MPs to scrutinise rather than join the government, and since 2010 committee chairs and members have been elected by their fellow MPs, rather than being appointed by party whips. This is widely seen as heightening the authority of committee chairs, and making committee members more willing to challenge the government. Indeed, it has been notable that a number of the government’s most prominent and effective parliamentary critics over Brexit have been select committee chairs, such as Hilary Benn (Exiting the EU).

Party system and structures

Governments’ traditional control of parliament has not been due solely to institutional advantages. It has also flowed from the UK’s party system, particularly the predominance of large, cohesive parties. British governments have typically been able to win a majority and rely on their MPs’ disciplined support. Both of these advantages noticeably declined in the 1970s, when support for the main two parties fell. Subsequent decades saw some recovery in parties’ ability to win sizeable, and generally loyal, majorities, but this came under renewed challenge in the late 90s with New Labour. Since then, MPs have become increasingly rebellious – and no party has won a large majority since the 2005 election.

These trends – the institutional strengthening of parliament and the waning size and coherence of the main parties – are not separate. Instead, they have arguably co-evolved. Parliamentary rules shape party behaviour, but parties also shape those rules, and recent changes in the party system have encouraged institutional reforms that may in turn have reinforced those changes.

Political developments in the last two decades have simultaneously undermined governments’ institutional and partisan tools for controlling parliament. This was obviously a large part of Theresa May’s difficulties – she led a minority government, and was dogged by frequent Conservative rebellions. Yet while these difficulties worsened with Brexit, they did not begin there. Brexit has clearly placed the British political system under considerable strain, but the government’s grip on parliament has been progressively weakening for several decades; Brexit has merely accelerated this process.

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Radoslaw Zubek is Associate Professor of European Politics and Tutorial Fellow, Hertford College

Thomas Fleming is a DPhil Candidate in Politics

Credits:

Photo credit: Shutterstock; Michael D Beckwith - "untitled image"; UK Parliament Flickr; Parliament.uk

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