Never has there been such profound interest in parliament as during the long, fraught process of the UK’s exit from the EU. During the week of 7 January 2019, BBC Parliament achieved an average daily reach of 293,000, briefly surpassing even the numbers for MTV.
What lessons can we learn, and what might this mean for parliament going forward? The answers, in brief, are possibly quite a lot and not too much.
Parliament plays a unique role in the UK political system. Not only is the country a parliamentary democracy (with government dependent on the confidence of the House of Commons) but parliamentary sovereignty lies at the core of its constitution. Arguably more so than in any other polity, therefore, parliament here is central to the functioning of democracy.
The fact, then, that so much rhetoric during the Brexit process attacked parliament is particularly troubling. After the second rejection of her Brexit deal, Theresa May herself took to our TV screens to tell the British public she was on their side, while heaping the blame for a failure to deliver Brexit on MPs. And at the 2019 general election, Johnson’s Conservative manifesto criticised the “failure of parliament to deliver Brexit”.
Indeed, that election saw both major parties adopt explicitly populist stances – the people versus parliament for the Conservatives, the people versus the establishment for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
So far so dangerous in a system such as ours. Yet misleading too. For it was not parliament per se that was responsible for the Brexit impasse. Perhaps the most telling division was among Brexiters themselves. Twenty-eight “Spartans” voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal three times, alongside the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Had they not done so, her deal would have passed on the third occasion.
Brexit also cast in sharp relief the two contrasting conceptions of UK democracy: a Whitehall vision and a Westminster one. The former places ministers at the centre, while the latter focuses on parliament as the true heart of UK democracy. And the Supreme Court clarified the ambiguity, reinforcing the role of parliament in Miller 1 by circumscribing government’s prerogative power, and emphasising in Miller 2 that the legislature is the senior constitutional partner.
Parliament, of course, attempted to capitalise on this. Having rubber-stamped the triggering of Article 50 it went on to play a central role in the Brexit process. But we should beware the assumption that a precedent has been set.
A unique constellation of factors allowed the Commons, in particular, to “take control”: a minority government; a Speaker willing to favour the House; and the domination of the agenda by an issue that both divided the parties and was viewed as important enough for MPs to risk their careers over.
Absent these conditions, it is hard to believe that the various procedural innovations that parliament came up with during recent years are likely to have a lasting legacy. Moreover, this parliamentary activism spawned a desire of the Johnson government to limit the chance of a repeat. While the first version of the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill contained provisions for a parliamentary vote on the negotiating mandate and the final agreement on the future relationship, while committing government to providing parliament with regular updates, all were stripped out of the second, post-election version of the bill.
This does not necessarily make effective scrutiny of the EU trade negotiations impossible. Select committees could play a crucial role and parliament may need to adapt further legislation to give effect to the provisions of any trade deal. But the nature of parliamentary influence will shift decisively, and government should be more free to do as it pleases.
Whether or not it does this depends on the parties themselves, and particularly on the way MPs behave. Some 180 Tory MPs defied the whip on Brexit votes (the figure for Labour was 128), with 118 doing so on the first meaningful vote.
It is conceivable that we might see a return to conflict on the Tory benches if no trade deal looks likely as the transition period comes to an end (whenever that may be). However, any opportunity this might present the opposition looks limited. The kinds of cross-party collaboration that we saw between 2016 and 2019 seem far less likely in the future: Incentives for inter-party cooperation are weaker than the desire to seek individual partisan advantage.
Although opposition parties might coordinate positions on the trade negotiations with the EU, the priority, not least for new Liberal Democrat and Labour leaders, will be to build their own brands. One implication of this new political context could be a weakening of select committees as a mechanism for holding government to account if their members cannot act in a genuinely cross-party way.
The past few years have taught us a lot about the nature and role of our parliament. But it is not necessarily the case that they provide a useful guide to the future.
Professor Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe. Read the Parliament and Brexit report here.