The Brexit process is highlighting the value of parliamentary time – parliament’s most precious commodity – and the importance of who gets to control it. As we approach the Brexit endgame, parliamentarians are trying to find ways to control parliament’s time in order to engineer the outcome they want.
Control over Commons time is the single most important parliamentary mechanism any government has, enabling it to determine what gets discussed and pass the legislation it wants.
It’s not actually difficult for opposition and backbench MPs to propose new legislation – they can present (and publish) a private member’s bill on most sitting days. And there are various mechanisms for them to propose topics for debate.
But except on specific days, what they lack – without government support – is the ability to actually get these things discussed.
That is why MPs who disagree with the government’s deal with the EU have been intensely focused on seizing control of time in the Commons.
Some – like Dominic Grieve – want to ensure there is time for debate and votes on alternatives to the Prime Minister’s plan. Others – like Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles – want the time to pass legislation that would bind the government into extending Article 50 and buy more time for negotiations.
Brexiteers have floated the idea of “proroguing” parliament (discontinuing the session without dissolving it) to prevent it using its time to do anything that might derail the UK’s planned exit on 29 March.
Meanwhile Theresa May seems to be hoping that, as the parliamentary time available to agree her deal and pass the legislation needed to implement it steadily evaporates, it will start to appear more palatable to the 230 MPs who oppose it – or the EU27 will feel inclined to amend it in ways that might win their support.
The parliamentary time available before exit day is now extremely limited. If May’s deal passes, she will still need to get her highly contentious Withdrawal Agreement Bill into law.
But if the Prime Minister’s bill does not pass, leaving the UK on course for a no-deal exit, the government has said parliament needs to pass six pieces of primary legislation and around 600 pieces of secondary legislation before 29 March. At the moment though, these bills are not making much progress, because the government is worried about them being amended in unwelcome ways.
If it wants to – in an emergency – parliament can pass laws in 24 hours. In the “wash up” before an election, entire legislative programmes are concluded, modified or abandoned in a matter of days. But this process – characterised by inadequate scrutiny, horse-trading, and the loss of controversial but important provisions that simply cannot be agreed in the time available – would be no way to set the UK up for life outside the EU.
On Tuesday, when MPs are presented with an array of amendments to May’s plan, we will see whether the Commons wants to temporarily delegate control of its agenda – giving backbenchers a chance to identify the consensus on Brexit that has so far escaped her.
But regardless of the outcome, the government needs now to press on with getting necessary legislation in place by 29 March and accept that MPs may table amendments.
Given the increasing scarcity of parliamentary time available to scrutinise these laws, serious consideration must now be given to increasing its supply. February recess certainly looks like an unaffordable luxury, and weekend sittings – though unusual – should also be on the agenda.
Asking Conservative MPs to cancel their skiing trips will not be popular, and the government will worry that its opponents will more readily remain in Westminster. But if the government maintains that a no-deal exit is a real possibility, its responsibility is to do everything it can to ensure the country is ready for that outcome.
Dr Hannah White is deputy director of the Institute for Government.