Analysis: How did we get here?

Posted On: 
5th November 2019

As Parliament dissolves, and the country prepares for a third general election in four years, Georgina Bailey looks back at the moments that have defined the 2017 - 2019 Parliament

Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses the Commons from the Despatch Box in the first Saturday sitting since 1982
Credit: 
UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

With a hung Parliament and looming Article 50 deadline, there were always going to be occasions of high drama this Parliament. Aside from the prolonged periods resembling a legislative Sahara, we also saw record defeats, defections, plots, posturing, and eye-wateringly close votes. But what were the moments that led us to the latest “once-in-a-generation” election?

Chucked because of Chequers?

With everything that has happened since, you may be forgiven for forgetting that the furore over the Chequers Agreement was less than 16 months ago. If the 2017 general election was the beginning of the end for May, the reaction to her government’s key Brexit white paper was the point of no return.

As well as being rejected by the EU, it was also resolutely disowned by two of her Cabinet’s big beasts, with David Davis and Boris Johnson both resigning in the days immediately following its finalisation. Five junior ministers quit government in opposition to the agreement, including self-proclaimed ‘Brexit hardman’ Steve Baker who would then go on to lead opposition to the prime minister’s deal in Parliament.

“The Government now has a song to sing. The trouble is that I have practised the words over the weekend and find that they stick in the throat”

Boris Johnson, 9 July 2018

With concerted social media support, a ‘chuck Chequers’ campaign dominated the autumn, helping Johnson bolster his Brexiteer credentials before his successful bid to become prime minster the following summer.

Contemptuous times

Labour’s two uses of the arcane ‘humble address’ procedure last session to force the Government to publish Brexit documents raised a few eyebrows, as well as constitutional questions. However, it was after the Government’s response to the second request in late 2018 that history was made. The published document, which was meant to contain the full Brexit legal advice, was deemed incomplete, and on 4 December the Government was found in contempt of Parliament for the first time ever.

Although there was little in the way of formal punishment, the size of the majority (311 – 293) and the fact that nine of the Government’s DUP allies voted in favour of the contempt motion set the scene for a turbulent five days of debate on the Withdrawal Agreement. It also likely contributed to the Government’s decision to postpone the first WAB vote they had planned on the 11 December. Theresa May’s standing and any sense that she had control over the Brexit process was damaged – perhaps irreparably, with her own personal confidence vote following soon after.

The winter of Tory discontent

On the morning of Tuesday 11 December Sir Graham Brady bumped into a Tory colleague in a corridor in Parliament. “I’m really sorry Graham, I didn’t want to do this,” he told the 1922 chair, “but I just can’t leave it any longer.” As he slid a Commons envelope into Brady’s jacket pocket, he unknowingly and unseen had pulled the trigger.

After months of swirling rumours about the number of letters of no-confidence sent to Brady, the threshold of 48 had been reached and the prime minister faced a secret ballot of her own MPs that afternoon. Although she survived 200 – 117, the scale of discontent – especially as she had already committed to not leading the party into the next general election – weakened May further. As well as making her more reliant on the support of her increasingly unruly Cabinet, the result also damaged her position in the eyes of her EU counterparts. If over a third of her own MPs had no confidence in her leadership, what were her chances of getting the Withdrawal Agreement, or anything that looked like it through Parliament? (Spoiler: Slim to none. 118 Conservatives voted against her deal in the first WAB vote).

Taking back control

One commentator described September 2019 as the era of ‘Government by Opposition’, with the Benn-Burt Bill and parliamentary hijinks dominating headlines. However, the scene for Parliament taking back control was actually set 10 months earlier, when, in December 2018, Dominic Grieve’s amendment to a Business of the House motion made all future Government ‘Brexit next steps’ motions amendable.

A daisy-chain of amendments followed, resulting in Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin successfully tabling the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill in April 2019. This was the fourth time a bill of this nature had been presented by the same group of cross-party MPs, but the first time they had managed to take over the order paper to ensure it was formally debated in the Commons. Passing with only one vote, in the end the extension granted by Brussels ended up being longer than the one requested, setting the new date of the 31 October.

