On the last afternoon of the final parliamentary session before the Christmas recess, Theresa May could put it off no longer and appeared before the Liaison Committee. Here Ben Worthy, viewing the session from outside, considers how she performed. Mark Bennister, utilising his new parliamentary academic fellowship looks at the Committee performance having watched the session from the Committee room.
Not Mastering the Detail? May at the Liaison Committee
By Ben Worthy
May’s prime ministership will be forever defined by Brexit. It is now her fate, destiny and the task that will be her legacy: and it will send her to the top or the bottom of the Prime Minister rankings. On 20th December, just before Christmas, we got perhaps the most information yet when the prime minister made her first appearance before the House of Commons Liaison Committee (read it here and see it here).
Overall, the session seemed to veer between ambiguity, wait-and-see and vagueness with immigration the site of a very tense encounter with Yvette Cooper (see Q48-56). So what did we learn? There will be, it seems, a major speech in January and a plan published at some point soon. But what did the appearance itself tell us?
1. May still thinks secrecy is the best policy
Despite all that has happened since July, the government will still seek to keep their plans, priorities and intentions secret, or at least preserve as much secrecy time as possible. May’s answers were studded with phrases such as ‘I look forward to going into more detail about those early in the New Year’ and ‘when we feel that it is appropriate to give any indications of those details, we will do so’ and the wonderfully uninformative ‘you will see what we publish when we publish it, if I may put it like that’ and the rather wonderful ‘negotiations are negotiations’. May’s secrecy could be habit or style or, as commentators such as David Allen Green have argued, could be less about concealing positions from the EU 27 and more about managing domestic expectations and papering over deep divisions within her Cabinet.
2. May wants government in charge
Again, despite all that has happened (and what could happen next) May seemed determined to make sure government remains in charge – Parliament can discuss but not decide. She announced that ‘it is my intention to ensure that Parliament has ample opportunity to comment on and discuss the aspects of the arrangements that we are putting in place’. This exchange showed the limits of what Westminster would be allowed to do:
Chair: Is it your intention that Parliament should vote on a final deal once it has been negotiated? This was a question put to you earlier.
Mrs May: It was a question put to me earlier, and what I have said is that it is my intention that Parliament should have every opportunity to consider these matters. What I am also clear about is ensuring that we actually deliver on the vote of the British people, which was a vote to leave the European Union.
Chair: Okay. Again, was that a yes or a no?
Mrs May: I gave the answer I gave, Chairman.
3. Is May making some wiggle room?
The discussion was studded with ambiguities. There was mention of ‘practical changes’, ‘practical aspects’, ‘there may very well be practical issues that have to be addressed’ or ‘it’s a matter of practicality that we need to discuss with the European Union’ and the classic ‘these are matters of detail that would need to be looked into’.
4. Is May a master of the detail?
Perhaps the point that should cause most concern is that May is not fully in charge of the detail. Towards the end of the session, the chair corrected what appeared to be an erroneous interpretation of article 50 by the prime minister.
Chair: But you didn’t completely rule out completing the negotiations within the negotiating period but applying an implementation date at some point after 2019. That is specifically provided for in the treaty—that is article 50(3)—and that is what I am seeking clarity on.
Mrs May: Article 50(3) is not about an implementation phase. It is about an extension of the period of negotiation.
Q97 Chair: Well, I think that is a matter of interpretation. Let’s just read it out. “The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement”, so that date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement can be after 2019. Indeed, it is generally understood to be capable of that interpretation by most people who have looked at it. That is why I have been asking you this question. I just want clarity about that question.
Mrs May: Sorry, Chairman; in that case, I misunderstood the question you were asking me earlier, because I thought you were asking me about the reference at the end to the European Council agreeing with the member state that the period be extended.
Q98 Chair: That’s the negotiating period.
Mrs May: That’s the negotiating period, yes.
Q99 Chair: You did give a very clear answer to that question. I am asking you a different question, Prime Minister.
Mrs May: I would expect us, as I hope I tried to answer in the first place, to be able to negotiate a deal within the two-year period that is set out.
Chair: We are all agreed on that.
Mrs May: But it may be the case that there are some practical aspects which require a period of implementation thereafter. That is what we will need, not just for us but for businesses on the continent and others, but that has to be part of the negotiation that is taking place.
Q100 Chair: I quite understand, and that is what you said earlier. Just to clarify, you may therefore seek to use the discretion provided by article 50(3) to negotiate an implementation date after the end of the completion of the negotiations, even if the negotiating period is within the two-year framework.
Mrs May: We will discuss whether we need an implementation phase. The point at which the treaties cease to apply may be a different issue from whether or not you have got an implementation phase.
Perhaps the confusion was nerves, poor briefing or misunderstanding. This is the most charitable interpretation, though even that is rather worrying given that the Liaison Committee is nothing as to the sort of pressure she will face behind closed doors and in the glare of the media as Brexit gets under way.
