An Insight paper published recently by the House of Commons Library states: 'On 7 May 2019 the current parliamentary session reached a striking landmark. It became the longest session by sitting days since the English Civil War (1642-51). It was already unusual, having lasted over three different calendar years, beginning on 13 June 2017. As of Friday (10 May 2019) it has run for 298 sitting days, and 2,657 hours and 56 minutes.'
It is unlikely that this session will surpass the famous Long Parliament which sat for 3,322 days during the English Civil War. It arranged for the trial and execution of Charles the First and only ended when Cromwell’s de facto military government forcibly removed MPs. The current session is the longest one since the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707.
It is, of course, the consequence of the long drawn-out nature of the Brexit negotiations and the inability of the House of Commons to, so far, come to any definitive conclusion on the way ahead. Until now, there has been no majority for any option – a no deal Brexit; the deal negotiated with the European Union; or any other form of ‘soft’ Brexit, or a second referendum.
Everyone’s third choice
That is unlikely to change in the next few weeks, even though the Government intends to bring forward a withdrawal bill and, if this fails to make progress, a series of ‘definitive’ votes. These would be a new form of ‘indicative’ vote, possibly involving some form of preference voting. The risk is that everyone’s third choice could end up as the chosen option, although this could also happen in a referendum with preferential voting. This has been discussed theoretically in terms of the Condorcet Paradox in social choice theory which is relevant to decision-making on Brexit.
No clear way forward
Voters have been critical of the failure of MPs to reach any agreement, but the divisions among MPs reflect the divisions in the country. There is no clear majority for any way forward.
One consequence of this has been that minimal business has been discharged by the House of Commons, although there are many pressing issues facing the country such as housing shortages, resource challenges in schools and knife crime. On Monday 13 May, the House of Commons adjourned at 5.36 pm after only three hours’ business, and four hours earlier than normal. The day was mostly devoted to questions and statements by ministers.
Bringing the session to an end
If this House of Commons session was brought to end it would be necessary to have a new state opening of Parliament and Queen’s speech. This can be arranged in the Queen’s diary. It also provides an opportunity for the symbols of state to be paraded.
In practical political terms though, the Government would have to negotiate a new confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party to remain in office. There have been tensions and strains in this arrangement – not just over Brexit – and a new agreement would not be a straightforward matter. The Democratic Unionists would certainly demand new concessions to benefit Northern Ireland.
Fixed Term Parliaments Act
The origins of the present problems stem from the hung Parliament produced by the 2017 election when Theresa May hoped, but failed, to win a stronger majority to pass a Brexit deal. The difficulties have been compounded by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, introduced as part of the Coalition Government in 2010 to reassure the Liberal Democrats that there would be a full Parliamentary term.
In essence the Act makes it more difficult to successfully pass a vote of no confidence in the sitting Government. In the past a Government that suffered a succession of defeats on its central policy issue would not have remained in office.
One way out of the current dilemma would be to hold a general election and that could well happen following the election of a new Conservative leader who needed a new mandate to sustain his or her policies on Brexit. That would end the current session of Parliament. However, given the fragmentation of the party system following Brexit, another hung Parliament could well be the result. The parties would then need to find a more effective way to work together.
16 May 2019
Professor Wyn Grant is an expert in British politics with an interest in comparative public policy with particular reference to the European Union and the United States. The main policy areas he is interested in are economic policy, trade policy, government-business relations, agricultural policy and environmental policy. He also has a long standing interest in the study of pressure groups. He is also interested in the political economy of football.
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