As the expected “meaningful vote” on the EU-UK withdrawal agreement looms, and the legally mandated Brexit day (29 March) draws closer, it is worth thinking clearly about what the relationship is between the House of Commons and the executive in the UK system. As it happens, this is the week in my Ph.D. seminar on party and legislative organization in which we read a couple of items specifically about this relationship. Understanding the relationship is important if for no other reason than to inoculate oneself against headlines like this one in the Sunday Times yesterday:
Revealed: Commons plot to seize control from Theresa May ahead of Brexit vote
The print version even had a headline about a “coup”. It is bad enough when the newspapers and talking heads refer to a vote within a party on the continuance (or not) of its leader as a “coup”. It is just that much worse when the possibility of elected representatives taking back power from the executive is so branded.
To be clear, when a collective body to whom a leader (or other collective body) is responsible seeks to replace or diminish the authority of the latter, it is not a coup.
The specific potential actions that got the Times and “one senior figure” quoted therein so worked up is summarized as:
At least two groups of rebel MPs are plotting to change Commons rules so motions proposed by backbenchers take precedence over government business, upending the centuries-old relationship between executive and legislature.
Let’s be clear about something, shall we? The executive in a parliamentary democracy is an agent of the assembly, not vice versa. Thus if a majority of the House of Commons seeks to clip the wings of its agent, this is a principal acting as it should.
It is a separate question as to whether existing statutory law permits a change in control over the order of business, or whether statute first would have to be changed. That is, parliament may already have delegated away some of its rights to make day-to-day changes in business. If that is the case, these “rebel MPs” may be out of luck in the short term, and given the press of time (the Brexit deadline), the short term is rather important. Yet clearly they would have the right, under the structure of the political system, to make an effort to take back powers currently given to the executive.
A second critical point here is that the claim of a “centuries-old relationship” is just plain wrong. On this point, it is indeed helpful that I have just re-read Gary W. Cox’s masterful The Efficient Secret (1987), wherein the author traces exactly the process by which backbenchers relinquished their capacity for legislative initiative (and the emergence of an electoral connection between voters and the executive). The timeline provided by Cox makes clear that there was no single watershed date on which parliamentary power of initiative was abolished. More to the point of the preceding quote from the Times, Cox shows that this process of delegation took place in the middle of the 19th century. Thus we have something less that a “centuries-old” precedent, even if it is undoubtedly true that the executive generally has dominated the agenda of the House for quite a long time.
Cox also makes clear that this relinquishing of initiative did not take place without a fight–MPs regularly resisted efforts to centralize agenda power, but ultimately gave in because it served their own collective interests.
Of course, if a delegation of authority ceases at some moment to serve the collective interests of parliament, what has been delegated can be taken back. At least in principle, as again, if it requires statutory change rather than a procedural motion, it is somewhat more difficult to pull off.
Nonetheless, the governing Conservative Party (which is in a minority in the House) is evidently worried. Today in the House proceedings, there was a series of Points of Order, including several raised by Conservative MPs about scenarios like those sketched by the Times. The exchange is worth watching, at least for those of us interested in parliamentary procedure and executive-legisaltive relations. The exchanges run just over 16 minutes, from around 18:11 (when Prime Minister May answers her last question about her earlier statement to the House) to 18:27 (the last response by the Speaker to the various Points or Order).
The Speaker indicates in one of his responses (to Charlie Elphicke) that it is indeed his understanding that a “statutory instrument” currently can be raised only by a Minister of the Crown. Nonetheless, the next MP to raise a Point of Order (Nigel Huddleston) asks the Speaker to clarify whether MPs are indeed equal, with full access to information about any changes of procedure. (This is a pretty remarkable question!) Then in response to the final Point of Order of the exchange (Matt Warman, who says his constituents have raised doubts about the role of the Speaker), the Speaker says he will defend the rights of the House against “agents of the executive branch”.
Today’s discussion comes against a backdrop of a claim by hardline Brexiteer Tories that the Speaker upended some precedent on procedures in December and again just last week. The issues in question concern what the House can do if, as widely expected, the meaningful vote results in parliamentary defeat of the withdrawal agreement.
The upshot of all this is that the House is not quite as weak as it is often portrayed, and it may be prepared to reassert itself. As Ed Miliband stated in an intervention in today’s debates, the executive works on behalf of the parliament. It may be something that gets forgotten at times, especially by journalists and taking heads. But it is a basic fact of parliamentary democracy.
It is not only journalists and talking heads who forget about the importance of parliament. It is also academics, as another book on my seminar reading list for this week notes. Meg Russel and Daniel Gover’s Legislation at Westminster (2017) offers a much welcome corrective to the mainstream understanding. They push against the “parliamentary decline thesis” and offer a rich analysis, both quantitative and qualitative, of how parliament (both chambers) actually has substantial influence on legislative output. Some of this influence is due to relatively recent changes in parliamentary organization (e.g., changes in the 1970s to institutionalize the select committee system). Again, this serves as a reminder that “precedent” that gives a dominant role to the executive comes with all sorts of caveats, and is subject to occasional rebalancing. In any case, it is not a “centuries-old” precedent, but rather more recent. And it could be that Brexit is showing that it is rather fragile, too.
We may be witnessing a reassertion by the House of its rightful role in determining what course of action its agent, the executive, shall follow.