Endangering constitutional government


This report from the UK think tank Policy Exchange looks at the risks of the House of Commons taking control.

The UK’s political crisis is at risk of becoming a constitutional crisis. The risk does not arise because the constitution has been tried and found wanting. Rather, the risk arises because some MPs, with help from the wayward Speaker, are attempting to take over the role of Government. On Monday 25 March, MPs seized control of the parliamentary agenda, displacing the usual precedence accorded to Government business. This was the latest in a sequence of attempts by some MPs to exercise direct control over the formulation and implementation of policy in relation to negotiations with the EU. Wresting control of the parliamentary agenda may result in further attempts in the House of Commons to dictate how the Government is to act, using motions to hold the Government in contempt of Parliament and enacting legislation to compel certain actions. This attempt to relocate the initiative in policy-making from the Government to an unstable cross-party coalition of MPs runs contrary to the logic of our constitution. It is unlikely to end well or to result in coherent, intelligent policymaking.

Furthermore, it undermines political accountability and electoral democracy. The Commons is not itself able to govern. Governing requires coherence in responding to events and circumstances nationally and internationally. Therefore, for so long as the Commons is unwilling to withdraw its confidence, Her Majesty’s ministers can and should insist on their responsibility to govern. Legislation designed to usurp the Government’s functions should be blocked, in the first instance by relying on the House’s own procedures. If the Speaker were to subvert the normal rules, as events suggest he may well, the Government might legitimately prorogue Parliament, ending a session of Parliament prematurely to prevent a Bill from being passed by both Houses. Or the Government might legitimately treat its defeat as a matter of confidence by itself moving a motion under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act to trigger a general election. The process of Royal Assent has become a formality but if legislation would otherwise be passed by an abuse of constitutional process and principle facilitated by a rogue Speaker, the Government might plausibly decide to advise Her Majesty not to assent to the Bill in question: it would be MPs, not the Government, that had by unprincipled action involved the monarch.

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