Next prime minister must reset relations with Parliament to avoid Boris Johnson’s mistakes
Whichever candidate wins the Conservative leadership election, they should learn from Boris Johnson’s mistakes and prioritise building a more constructive relationship with Parliament.
The new prime minister, Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss, will presumably benefit from a brief bump in loyalty from their backbenchers – eager to reset their relationships with the new administration. But the new prime minister will need to take action to sustain that loyalty if they are to meet the numerous foreseeable challenges coming down the track this autumn. They must continue to deliver the commitments in the 2019 manifesto (as both candidates have committed to do) and build support for the numerous policy initiatives they have announced during the leadership campaign – none of which will benefit from the parliamentary protection of being a manifesto pledge.
Johnson caused himself needless trouble by taking Parliament for granted – letting his 80 seat majority go to his head. Whatever the Privileges Committee ultimately decides about whether he actually lied to the Commons, Johnson’s ministers were certainly guilty of neglecting the legislature – too often failing to turn up to select committees or to respond in a timely or adequate way to their reports. Nor did his government do enough to help MPs reorganise their scrutiny for the post-Brexit era, allowing Commons scrutiny of the UK-EU relationship to evolve by default rather than actively redesigning the system for the new circumstances (unlike the Lords), and resisting efforts by parliamentary committees to undertake constructive scrutiny of new international treaties. Peers in particular have raised concerns about restrictions imposed on scrutiny by the Johnson government’s approach to legislation – including the frequent introduction of skeleton bills and excessive taking and use of regulation-making powers.
The new prime minister should recognise the useful role that Parliament can play in identifying ways to resolve difficult trade-offs
These discourtesies – or in some cases active obstructions of their role – left parliamentarians feeling diminished. And the side-lining of legitimate attempts at scrutiny did nothing to dissuade opponents of specific policies from mobilising to wring policy-shifts or even U-turns from their leaders. Johnson was soon reminded that even an 80 seat majority can disappear rapidly in the face of organised opposition. Meanwhile the inclination of backbenchers to support the government – in parliament and on the media – was undermined further by decisions to depart from precedent by whipping (or threatening to whip) house business – including the abortive attempt to exempt Owen Paterson from the sanction for paid lobbying proposed by the Standards Committee. When the government U-turned having miscalculated the political mood, it needlessly squandered political capital among previously loyal backbenchers.
The new prime minister should recognise the useful role that Parliament can play in identifying ways to resolve difficult trade-offs – which will be numerous in the weeks and months ahead – and testing policies to address them. MPs and peers have much to contribute and want to be taken seriously. Recognising the legitimate role of parliamentarians is more likely to generate constructive engagement than attempting to limit their engagement with government.
Truss or Sunak would be well advised to begin by setting up robust, open channels of communication between No.10, the Cabinet Office and Parliament, so that backbenchers believe their views are being heard. The new prime minister should remind their new ministers of their responsibilities under the ministerial code, including making announcements first to Parliament and engaging with select committees – giving evidence when requested and providing timely and helpful responses to their reports.
They should appoint a Leader of the House who recognises the importance of refraining from political interference in House business – including Privileges Committee inquiries into former prime ministers – but who will engage with Procedure Committee ideas to improve Commons practices and bring forward positive proposals for resetting Commons scrutiny of the UK-EU relationship. And despite the temptation to rush out new bills to signal activity and progress, the new prime minister should ensure that legislation is fully ready before introduction. Resisting the urge to take regulation-making powers when instead greater policy detail could be included on the face of a bill.
The Brexit and Covid years have damaged the relationship between government and Parliament – often to the detriment of prime ministers’ ability to govern. The new prime minister should take the opportunity to reset, and reap the benefits.
Dr Hannah White is the deputy director of the Institute for Government.
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