More importantly than the date itself however, the process for anti-no deal MPs forcing the Government’s hand to delay Brexit had now been established – and could be used again.

Controversy from the Chair

“In my understanding the motion is amendable - I am clear in my mind about that”

Speaker Bercow, 9 January 2019

Never one to shy from the spotlight, John Bercow’s decision-making drew plenty of attention to the role of the Speaker this Parliament. In particular, the decision to allow Dominic Grieve’s amendment to a ‘forthwith’ motion in January 2019 – contravening decades of parliamentary convention and allegedly against the advice of the Clerk of the House – brought issues of constitutionality and impartiality to the fore, as well as seriously reducing the Government’s room to manoeuvre.

Arguably Bercow’s rulings from the Speaker’s Chair took control over the Brexit processes away from the Government and handed it to Parliament. As a result, his legacy has shifted over this Parliament from being the Speaker who championed the backbenches, to one who called the very form of our constitution into question.

Indicators on

The two rounds of Brexit indicative votes last Spring demonstrated at least one thing: this Parliament could not agree on the best way to proceed with Brexit.

Accusations of inflexibility abounded, with a proposal to remain in a customs union scraping heartbreakingly/perilously (delete adverb as appropriate) close to a majority but failing to secure the backing of some die-hard Remainers.

In memorable scenes immediately following the second votes, Nick Boles resigned the Conservative whip mid-speech in frustration at his party’s lack of compromise – illustrating the trend of defection and Brexit gridlock which defined this Parliament.

Defection, defection, defection

Rumours of defections had been fluttering for months when seven Labour MPs announced they were resigning the whip and setting up The Independent Group in February 2019, due to concerns over the Labour leadership’s approach to antisemitism and Brexit position.

The reality of a heavily pregnant Luciana Berger being hounded out of her party by antisemitism sent ripples of shock and sadness around Westminster. The defectors were soon joined by colleague Joan Ryan and three high-profile Conservatives MPs, Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen, and Anna Soubry. Ian Austin also resigned the Labour whip although not to sit with TIG. Although TIG’s momentum stalled and the grouping itself began to crumble around the European elections, the mood music for rebellion and resignation was clear.

Net, the Conservatives have lost 17 MPs this Parliament via either defection, resignation, or having the whip withdrawn due to rebellion, and Labour have lost 12. TIG themselves lost six, and the Lib Dems lost one for 11 months, gaining eight others.

Voting mistakes

The Tory whips claimed it was an “honest mistake”, however when Brandon Lewis broke his pairing arrangement with new mum Jo Swinson on the Trade Bill in July 2018, the ripples were larger than anticipated. As well as advancing the argument for proxy voting for new parents, the disregard for a long-standing parliamentary convention exacerbated the breakdown of trust in the “Usual Channels” between parties. A proxy voting pilot was introduced six months later, leading to what was potentially another definitive error.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill was newsworthy for several reasons, notably amendments on abortion and same-sex marriage rights. However, when Tory whip Jo Churchill cast a proxy vote on Chloe Smith’s behalf against Dominic Grieve’s amendment but then forgot to cast her own, she may have accidentally scuppered the future prime minister’s best laid prorogation plans. Grieve’s amendment, which passed by only one vote, forced the Government to report on progress in Northern Ireland in person on certain dates in the Autumn. This meant that Parliament had to sit at least over 9 September, creating space for more anti-no deal manoeuvres – and plenty more headaches for the new prime minister.

Going prorogue

The Government’s decision to prorogue Parliament between 10 September and 14 October did more than spark a love of brooches among Remainers and a thousand tweets about “classic Dom”.

Whatever No 10’s plan was, the announcement of prorogation at the end of August crystallised anti-no deal intent and forced earlier and more decisive action than some MPs had intended. ‘Rebel Alliance’ MPs voted to take control of the order paper again on the first Parliamentary sitting day after the announcement, and the resulting passage of the Benn-Burt Bill ended up forcing the Government to seek another Article 50 extension beyond 31 October.

