"It becomes more tempting to challenge your leader if you are in good company"by Meg Russell / May 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Meg Russell will speak at Prospect’s upcoming 2017 election debate on Tuesday, 6th June.
Read more: A strange rebirth of Tory England?
Many assume that a sharp increase in the number of Conservative MPs on 8th June will give the Prime Minister far greater power to govern unimpeded. Indeed, the hope of an enhanced personal mandate is what inspired Theresa May’s snap election. The traditional expectation in Britain is, after all, that a government with a comfortable Commons majority can push through more or less whatever policy it pleases. As she made her surprise statement, May stressed the need to unite Westminster behind her. So will this strategy work? Not necessarily.
The old textbook description of power in British politics was always questionable, and is now positively outdated. With a parliamentary system and no written constitution, we may lack “checks and balances” in the strict American sense; but there are many constraints on a PM, and they are increasing. The governing party is one. A small Commons majority leaves ministers vulnerable to rebellion from a handful of, perhaps extreme, backbench MPs. But a small majority also concentrates the minds of loyalists, making it difficult to step out of line. It was during Tony Blair’s landslide years that rebellion on the Labour side took off. In a pattern familiar from psychology, larger groups will always tend to splinter into smaller subgroups. Within parliament, it becomes more tempting to challenge your leader if you are in good company, and rebellion will not do too much immediate harm.
Despite the Conservatives’ iron discipline in triggering Article 50 (Ken Clarke was the lone rebel), they remain disunited on the implementation of Brexit, and much else. May might become less constrained by a few fringe MPs, a big majority could embolden many more backbenchers to assert themselves. They will return from campaigns—in diverse seats, where views on Europe diverge—and often publicly stated views on the form that Brexit should take. There could also be lively debates on issues like grammar schools. So don’t assume that—even in the Commons—the leader gets all she wants.
The Lords is a different and interesting place, where the Tories have had a tricky time adjusting to relative weakness. During David Cameron’s first term, the Coalition secured him the support of most Lib Dem peers, but in 2015 he became the first Conservative prime minister ever to face serious challenge from centre-left alliances in the Lords. The chamber enraged George Osborne by defying him over tax credit cuts, and even though Theresa May has not yet had a major showdown there, the possibility clearly irks her. In calling the election, she cited resistance from the Lords, and implied that a big Tory win would see it off. But it will not have escaped Prospect readers’ notice that the Lords is not elected—so 8th June will not alter the balance of membership. Combined Labour and Lib Dem forces will still be able to defeat the government.
The PM will hope that if she can win a mandate then, particularly for manifesto policies, their Lordships will back off. Well yes, perhaps, but only up to a point. The Lords rarely challenges the government on big policy principles, but it always feels fairly free to challenge the detail. Remember Tony Blair’s proposed identity cards? They fell apart due to combined pressure from backbench rebels and the Lords—notwithstanding Labour’s manifesto, or its solid Commons majority.
And there’s the rub: the constraints in the British constitution ultimately depend on broader pressures—from public opinion, the media, and interest groups. The governing party, and parliament as a whole, is responsive to such pressures—that’s a central dynamic of our democracy. These kinds of soft constraint are many and varied and are, in the end, more important than legislative vetoes.
But there are also, increasingly, real veto players to reckon with. The Article 50 bill resulted from intervention by the courts. The Scottish Parliament, and other devolved legislatures, are empowered to block aspects of policy. The new city mayors just elected will, like Sadiq Khan in London, have a powerful platform from which, if they choose, they can voice opposition, and garner public resistance.
So, Theresa May unbound? I wouldn’t be so sure…
Where will Theresa May’s surprise ballot leave the government, the opposition and a divided country? Join us for our big election debate on the 6th of June 2017. Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, will be joined by Nick Cohen, Matthew Parris and Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.