Power is not given away; it must always be taken. over decades, uk mps have slowly given ground to the executive. the rigidities of the party system limit revolts, and mps have even lost the final say in determining their party leaders. but a unique set of circumstances means that maybe, just maybe, the house of commons is approaching one of those inflection points which shifts the balance.
Almost entirely by accident, boris [johnson] has reminded us what we were put here to do, says one usually loyal ex-minister. all governments think parliament gets in the way but this lot are maoists. they don't respect any institution.the haughty hand of the uk prime ministers downing street team is forcing even his mps to examine parliaments role in holding the executive to account.
The conditions are almost perfect. the feeling that the sweeping coronavirus powers which parliament voted to give to the government are being used to restrict personal liberties without moderation or scrutiny has emboldened mps to demand more say in their use. in addition, there are a large number of tory mps who are past caring about patronage or punishment, and some talented organisers.
Then there is brexit. having proclaimed the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty, mr johnson finds that his mps are ready to take him at his word. before brexit, ministers could force through orders saying that eu law demanded it. one cabinet minister notes: i dont think it has dawned on some departments yet that they are going to have to win support for their regulations. this is a turning point.
One rebel says even ministers are privately encouraging mps. much of the cabinet has been disempowered by a centralising downing street operation. one significant shift was the move to make ministerial political aides answerable not to their notional boss, but to downing street. the one person a minister could trust is now seen by some as a snitch. sovereignty of parliament looks more like sovereignty of a clique around the prime minister.
One unremarked example of the potential new terrain is treaties. prior parliamentary approval is not needed before a treaty can be signed (though ratification can be delayed afterwards). before brexit, the european parliament scrutinised trade treaties, but mps will not have the same right. in the commons this week, ministers will seek to restore a power, struck out by the lords, to push through orders under other future treaties with only minimal scrutiny. jonathan djanogly, a former tory justice minister, sees a pattern in the unwillingness of ministers to accept modern international standards of parliamentary scrutiny on treaties while keeping more powers for themselves. the uk now has less opportunity to scrutinise negotiations of new treaties than when we were in the eu, which is a strange way to take back control.
The previous parliaments brexit paralysis hardened downing street hearts and bolstered its already visible contempt for mps. planned changes to the scope of judicial reviews show a broader plan to weaken checks on its freedom to act. it all means mps can no longer count on others to curb government excess.
Some realism is needed about this westminster spring. unlike opposition mps, tories do not want to frustrate legislation. we do need the elected government to be able to get its business through says one. but the two sides have common cause on the issue of accountability. the overuse of secondary legislation, which limits scrutiny and amendment, is a key battleground.
Last week, in the face of certain defeat, the government agreed to more scrutiny of coronavirus restrictions and was rebuked by the speaker for treating the house with contempt. that the rebellion was led by graham brady, the chairman of tory backbenchers, was a sign of how badly the government has mismanaged its own mps.
Last month, they forced a similar concession over the threat to break a treaty obligation. the next revolt is over planning reforms which would see new local housing targets set centrally by an algorithm. for ministers, this is the only way to force through projects against the nimby instincts of mps.
The underlying trend to all the disparate rebellions is a government that does not wish to be constrained by mps. it respects only force. but mps are recognising this and responding in kind. these battles will shape not only this government but the powers of the post-brexit parliament. as economic times get harder, mr johnson will need his mps on side and giving ground on process may seem a small price.
A number of ideas are proposed, from forcing ministers to dial down the aggressive use of secondary legislation, to giving select committees powers to summon ministers and their aides. some tories suggest reinvigorating backbench policy groups. others suggest arming parliament with a powerful research and analytical body which goes beyond the remit of the existing office for budget responsibility. this last may be a fond hope, but mps are encouraging each other to think big.
Governments do not lightly give away power and, in the end, mps have to want it. a lot depends on how confident parliament feels, said one rebel. parliament has the numbers, the mood and an opportunity to reset the balance. these moments do not come often.
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