If you’re not following every twist and turn of Westminster politics, you probably think parliament’s in a mess. But it’s much, much worse than that. As someone who sees it from the inside, I cannot exaggerate just how broken and dysfunctional the place has become.
One good way to illustrate the difference is to look at the usual business of the House of Commons at this time of year. From 2010 (when I arrived) until 2017, the commons went into recess for the party conferences from mid-September until the beginning of October. There never would have been any question of this recess not happening under a majority government with the votes to pass a motion allowing it to take place. That is not the case now.
The Tories are now 43 seats short of a majority, so when they sought a three-day recess for their conference this week, there were more than enough MPs to defeat them. Having sought to unlawfully shut down parliament altogether with their attempt at prorogation, now ruled null and void by the Supreme Court, opposition MPs were in no mood to cede to this request.
Consider that for a minute. The idea of prime ministers Blair, Brown, Cameron or even May not being able to dictate the sitting dates of parliament would have been unthinkable. But this week, the prime minister will give his main speech to the Conservative Party faithful whilst the commons is in session. Under Boris Johnson, the extraordinary has become ordinary.
That said, business is now far from usual even when the commons sits. We used to have three-line-whipped business from Mondays to Thursdays, when substantial pieces of legislation would be debated and voted on; MPs would be strictly required to attend and vote. Private member’s bills would be dealt with on Fridays.
Take the week of 19 October 2015. On the Monday was the second reading of the Psychoactive Substances Bill; on the Tuesday there was an opposition day debate on tax credits; on the Wednesday were both Prime Minister’s Questions and the committee stage of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill; on the Thursday was a motion on English Votes for English Laws, and on the Friday consideration of private member’s bills. This was a fairly typical schedule during normal times.
Fast-forward to September 2019. At present, hardly any legislation is being put forward by the government at all for fear that it may be amended in a way which would stop the government pursuing its Brexit policy – an extreme agenda for which it cannot command a majority, and for which it has no mandate from the electorate.
But in another extraordinary development, that doesn’t mean the executive is in full control. Whereas the government used to exclusively control the Order Paper – that is, the business of the house – a coalition of opposition parties and independents (including those who have left or been ejected from the Tory party) can take over the Order Paper and provide for whatever business we wish when we want.
This is what happened with the Benn Act. Opposition parties and ex-Tories took over the Order Paper, provided time for consideration of the bill and passed into law. That law now requires the prime minister to send a letter to the EU Council requesting an extension of the Article 50 process if we are heading into a “no deal” Brexit on 31 October. It is unheard of for the government not to be in control of the business of the house, or for any law to pass without its consent in this way. This. Is. Not. Normal.
There have been no opposition day debates since Johnson took office, in part because these debates can be used by opposition parties to pass motions forcing ministers to do things they would rather not do. Again, the opposition is usually in a minority, but with the support of others, it can now command a majority against the government.
In November 2018, the official opposition (then as now Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party) used an opposition debate to pass a motion forcing the government to publish secret legal advice around its Brexit plans. Opposition parties did something similar earlier this month when we passed a motion forcing the government to publish documents from its no-deal planning operation, Project Yellowhammer, outlining the disastrous impact a no-deal Brexit would have on the country. It is worth noting that Johnson has yet to win a single vote in the commons; he was defeated three times on 4 September alone.
Prime Minister’s Questions and the specific commons statements the PM gives after EU summits, Nato and G7 gatherings usually see a full chamber and rigorous debate between the two main party leaders. But the exchanges between Johnson and Corbyn have been a terrible advert for our democracy. In contrast with their predecessors, neither is on top of the detail or up to the job, The level of debate is rarely worth watching or listening to, so much so that many MPs simply don’t bother to attend these “battles” between two utterly sub-standard leaders. These jousts have become a circus.
Amidst this storm, it is vital that the commons does all it can to ensure that not just the letter but the spirit of the Benn Act is complied with, safeguarding our country against a catastrophic no-deal Brexit. This is very much the priority for the Liberal Democrats. Yet once an extension to Article 50 has been secured and a no-deal Brexit has been averted in the short term, it’s hard to see how parliament carrying on in this fashion is sustainable.
Something will have to give. But given how volatile our politics is right now you’d be a brave person to put money on any particular outcome. People keep asking all of us what will happen next – and the worrying fact is that no one really knows. That’s how bad it has got. Change cannot come soon enough.
Chuka Umunna is the Liberal Democrat MP for Streatham
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