There has been plenty of procedural drama and political intrigue in the UK Parliament in the last fortnight. Mark Bennister, who is an academic fellow in the House of Commons, discusses why these events pose a challenge to how Westminster is perceived by the public.
Trying to make sense of what has been going on in the UK Parliament the past couple of weeks has been a challenge even for someone like myself with a parliamentary academic fellowship. Much of it has been frankly bizarre and probably incomprehensible to the voters outside the Westminster bubble (and even to many of those within the bubble). In short, the Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons, has not been selling itself very well. We’ve had walkouts from Prime Minister’s Question Time, another press report of sexual harassment, and the blocking of a government-supported backbench Bill seeking to outlaw ‘upskirting’ by a single Tory MP. And of course, we have also had the shenanigans over the EU (Withdrawal) Bill amendment of an amendment.
Parliament behaving badly?
Each of these in turn represents a challenge to how Parliament is perceived by the general public and highlight some of the arcane process issues that have stubbornly resisted reform. Taking first the walkout by the SNP during PMQs on 13 June, while a piece of orchestrated theatre designed to gain the SNP a wave of publicity (and an unintended boost in membership), it highlighted – as Louise Thompson has written – the challenge for smaller parties in getting a voice in the chamber, when procedure is so weighted towards the two main parties. Denied time to debate the contentious devolved consent aspect of the EU (Withdrawal) bill, the SNP were livid and took their largely symbolic action. The following day the FT published an in-depth feature detailing cases of sexual harassment in the Commons as the result of a series of interviews with parliamentary staff. Since these allegations surfaced, Parliament has struggled to put in place the very necessary reforms to provide for even a reasonable complaints and disciplinary procedure. The day after, Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope became a household name for all the wrong reasons when he blocked the progress of a Private Members’ Bill to ban upskirting, sponsored by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse and supported by the Government. There are few routes for MPs to initiate legislation and Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) and other devices (this one started as a presentation bill) stand little chance of progressing without government support and even then, depend on time being found in the business schedule. Chope, an old-fashioned libertarian Thatcherite has a history of blocking PMBs, objecting to ‘nanny state’ measures, but also as a means to protest against backbench bills being nodded through. Perversely his actions made legislation more likely, as the Government, with the Prime Minister’s support, will now find business time for a bill of their own on upskirting, but it highlighted the arcane practice and procedural limitations on backbench time. It also looked bad for Parliament.
Too Grieve or not
This brings us to the so called Grieve 2 amendment, tabled when the EU Withdrawal Bill returned to the Commons on Wednesday 20 June. For the procedural nerds (my parliamentary studies students take note) see Jack Simson Caird’s excellent explanation of the amendment. For those outside the Westminster bubble, however, you had the absurd situation of the Grieve amendment being rejected by Grieve himself, the rebel leader of the anti-Brexit Tories who is neither a rebel nor evidently a leader, and seemingly not even that anti-Brexit. Even though the Tory rebellion melted away, the Government were sufficiently worried to suspend usual ‘nodding through’ voting arrangements which meant that we had the unedifying sight of Naz Shah MP being wheeled though the lobby in a wheelchair, wearing pyjamas and dosed up on morphine, and heavily pregnant MPs having to vote in person. The Government’s victory meant the rejection of the Lords amendment – the episode is wonderfully summed up by this clip from the Lords – and the completion of the Bill’s passage through Parliament.
Who’s in control?
The amendment of an amendment may have a comical ring to it, but what to make of it all? Is this what taking back control looks like? Largely procedural questions over what happens if there is no deal, or a deal is voted down by Parliament, have centred on the status – amendable or otherwise – of motions in this event and the potential role of the Speaker in determining the status of subsequent motions. Important (though technical) this may be, it essentially amounts to a fudge to avoid a defeat for the Government who can stumble on and keep malcontents on the hard and soft Brexit wings on board. The Government managed this, but it is all still political. Portrayed as a battle between Parliament and the Government for control of the Brexit process, I tend to agree with Jill Rutter that it was more a battle within the Tory party. In the end Parliament may have a little more say in the matter than it might have done, thanks to Grieve’s threats of rebellion, but the Tory rebels have been flushed out as unwilling or unable to assert themselves sufficiently. They are not fringe MPs as the Maastricht rebels were under John Major, but are largely loyal former ministers reluctant to place ideals above party. With Labour Brexiteers like Kate Hoey and Frank Field prepared to vote with the Government, the influence of the Tory remainers is weakened. The emphasis on what happens after a no deal or defeat in Parliament suggests that it is these scenarios that are looking more likely now. Indeed, while the Government has been preoccupied with such arcane internal party management, the clock continues to tick.
We are a long way from anyone taking control. The Government has seemingly little idea of its negotiating stance, still at odds within cabinet. The Prime Minister cannot assert any authority or even vision on where we are going. Parliament is merely the site for party differences laid bare and can provide little institutional direction or control of the process. The two Houses of Parliament seem more remote than ever: though their Lordships are free from any constituency pressures to raise some legitimate issues, the Commons is in a quandary of representation, uncertain whether to act in national, party or referendum-mandated interests. Furthermore, the inability of the Commons to reform itself to make it fit for modern politics allows complexity, bad practice and weakness in the face of the executive to remain. A degree of clarity over who controls the process could however be found at the Brexit Select Committee on the same day as the Bill staggered through parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s chief negotiator set out how the EU is in control, setting the timetable, terms and conditions of withdrawal. This is perhaps where Parliament’s greatest public service may come, in exposing the external reality away from the game playing in the Commons chamber.
Dr Mark Bennister is a Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University, and a House of Commons Academic Fellow, where his research is titled: Questioning the Prime Minister: How Effective is the Liaison Committee? Follow him on Twitter: @MarkBennister