Brexit has proven to be the toughest foreign policy puzzle facing the UK today. It has divided the nation and, crucially, divided Parliament. Traditionally, Parliament plays a rather limited role in British foreign policy decision-making. On this occasion though, it has been central, and the last few weeks have seen a dramatic number of events take place inside the Commons chamber.
This whirlwind series of events have had an important impact on both the Brexit process and British constitutional arrangements.
To help unpack some of this, this article outlines just some of what happened in Parliament over last few weeks and analyses why, regarding British constitutional arrangements, it matters.
Taking back control
Starting on 3 September, MPs took the unorthodox approach of using an emergency debate to take control of the next day’s sitting. This then allowed MPs to pass a private member’s bill legally requiring Prime Minister Johnson to seek an extension to the Article 50 process, should a deal not be agreed by 19 October. This approach is unorthodox because, traditionally, government business has priority over backbench business, making it incredibly difficult for MPs to pass legislation of this kind without government support.
The trick of taking control of business has been done before: on 25 March MPs took control by amending a government motion. However, this time, MPs have taken control of business through an emergency debate, a controversial move that was only made possible by the Speaker’s interpretation of the rules. This use of an emergency debate as a means of taking control of business has major political significance.
Private members’ bills are notoriously tricky to pass, especially if the government is against them. Now, however, MPs have a potential mechanism to help facilitate the passage of private members’ bills, should there be a majority in the Commons for it. No doubt this use of an emergency debate is something MPs will want to exploit again in the future. The scope for them to actually do this will be dependent upon the person that is sitting in the Speaker’s chair, an important point considering Bercow’s intention to resign.
However, a precedent has now been set and this is something both backbench MPs and Speakers will be conscious of in the future.
Similarly, on 9 September backbench MPs used an emergency debate to pass a humble address asking the government to publish documents on their preparations for a no deal Brexit.
Using a humble address in this way is generally considered binding and the government have since released the documents, albeit in a redacted form. This use of the humble address to force a reluctant government to release papers is not new to the last few weeks. However, being able to table one using an emergency debate is. In the past, it was believed that the only way to vote on a humble address of this kind would be through an opposition day.
This use of an emergency debate to secure a humble address is one MPs will likely want to capitalise on in the future. As before, while the judgment of future Speakers will be key here, the precedent for such actions has now been set.
Much of the above has only been made possible thanks to the current Speaker, John Bercow. It is Bercow’s controversial interpretation of the rules that has allowed Parliament to play such a pivotal role in the Brexit process. Bercow has very much internalised his role as the facilitator of the House of Commons, and he has therefore unsurprisingly interpreted the rules in a way that enhances the role of Parliament.
However, in making these decisions, Bercow has faced accusations of politicising the role of the Speaker, a position usually idealised as being impartial. This argument that Bercow has now politicised the role of Speaker could have important long-term implications.
The potential power and influence that a Speaker can have has been demonstrated for all to see, and it is quite possible that future governments will want to put more effort into coercing MPs to vote for a more favourable Speaker. This could become particularly open to abuse should we return to the days of governments with large majorities. In the long term, then, it is possible that Bercow’s politicisation of the role of Speaker may inadvertently increase the powers of the executive, rather than restrict them.
Lastly, there is the prorogation. The government’s decision to prorogue Parliament for over a month has been incredibly controversial and, once again, is very much related to Brexit.
The government has claimed that the prorogation is normal because Parliament would usually be in recess over this time period; however, this claim is misleading. Prorogation is much more severe than a recess and is not voted on by MPs. Furthermore, this prorogation has been criticised for its unnecessary length.
By choosing to prorogue Parliament the government have limited the opportunities for MPs to interfere in the Brexit process. In essence, they have used this executive power as a means of making political gain. Unsurprisingly then, the decision to prorogue has been hugely contested, with many arguing it represents an abuse of power by the executive.
To add to this, a Scottish court has recently ruled the prorogation unlawful. Exactly what impact this judgement will have is unclear, however, the case is due to go to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, so hopefully some much-needed clarity will be added then.
From a long-term perspective, this prorogation is yet another example of Brexit impacting British constitutional arrangements. This particularly political use of prorogation has brought attention to the excesses of executive power and the potential for powers under the royal prerogative to be abused.
People have now witnessed the use of prorogation as a political tool, leading to calls for the power to be stripped away from the executive and handed over to Parliament. The once uncontroversial power of prorogation has now been politicised.
To summarise, the last few weeks have been something of a milestone not just for Brexit, but also for Parliament. What happens next regarding Brexit is unclear, however, one can safely predict that the Commons will play a crucial role.
Brexit has opened the way for Parliament to make significant challenges to the executive’s decisions, and has also seen the executive take once inconceivable action in order to curb the influence of the legislature.
Naturally, how much of a long-term impact Brexit will have on how Parliament works is one for the fortune tellers, however, precedents have been set over the last few weeks and the importance of this should not be understated.
Thomas Eason is a Doctoral Researcher in International Relations at the University of Nottingham.
This article was originally published by UK in a Changing Europe