Power of the House

Originally posted on www.publicaffairsnetworking.com

Lord Hailsham, the former Lord Chancellor, famously described the British parliamentary system as an “elective dictatorship”, owing to the power of the executive and the weakness of Parliament. However, Theresa May may well beg to differ. As many commentators and consultants have predicted since June 8th, and as indicated from the early exchanges, the 2017 Parliament could see this philosophy reversed.

The week began with the announcement that the DUP and the Conservatives had reached agreement on a ‘confidence and supply’ deal, which will see the DUP support the Conservative Government on the Queen’s Speech, budgets and Brexit bills. This support has come at the cost of an additional £1bn of funding for Northern Ireland over the next two years, on the assumption that a power sharing agreement is reached at Stormont.

This deal has been met with unsurprising anger by the other devolved administrations. Labour’s, Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, described it as a “straight bung to keep a weak prime minister and a faltering government in office”. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister, echoed a similar frustration by saying that through this “shameless deal the Tories have shown that they will stop at nothing to hold on to power”, going further to say that the decision to hand over the money outside of the Barnett formula “undermined (the) basic principles of devolution”.

Despite the agreement being reached, Parliament has already shown how influential it may prove to be over the coming the years. On Wednesday, the Labour Party tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech that “regretted that public sector pay increases were not included”. Whilst the new deal passed its first test, with the Government voting down the amendment by 14 votes, it laid bare the confusion that surrounds the future of the austerity agenda and the Government’s messaging.

Michael Fallon, Defence Minister and usual loyal soldier, hinted that the 1% pay cap would be reviewed by the Government. This was followed by a lunchtime briefing from Number 10 that they “have heard the message of the election”, adding further fuel to the rumours that the pay cap was for the chop. However, by tea time it was announced that “nothing had changed”, echoing those fateful words from Theresa May’s social care U-turn. By the close of parliamentary activity, the Labour motion had been voted down, accompanied by some ill-advised cheering from the Conservative backbenchers.

Looking forward, it is likely that any change will be made at the autumn budget through a formal finance bill. What is certain is that Labour and the unions will continue to push on this issue. With a united opposition and Tory backbenchers beginning to be swayed, including Johnny Mercer, MP for Plymouth Moor View, who took the unusual step of recording his justification for voting against the motion, the days of the public sector pay cap look numbered.

On Thursday, Parliament flexed its muscles once again, forcing the Government into a climb-down on abortion for Northern Irish women in England. Currently, abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances in Northern Ireland, and Northern Irish women who seek an abortion on the NHS in England will be charged £900. Seizing the opportunity that current political circumstances afforded, Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, had tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech to abolish these charges.

With a once again united opposition backing the amendment (excepting the DUP), and rumours that up to 40 Conservative MPs would vote in favour of it, the Government was forced to accept the proposal, allowing Creasy to withdraw the amendment and avoid an embarrassing defeat for the Government. The policy change was confirmed by Philip Hammond at the Despatch Box as he opened the final day of debate on the Queen’s Speech. This further highlights the power of backbench MPs working together.

In a further blow to parliamentary discipline Labour suffered a rebellion from 50 MPs, including three shadow ministers, on an amendment to commit the UK to remaining in the Single Market. The amendment tabled by Chuka Ummuna, MP for Streatham, laid bare that it is not just the Conservatives who will suffer from divisions over Brexit.

In the end the Queen’s Speech passed un-amended with a majority of 14 but if the first full week of the 2017 Parliament is anything to go by, the Government is in for a bumpy ride as it seeks to withdraw the UK from the EU while simultaneously attempting to drive some sort of domestic policy agenda. With the power currently residing on the backbenches, it is fitting that Monday’s agreement between the Conservatives and the DUP was signed by the two Chief Whips, Gavin Williamson, MP for South Staffordshire, and Peter Weir, MP for North Down; two names we have not heard the last of.

Get in touch with ed@gkstrategy.com for a chat about the current political climate.

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