Please note that this blog piece was originally published on the Crick Centre blog, and has been re-posted here with the author’s permission.
As 2016 comes to an end, we await the Supreme Court’s verdict on whether the Government can invoke Article 50 without the authority of Parliament. Having the UK’s highest court consider the constitutional role of Parliament has been one consequence of a referendum which hadn’t even been scheduled at the start of 2016, but dominated a turbulent year in the Palace of Westminster.
Just a week before the EU referendum, the brutal murder of Jo Cox MP while she was carrying out her constituency duties shook the House of Commons. For the first time in thirty-six years a sitting MP had been murdered, and, as shown in court, the killer had acted for political reasons. Tributes to Jo Cox’s public service and commitment to her constituents were paid at a special sitting of the recalled House of Commons, and outside of the House, to parliamentarians in general: the #thankyourMP hashtag was tweeted more than 10,000 times in the morning following the tragedy. This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, short-lived, and 2016 saw many female MPs reporting instances of graphic and violent harassment. This month a 24 year old man was sentenced for his anti-Semitic hate campaign towards Labour MP Luciana Berger, and Conservative MP Anna Soubry received death threats on Twitter. An increase in racist and xenophobic abuse, both online and offline, has been one element of the fallout of a referendum result which surprised pollsters, pundits and politicians alike.
When in February, the then Prime Minister set 23 June as the date for the British public to decide on membership of the EU, he was unlikely to expect that he would be resigning his post on 24 June. The Conservative leadership contest which followed proceeded at a blistering pace: Theresa May was the only one left standing after Liam Fox and Michael Gove were eliminated, Stephen Crabb and Andrea Leadsom withdrew and Boris Johnson decided against standing. After a referendum victory for the Leave campaign it was a Remainer who was set the task of explaining to the Commons how she would implement the exit from the EU she had campaigned against.
It was a strange few weeks in Westminster. The majority of the Shadow Cabinet resigned en masse, (while the Deputy Leader enjoyed a silent disco at Glastonbury) as a challenge to leader Jeremy Corbyn, and left him struggling to fill front-bench posts (few pundits would have predicted that octogenarian, and serial rebel, Paul Flynn would return to the frontbench after a twenty-seven year absence, as both Shadow Leader of the House and Shadow Secretary of State for Wales). Following Corbyn’s victory in a bitter leadership contest many front-benchers returned to their posts; but as Jake Watts argued in August, Corbyn’s relationship with his MPs has significant implications for our parliamentary democracy. Indeed, during the Labour leadership turmoil the Scottish National Party (unsuccessfully) sought to claim the status of the official opposition in the Commons.
Some of the opposition to government policies in the autumn came from its own benches. The slender Commons majority inherited by Theresa May looked even more precarious when two of her MPs (Zac Goldsmith and Stephen Phillips) resigned in consecutive weeks. The resulting by-elections were fought primarily on Brexit, confirming its position as the dominant political issue facing Parliament, with a surprise defeat for Goldsmith in heavily-remain Richmond Park, and a safe win for the Conservatives in leave-voting Sleaford and North Hykeham. Whether MPs should vote in accordance with how their constituency voted in the referendum raises a number of issues around representative democracy and Edmund Burke, as noted by Philip Cowley.
Outside of Brexit, other parliamentary work continued. If the result of the referendum was an attack on out of touch politicians, parliament faced a significant challenge to reconnect with the people. Select Committees continued to press for increased influence and profile: Mike Ashley and Sir Philip Green both blinked first in rows with the Business, Innovation and Skills and Work and Pensions Committees.
The Commons also saw the first full year of operation of English Voted for English Laws (EVEL)—a procedural and constitutional innovation, aimed to give England a greater voice in Parliament. Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny have warned that while it is too early for a full assessment of EVEL, its complexity could make it incomprehensible to both MPs and the general public.
Connecting the public with parliament was also at the heart of Sarah Childs’ The Good Parliament report, which argued that making the Commons more diverse and inclusive House of Commons would increase its efficiency and legitimacy. A number of the most powerful moments in the Commons this year came when MPs discussed their personal experiences of baby loss and surviving sexual violence, with the aim of not just changing policy, but also to show the public the human side of politicians.
And in the Lords? The result of 2015’s “constitutional crisis” was somewhat of a damp squib. A year after the then Chancellor, George Osborne, argued that the House of Lords voting down the Government’s proposed reforms to tax credits raised “constitutional issues”, the (new) Government decided against bringing in legislation to codify or limit the powers of the Lords on financial matters and secondary legislation (as recommended in the Strathclyde Review). The relationship between the Lords and the Commons remains unchanged, although there have been some suggestions that the (ever-growing) Lords should be reformed ahead of the proposed renovations to the dilapidated infrastructure of the Palace of Westminster. That issue is one for 2017, after the Government decided to delay any vote on the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, which reported on the state of the building in September (we’re examining the restoration and renewal programme in our Designing for Democracy project).
The decision on the multi-billion restoration and renewal project may not be the biggest challenge facing Parliament in 2017, however. That is likely to be the preparations for the Great Repeal Bill: the plan to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and incorporate European Union law into domestic law “wherever possible”: the implementation of “Brexit means Brexit”. The House of Commons Library has described the proposed bill as “potentially one of the largest legislative projects ever undertaken in the UK”, given the proportion of UK primary and secondary legislation related to the EU. Whatever the verdict of the Supreme Court, Brexit is likely to dominate a further year—and beyond—in Parliament.
Alexandra Meakin is a doctoral student at the University of Sheffield and Associate Fellow of the Crick Centre, where she is examining the governance of the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. She previously spent over a decade working for MPs and for House of Commons select committees.