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8 September 2017

Is Labour right to say Theresa May is rigging the democratic process?

A row is brewing over plans to change the composition of parliament's Committee of Selection.

By Stephen Bush

Is Theresa May rigging the rules of parliament to defy the will of the people? That’s what Labour is arguing after plans to change the composition of parliament’s Committee of Selection were uncovered by HuffPo‘s Paul Waugh and the Independent‘s Rob Merrick.

The language is arcane but the story is incredibly important – the committee decides what the party-political balance on select committees is. As no party has a majority in parliament, no party has a majority on parliament’s select committees either. That makes it much harder for the government to get its way. Now they are trying to change those rules with a vote in the Commons next week. 

It’s not clear whether or not the government has the votes to pass the measure – while it would reduce the DUP’s leverage at key moments, select committees are not a particularly effective lever of influence for them as there are only ten DUP MPs with only so many hours in the day. You can see how it might work for them, and one assumes that even May wouldn’t try to pass it without making sure she had squared Nigel Dodds et al.

But is Labour right to say the PM is rigging the democratic process? Well, it’s true that May has a fairly sinister attitude to scrutiny, be it from the judiciary, the opposition parties, the press, her backbenchers and indeed her own ministers. We knew that from her time at the Home Office, let alone her tenure at Downing Street.  

But on this occasion, May’s got a point. Thanks to its deal with the DUP, the government has a small but manageable majority in parliament – it’s not unreasonable that it should also have a majority on bill committees. In some ways, the vote itself settles the argument: if the government has the votes in the Commons to grant itself a majority on select committees, it’s hard to argue it doesn’t have the right to a majority.

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Conservative MPs could live to regret voting it through, though. Given the continued weakness of sterling, the chance that even a successful exit from the European Union will produce some losers even in the short-term, and that the British economy is, in any case, probably due a downturn at some point before the next election, the chances of Labour making at least a few more gains whenever the next contest comes are fairly high. And of course, the Conservatives don’t need to make very many losses at all for the only viable government to be a Labour minority or coalition agreement.

And at that point, a Labour party with, say, 272 MPs could be incredibly grateful for Theresa May’s wizard wheeze.