Within a fortnight of MPs being sent home, the prorogation itself was ruled unlawful in memorable scenes live streamed from the Supreme Court. Happily for some on the left, the unanimous ruling was delivered on the penultimate morning of the Labour Party Conference, shifting focus from Brighton back to Westminster just as it looked like Labour’s growing internal divisions were going to spectacularly boil over in the main conference hall.

“This was not a normal prorogation. It prevented Parliament from carrying out its constitutional role”

Lady Hale, 24 September 2019

So, what did the unlawful prorogation achieve in the end? 23 Conservative MPs either lost the whip or resigned in protest, leaving the Government’s working majority at a dismal minus 44 and setting the scene for 11 further defeats for the Government across the next eight weeks. The opposition attack lines for the upcoming election wrote themselves, with accusations of “lying to the Queen” abounding.

Perhaps most importantly though, the unfolding of the Benn-Burt Act’s provisions meant Johnson ended up breaking his “dead in a ditch” pledge to leave the EU by 31 October. Whether this scuppers Johnson’s attempts to nullify the Brexit Party in December or boosts the Liberal Democrats while “revoke” is still an option, our continuing membership of the EU could prove definitive in the Parliamentary arithmetic that greets us on 13 December.

The Withdrawal method

The successive defeats of the Withdrawal Agreement at the start of 2019 began with a record parliamentary loss and resulted in the end of Theresa May’s premiership. Despite much anguish on the Tory benches and May’s promise not to lead the next phase of negotiations, there were still 34 Conservatives and all 10 DUP MPs in the ‘no’ lobby on the third Meaningful Vote on 29 March, along with the majority of the opposition. Some moderate Conservative MPs felt that they had been let down by Labour; indeed, several Labour MPs since expressed regret at their vote, even proposing to bring the deal back a fourth time after May had left office.

While May’s successor did successfully manage to negotiate a new Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, Johnson’s deal faced its own Parliamentary problems. While bringing ERG rebels onside, the new proposals regarding Northern Ireland sacrificed any chance of DUP support. Unsurprisingly, the Labour leadership described Johnson’s new deal as “even worse than Theresa May’s”.

Parliament’s first Saturday sitting since 1982 on 19 October kicked off a ‘stop-start’ approach to the new Withdrawal Agreement’s faltering journey in the Commons. As protestors descended on Parliament Square, the Government hoped passing a motion in support of their new deal would be enough to satisfy the Benn-Burt Act and make negotiating a Brexit extension unnecessary.

Enter Sir Oliver Letwin. His amendment tightening up the provisions of the Benn-Burt Act passed 322 – 306, and MV4 became a lot less meaningful with no original government text in the motion. Although Johnson said he would “not negotiate a delay with the EU”, he was then forced to ask for another extension to Article 50. Signatures (or lack of) and numbers of letters sent ultimately proved irrelevant to EU decision making.

Two days later, the planned MV5 on the same Government motion was ruled disorderly by Speaker Bercow. The Government introduced their Withdrawal Agreement Bill on 22 October with a programme motion of just 3 days to ensure that the magic 31 October Brexit deadline was met.

Although the second reading passed with a majority of 30, MPs felt 72 hours was not enough time to scrutinise a 115-page Bill and voted down the programme motion. Johnson then ‘paused’ the WAB’s progress, ready to make one more attempt for an early general election under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, feeling there was no other way forward to unlock the stalled Withdrawal plans.

“This House will not be bounced into supporting what is a very bad deal without a proper chance to scrutinise it”

Keir Starmer, 19 October 2019

The prime minister may or may not find it amusingly ironic that while all three of his motions for an early general election under the FTPA fell short of a majority, let alone the required two-thirds, the eventual one-line bill for an election on 12 December ended up passing 438 – 20. As Parliament dissolves on 6 November, it remains to be seen whether the poll will succeed in breaking the Brexit deadlock that has stalked Parliament for 29 months and led us this point in the first place.