This week has seen a new low reached for parliamentary democracy in the UK.
Let me explain.
It’s a long convention that the party that has the confidence of the House of Commons can form a government. Usually it’s simple: a party wins a majority (currently 326 or more seats) at a General Election, and they are called on by the Monarch to form a government.
On rare occasions, no party wins a majority at an election, or they lose their majority mid-term.
Since 1945 there have been a handful of minority governments: Harold Wilson’s in February 1974 until he secured a slim majority in the second, October election; Jim Callaghan’s in the late 1970s after the Labour majority was lost through death and by-elections; John Major’s government before 1997 when, again, his small majority was lost through deaths and by-election losses; the result of the 2010 General Election, which was only resolved by a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats to give David Cameron’s Conservatives a parliamentary majority; and now in 2017 when Theresa May’s government is operating as a minority administration.
Now so-far our constitutional norms have been followed to the T. Theresa May, as the incumbent Prime Minister, was given the first chance to form an administration after the 2017 election disaster for her. That’s the correct protocol. Heath was given first dibs at forming a government in February 1974, and Brown stayed on in 2010 until it was clear the Conservative-LibDem Coalition was a serious proposition.
The difference with this minority government and all others it its atrocious attitude towards Parliament and the rules we all play by, and this week has been a real eye-opener.
On Monday we saw the most audacious power grab of any government of modern times. Hidden away in the (incorrectly named) EU Withdrawal Bill are powers that would make even a hardened dictator slightly embarrassed.
Unless the Bill is amended at Committee Stage, the powers granted to Ministers after we leave the EU will allow them to change primary legislation without a full vote of Parliament on a whole range of laws. Even in states of emergency, Parliament has never granted such sweeping powers to Ministers without the full accountability of Parliament. So much for “taking back control”…. it’s almost the resurrection of the Divine Right of Kings, but handed to Ministers.
If that’s not bad enough, on Tuesday, Parliament effectively overturned the General Election result. Never before has a minority government – without a Commons majority – had a majority on powerful Commons committees. During the 1974 minority Labour Government parties had equal government/opposition membership on committees. Likewise, when both Callaghan and Major lost their Commons majorities, they were stripped of their majorities on committees too. That’s democracy.
We should be outraged that government (with the help of the DUP, who despite their £1bn bung remain an Opposition party, and as such receive a share of state funding to help Opposition parties to function in Parliament against a government that has the full civil service at its disposal) voted to change the rules, and give themselves a majority that the public had taken off them at the General Election only three months ago!
Then on Wednesday we had the appalling spectacle of the government refusing to vote on two Opposition Day debates. Why is this important? It’s important because all governments give parliamentary slots to the Opposition of the day (whichever party it is) to put propositions to the House of Commons as a substantive vote. It in theory allows an Opposition the opportunity to hold a government to account and possibly change the law.
On Wednesday there were two motions presented to the Commons: one on ending the pay cap in the NHS, and one on scrapping University tuition fees in England. The DUP, despite propping-up the Tories on other things, indicated they’d vote in support of both these Labour motions, meaning there would have been a Parliamentary majority for them and the government would be defeated. By not voting, the Tories think they can ignore the will of the House of Commons and your elected MPs. Worse, they’ve said they won’t vote on ANY Opposition motions for the remainder of the Parliament. How arrogant. They’ve rendered Parliament to an irrelevance. We should be angry. It’s not British democracy as we know it. It’s not Cricket!