We must strive to restore parliamentary normality – or we risk lasting chaos

Posted On: 
11th April 2019

From collective responsibility to whipping to the role of the Speaker, Parliamentary norms are under intense pressure. An election could offer us a chance to reset, writes Tony Grew

The actions of the Speaker over recent weeks will be the subject of discussion for years to come, Tony Grew writes
Credit: 
PA

This parliament defies description. Unprecedented doesn't quite cover it. Unique does not express the eye-popping events of recent weeks. It is sui generis, in a class by itself. There has never been a parliament like it. The unique circumstance of both parties being irretrievably split on the most important issue for generations has led to potentially fatal impasse.

Added to this is the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act lock – unless the government loses a vote of confidence, or two thirds of all MPS vote for one, there can't be a general election. This specious freedom allows government MPs to vote against the government without collapsing it. As a result, this parliament is the world's joke. From Berlin to Burkina Faso, they are laughing at the Westminster farce. Cartoonists on every continent have produced excellent Brexit creations, in which we are the butt of their joke. It's a shameful scandal. We have fallen in the eyes of our friends and enemies alike and it will take decades to rebuild our reputation, if we manage to do so at all.

For those concerned with the operation of Parliament after Brexit, this is all deeply worrying. Breaking the whip used to be seen as an almost unforgivable act. Put simply, it was a huge deal. Brexit arguments have eroded that. Conservative and Labour MPs regularly defy the whip on Brexit with apparently no sanction. If we are ever to return to any semblance of order and normal practice, that has to end.

The conduct of the Cabinet has also been unacceptable, with a shameful breakdown of discipline. It is not in the country's interest that everything discussed at Cabinet is leaked as soon as they have finished their meetings. The next prime minister must insist on both collective Cabinet responsibility and discipline members who leak their deliberations, as well as properly imposing the whip. They must also establish new conventions on what is a matter of confidence and hold themselves and their MPs to it. He or she might also want to appoint a chief whip who fully understands why he doesn't speak in the Commons, never mind assenting to a starring role in an admittedly fascinating BBC documentary.

Difficult as it is to process, a group of backbench MPs did manage to take control of the order paper and pass a piece of legislation through both Houses and receive Royal Assent. This has potentially far more ramifications for the future practice of the House than a hopefully temporary breakdown in party discipline. It should be pointed out to those MPs who bellow about constitutional outrage that the Commons itself explicitly approved the Cooper/Letwin process at every stage.

The reason the Commons did not have a third round of indicative votes on Monday was that there weren't enough votes for it, and the Speaker stuck by the convention that the chair should not create a majority for something where one does not exist. The fact that the Speaker's decision was subject to speculation is another sign of something that needs to change. Speaker Bercow is widely rumoured to be considering standing down in the summer. Those that seek to succeed him would be wise to set out clearly how closely they intend to follow both the letter and the spirit of the rules, conventions and regulations that govern the Commons.

The actions of the Speaker will be the subject of discussion for years to come. He has found himself in a unique position in this sui generis Parliament, and has acted in an honourable way, to follow will of the House and not to try to please the government. This is an important principle, but normally it doesn't come into play as the government controls the Commons. In normal times, the whips impose iron discipline. We must strive to return to normality. The alternatives are too grim to consider. The sceptre of permanent chaos is upon us if we cannot revert to the status quo.

A general election this year looks increasingly likely. It should be welcomed. A general election is the parliamentary reset button. It allows the people to speak, but not through the blunt tool of a binary referendum on a hellishly complicated issue. Two years after the disastrous, hubristic election of 2017, it feels like it's time to go back to the voters.

The fears of some MPs of an election are both understandable and irrelevant. This farcical, shambolic and shameful parliament is past its sell by date. An election will hopefully produce a parliament with a renewed mandate, away from the simplistic deal/no deal, yes/no, Remain/Leave positions that the voters themselves tell us they are sick of. The Conservatives might split. the TIGgers might be wiped out. No matter. Let's throw the dice and see where we end up.

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Who will it be? In an attempt to spice up endless discussions that begin "What do you think is going to happen next?", MPs are speculating on who might be the next Speaker. Deputies Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Dame Eleanor Laing and Dame Rosie Winterton are the natural front runners. Chris Bryant is running, and many see Harriet Harman and Meg Hillier as potential candidates. There are lots of Labour names, but what about the Tories? One MP suggest Sir Oliver Letwin might be in the running. It is unclear if he could command the support of the government at this stage...

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It was only a short point of order, but Rosie Cooper spoke with such dignity and courage that it is worth repeating. "I was to be murdered to send a message to the state, and to send a message to this place," she told MPs. "Members of this House are regularly abused and attacked. Our freedoms, our way of life, our democracy is under threat, and we must do our utmost to defend it." Her colleagues responded with applause, and rightly so. Rosie's bravery is inspiring, but MPs should not have to be brave in the face of abuse and threats.