MPs are rather bewildered today. It’s not just that some of them are trying to understand the intricacies of the Labour Party whipping operation, with frontbenchers saying one thing in broadcast interviews, and the whips saying quite another in private conversations. It’s also that parliamentarians are having to decide what it is they actually want from Brexit. This is a significant shift for all of them, whether they were elected two decades ago or in the most recent general election: MPs’ job is to decide whether or not to let legislation written by the government of the day pass unamended. Now, rather than simply rejecting a bill, or making changes to its detail rather than the overarching principle, they are having to choose from a long list of options.
This is Parliament taking over control of the Order Paper from the government, and Theresa May is right in her insistence that this changes ‘the balance between our democratic institutions’. She has argued that it sets an ‘unwelcome precedent’. Other Conservatives have pointed out that taking power away from the executive like this shouldn’t be done on the hoof, but at the end of a proper debate on constitutional change.
That as may be, but as the government is currently unable to get its business through the House, we are in new constitutional territory, anyway. And given we are where we are, there are opportunities for MPs that go far beyond working out what to do with the Brexit options in the next few days. This could be their chance to reinvigorate parliament.
Brexit has led to such an upheaval in British politics that it is highly unlikely we will be able to return to the old way of doing things, even with a new government in place. Cabinet ministers have defied the whip and stayed in place. Even less recently, opposition whips have asked MPs to vote one way, while making clear that they plan to rebel and keep their jobs. There has been no collective responsibility for a long time. Now, MPs are telling the government what to do. The executive will struggle to return to business as usual after this.
The May administration has strengthened the case for the executive losing power, because it is now clearly the case that the sum total of parliamentary wisdom does not reside merely in those in government. The very word ‘executive’ has now lost meaning, as the government is neither making decisions nor exhibiting the power to implement decisions.
This presents an opportunity to redress the balance in Parliament, so that MPs are more powerful. In my book Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, I argue that backbenchers should have a career path as powerful and rewarding as ministers, with parliamentary committees that rival government departments. At present, select committees scrutinise through inquiries, but they could use their collective expertise to write legislation, as well as having real powers to recall ministers who have long since left Parliament so that they can answer for bad policies once their true implications have become clear. That witnesses can refuse to attend with only the risk of ‘admonishment’ from MPs, as has happened this week with Dominic Cummings, shows how ultimately toothless committees currently are.
Of course, the government of the day is elected by the people to carry out its manifesto plans. And it would serve no-one if parliament changed to prevent a real majority administration from being able to do so. But if backbenchers were given greater power at the same time, not just to make life difficult for ministers but also to put properly-drafted legislation through the House themselves, then we would have a richer democracy. For one thing, MPs would grow used to taking decisions themselves, rather than finding themselves, as they are today, bamboozled by the rare occasions on which they are expected to do this. They would also value a career spent entirely in the legislature, taking scrutiny far more seriously than they do currently. If you could have a job that is as fulfilling and well-paid as a minister that never requires you to join the government, then your focus would be on cultivating the skills required of an MP, rather than a minister. Currently, ambitious and able MPs are so focused on joining the executive that they neglect the responsibilities they were elected to carry out, such as reading and understanding bills.
Changing parliament in this way would lead to fewer legislative cock-ups, as MPs would notice them when they were only on paper, rather than causing trouble in the real world. They’d be rewarded for raising concerns, rather than labelled a troublemaker and deleted from the promotion list. They might, dare I say it, even give the impression that Britain had taken back a bit more control, preventing some of the dissatisfaction that was a factor in the Brexit vote. MPs won’t be thinking much about this as they try to get their heads around options A-P in today’s indicative vote list. But they shouldn’t put the opportunity to reinvigorate parliament to one side. It doesn’t come along that often.