The fact that the prime minister appeared to look again at article 50 in her folder, after having misunderstood it, could tell us of a deeper problem. Remember Theresa May was to be the ‘introverted master of detail’ whose forensic skills would see us through, yet she appeared not to know off by heart the 261 words that will dominate Britain’s future-and misinterpreted them and ducked when challenged. This may be a blip. But it could be the shape of things to come.
Liaison Committee: Alternative Prime Ministerial Scrutiny
By Mark Bennister
This was Theresa May’s first appearance before the Committee which comprises of select committee chairs. With combative Treasury chair, Andrew Tyrie, in charge, flanked by Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper ready to challenge on Brexit, and Sarah Wollaston and Meg Hillier waiting patiently to take her on over NHS funding, this was a new parliamentary test for the prime minister. Having put the appearance off until the last possible moment and after having given a statement in the House on the EU Council the day before, the prime minister clearly hoped this would be a low key Brexit interrogation.
The Liaison Committee sessions with the prime minister have now been in existence since 2002 and May is the fourth prime minister to appear. These committee sessions occur up to three times a year and are standalone sessions, generally with little continuity or cohesive committee strategy. Yet they are more streamlined than they used to be as our research has shown. The sessions are an important alternative forum in which MPs can probe the prime minister’s policy approach. As Ben Worthy has written, May was as taciturn as ever and rather inscrutable in front of the committee. Without helpful backbench interventions, she appeared exposed and at times diffident. The forum calls for a more conciliatory response from the prime minister, but she continued her dogged avoidance approach. So how did the committee do?
1. The chair matters
Andrew Tyrie proved to be a rather combative chair in his approach to the prime minister sessions when he took over after the May 2015 election. The two sessions with David Cameron were lively including some sparky exchanges. He carried on the more confrontational approach with May, repeatedly intervening to challenge her on the interpretation of Article 50. With Benn and Cooper seated either side of Tyrie, an axis of remainers led the dynamic in the committee. The sessions do not tend to facilitate supplementary questioning from other members, but Tyrie often does intervene. Tyrie showed his frustration with May’s avoidance and obfuscation, pressing May in particular after Benn’s questioning on timetabling and Cooper’s on student numbers.
2. Parliamentary process cannot be ignored
Much of the parliamentary activity, including 38 inquiries across both Houses at present, is symptomatic of the current phoney war evident before Article 50 is triggered and negotiations get underway. Yet in the meantime, direction from the prime minister is crucial in setting out the process and sequencing aspects. In Liaison Committee this is where pressure can be applied on how and when Parliament will be consulted. Hilary Benn pushed hard on this aspect: ‘Will Parliament scrutinize the deal?’ Will Parliament vote on the deal?’. May, though, was not helpful: ‘we are very clear we want Parliament to be able to have the opportunity to debate and discuss these issues’. Parliament can assert itself in a many ways to force a greater clarity and expose fault lines in the government’s approach to Brexit, utilise scrutiny tools to draw Parliament into the process.
3. Select committees may benefit from Labour’s troubles
This was the first Liaison Committee session with the Prime Minister for Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper. They bring ministerial experience and political nous to their new roles as committee chairs. As major political players, no longer encumbered by front bench roles, they were active participants, drawing attention to their own committee work, but also repeatedly taken on the prime minister. The exchanges between Cooper and May on immigration figures were direct and placed the prime minister in uncomfortable territory. They of course have history with Cooper having shadowed May when Home Secretary. Indeed, the exchanges demonstrated the value of the forum; MPs can pursue a line of inquiry repeatedly and the prime minister must engage in the dialogue without the comfort blanket provided in the chamber.
4. Watching the PM
The committee forum has a dynamic of its own and is a very different scrutiny tool from PMQs and statements to the House. May should be experienced having given evidence to the Home Affairs Committee many times, but the Liaison Committee has a wider brief and potentially a wider audience. Though the political sketch writers all left after the Brexit questions, they would have been able to see May under pressure and seemingly not well in charge of her brief. According to reports, she had cancelled Cabinet that morning, presumably to prepare. May is regarded as a meticulous preparer, though this was not evident in the session. Aside from the misinterpretation of Article 50 exchange, she also seemed less well briefed on social care in the second half of the session. May has yet to produce an overarching policy plan, tested at election. She is defined by Brexit and consumed by both trying to avoid it publicly and managing it privately. The Liaison Committee forum exposes the PM to a degree of interrogation, not encountered elsewhere and while she may have given little away, she also did little to improve the connective tissue between the executive and the parliament.
Infrequent though these sessions with the PM may be, they do have the capacity to shine a light on senior committee chairs and the PM. The exchanges may appear less a collective endeavour and more of a series of one-to-one interrogations, but this is less evident now. Informal alliances between Tyrie, Cooper and Benn were hinted at and Sarah Wollaston and Meg Hillier suggested a degree of cross-party collaboration. If the committee sessions are there to question the PM on whole-of-government issues – where the PM has particular responsibility – there is no greater example than Brexit at present, a fact not lost on the committee members.
Questioning the Prime Minister: How Effective is the Liaison Committee? By Mark Bennister, Alix Kelso and Phil Larkin is available to download here [opens PDF].