The years of 2017-19 were in many ways novel in Westminster, but in the turbulence, deep problems were exposed which are still with us todayby Joe Marshall / May 25, 2020 / Leave a comment
The coronavirus crisis has put the political turmoil of the “Brexit parliament” into sharp perspective. MPs have—until recently at least—largely set aside their differences and worked collegiately to respond to the pandemic. Yet only a few months ago, parliament was gridlocked over Brexit. Without the combination of majority government and strong party loyalty that usually smooth parliamentary business in Westminster, trust between government and parliament evaporated and the parliamentary rules were stretched to breaking point.
With the return of majority government and Brexit no longer top of the agenda, it would be easy to dismiss the last parliament as exceptional. This would be a mistake. Many of the problems it exposed have not yet been addressed, and have taken on a new urgency in light of the Covid-19 crisis.
Ensuring effective parliamentary remains a concern
The Brexit parliament laid bare long-standing concerns about the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny. Both the May and Johnson governments acted as if they had a majority, often painting parliament as an obstacle to be overcome. Both administrations sought to evade interrogation: the May government failed to hold any opposition day debates for a five-month period at the height of the Brexit gridlock and the Johnson government risked stymying parliamentary debate by unlawfully proroguing parliament in the run up to the October 2019 Brexit deadline.
There are worrying signs that the current government continues to shirk parliamentary scrutiny. In January, the government insisted on pushing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through parliament to the same timeframe MPs had rejected previously for providing insufficient time for debate. The government has now brought the hybrid virtual parliament, implemented in response to the pandemic, to a premature end. This is despite concerns that this could effectively disenfranchise some MPs and the clear benefits of recent constructive scrutiny of the coronavirus response. The government has also been criticised for parachuting in its preferred chair of the influential liaison committee. Holding the government to account clearly remains a challenge—and priority—for parliament.
Parliamentary procedures remain vulnerable
During the Brexit parliament, parliamentary rules became an unlikely staple of political headlines. As almost all of parliament’s formal decision-making mechanisms are binary, they were poorly equipped to promote consensus over Brexit—especially in the absence…