Brexit has given us constitutional constipation – our democratic process needs a clear out

Thanks to the Liberal Democrats and John Bercow, the constitution isn’t doing its job properly

John Penrose
Thursday 19 September 2019 12:01 BST
John Bercow to quit as speaker by October 31

Parliament is a horrible place at the moment. A shambling, slouching, undead thing; a zombie that stinks of decay but won’t die. We need a Van Helsing to drive a stake through its heart, and lay it to rest.

Like all the best horror movies, this monster was created by human failings. The scriptwriters of this particular freak show are the Liberal Democrats, who demanded fixed term parliaments as part of their price for joining the coalition government in 2010, and the departing speaker, John Bercow, who invented new rules to strip control of parliament’s agenda away from the government earlier this year.

In normal times, neither change would prove to be the lightning bolt which brings a monster to life. But in what is effectively a hung parliament, where there’s no majority for very much at all, the results have been hideous.

Why? Because government is becalmed, ministers haven’t got the votes to get important new Brexit preparation laws through parliament without heavy defeats or fatal changes. The result is a huge backlog of half-finished laws which are stuck: unable to move forward, yet too important to be abandoned altogether. We're suffering from constitutional constipation.

At a time when the country is approaching one of the biggest, most important changes we’ve faced in a generation, we need to be nimble, quick and decisive. Instead, we're slow and shambling. The government is on life support, but the opposition won’t turn off the machines either to let this parliament die.

In the past, resolving this situation would have been simple. Either the opposition would have toppled the government with a no confidence, giving them a chance to form a rival government themselves, and holding a general election if they couldn’t. Or the prime minister, Boris Johnson, would have recognised the blindingly obvious fact that parliament is too fractured to provide any government with a stable majority and gone to ask the Queen to reset with an election himself. But that’s not what’s happening now.

Because of the introduction of fixed term parliaments, Jeremy Corbyn only needs a third of MPs to block an early general election, but half to topple the government. The rules are slanted in favour of no change, even though parliament desperately needs something to happen.

And Bercow’s changes make things worse; even though the opposition aren’t strong enough to form an alternative government of their own, letting them grab control of parliament’s agenda creates lots of powerful new ways for them to frustrate change and delay a reset instead.

Because the constitution isn’t doing its job properly, democracy isn’t working. Problems which ought to be solved through the ballot box or in parliament aren’t being addressed at all – or they’re being taken to court, which puts judges in an impossible, politicised position.

We’ve got to kill off the monster we’ve created. Our first step should be to axe fixed term parliaments: we should either repeal the act completely or, if that hands too much power back to prime ministers, make calling an election a normal vote in parliament rather than the two-thirds majority that’s currently needed, so oppositions that can’t form a government aren’t able to block an election too. And we should stop future speakers from making up new rules whenever they feel like it, as Bercow has done. It’s an unaccountable power that is easily misused.

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Constitutional changes are best done slowly, with cross-party support, so both the government and opposition can work out whether new rules would still be fair when they’re on the other side of the fence. So let’s make changes to the way parliament works subject to a two-thirds majority of MPs, whether it’s the rules themselves, or changes to the speaker’s interpretation of them too.

Dr Frankenstein died trying to kill the monster he created. We don’t have to suffer his fate too.

John Penrose is Conservative MP for Weston, Worle & the Villages, and the former constitution minister

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