The Constitution Unit


NEW PAPER: Parliament got blamed for party splits over Brexit, leaving scars on British politics

12 June 2020

Parliament got blamed for party splits over Brexit, leaving scars on British politics, concludes Unit Director and UK in a Changing Europe Senior Fellow, Professor Meg Russell in new article, 'Parliament and Brexit: The Anatomy of a Perfect Storm' for Parliamentary Affairs.

Parliament and Brexit

In a new paper, published in Parliamentary Affairs, Unit Director Professor Meg Russell explores what caused the parliamentary ‘perfect storm’ over Brexit during 2017–19, which brought parliament’s role hugely into the public eye, and often into question. She suggests that four political and constitutional factors helped trigger these controversies. The paper concludes that ultimately parliament got unfairly blamed for divisions inside the governing Conservative Party. These arguments are also summarised in a post by Professor Russell on the Constitution Unit blog.

The analysis examines what went wrong over Brexit and sets out the important lessons learned. The findings are timely given parliament is back in the spotlight due to new divisions over whether the 'hybrid' House of Commons has been ended too soon. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, when difficult decision making is crucial, the paper highlights the urgent need to rebuild parliament’s reputation. 

Commenting on publication of the paper, Professor Meg Russell said: “Although arguments about Brexit may now feel far behind us, they have left significant scars on our politics.  

“Brexit pushed Britain’s politics and constitution to their limits, and fuelled an increasingly adversarial and ill-tempered environment inside and outside parliament. But parliament is central to UK democracy – so distrust in parliament weakens democracy itself.

“Parliament provides an essential link between citizens and government, representing constituents’ interests and holding ministers to account. This is more important than ever during the Covid-19 crisis, when ministers are operating with extraordinary emergency powers. Parliamentarians now need to provide oversight of many difficult decisions, affecting the nation’s economy, health, society and culture.”

The analysis in the paper finds that four key factors contributed to increased tensions in parliament over Brexit:

The referendum: Referendums have become more common in UK politics, but can sit awkwardly with traditional parliamentary sovereignty. The 2016 EU referendum was particularly unusual because: 1) for Cameron’s 2015 government, the goal was not to seek approval to bring about change, but to shut down opponents' demands, and 2) the referendum was held on a broad proposition to leave the EU, rather than a clear and detailed prospectus.

Minority government:  The tensions created by the unexpected referendum result were significantly exacerbated by the arrival of minority government in 2017 under Theresa May. 

This situation would have presented a challenge to any Prime Minister. But May’s political style was fundamentally unsuited to minority government. Prior research by the Unit and the Institute for Government found that successful minority government – which is quite common internationally – requires consensual style, respect for parliament and willingness to work cross-party. May instead was rigid, politically tribal, and constrained by Brexit ‘red lines’ which she had set out prior to the 2017 election. 

Divided parties: Governments normally build parliamentary majorities through agreements between stable party blocs but neither the Conservative nor the Labour party blocs were stable. 

The Conservatives’ splits over Europe were particularly long lasting and deep. In the first parliamentary vote on May’s Brexit deal, 118 Conservative MPs defied the whip, as did 75 in the second such vote.

May’s primary adversaries were the European Research Group (ERG) in her own party. But rather than publicly blaming this group, May pointed blame at an undifferentiated ‘parliament’.

Divisions inside Labour also complicated matters. Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was more sympathetic to Brexit than most of his MPs, whose support he could not promise to deliver.  

The failure of parliamentary rules: As Theresa May struggled to get her Brexit deal through parliament, questions arose over whether an alternative parliamentary majority could be found, brokered by other parliamentarians. 

The House of Commons rules made this difficult, as in comparative terms the government has powerful agenda control. Some MPs tried to seize the agenda and facilitate indicative votes. But without the classic organisation of whips and leaders, and with little incentive for MPs to compromise, these proved indecisive.

The descent into populism

These four factors fuelled an adversarial environment inside and outside parliament, characterised by “increasingly overt populist rhetoric”, such as:

  • May’s widely criticised Downing Street statement following the defeat of her deal, when she sought to position herself with the public against MPs, arguing that ‘I am on your side’. 
  • Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s claim that parliament had ‘no moral right to sit’, after Boris Johnson’s request to the Queen for a lengthy prorogation was overturned in the Supreme Court.
  • Johnson’s own General Election rhetoric, where he suggested that ‘our MPs are just refusing time and again to deliver Brexit and honour the mandate of the people’. Notably he himself had voted against Theresa May’s deal.  

Professor Russell concluded: “The fuelling of this populist and anti-parliament mood, including by our political leaders, urgently needs to be reversed.”

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