With parliament in recess and MPs heading off on their summer break, it’s worth taking stock of a remarkable few months in Westminster, says the IoD’s Jamie Kerr
Understandably many people will still be reeling from the surprise outcome of the election. Don’t celebrate/commiserate for too long, though. Blink and you may be missing a radically altered parliament that has straightaway set to work on addressing some of the most significant constitutional questions that the UK has faced for generations.
Election outcomes are hardly ever even handed, and they certainly never are by design. On the same night that the SNP saw their numbers jump from six MPs to 56, the Liberal Democrats were reduced to the lowest levels of representation that the party – in this guise – has ever seen. Individuals, who on 6 May held some of the most powerful positions in the country, suddenly found themselves entering the thankfully buoyant jobs market on 8 May. Meanwhile, the Labour party, which according to pollsters had been on the brink of government on election night, was plunged unexpectedly into a period of truth and reconciliation by the next morning.
Determined not to be cowed by defeat though, Ed Miliband made a swift return to the House of Commons, using his first speech in nine years as a rank and file MP to shout loud about the need to tackle inequality. He has since contributed to a number of debates, including a heated exchange on ‘English votes for English laws’ in which he described the government’s plan as an “act of constitutional vandalism”. Nick Clegg, aside from a heartfelt tribute to former Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, and an intervention in a debate on investigatory powers has been notably less vocal.
All three main parties in the house began the session with strong intentions and relatively clear agendas. However, the usual caveat about ‘the best laid plans’ swiftly applied. The Conservatives arrived determined to capitalise on their unexpected, but thin majority. Labour’s interim leadership has looked to steady the ship and acknowledge the scale of their defeat by voting with the government on a number of measures – notably the EU referendum bill. Meanwhile, the SNP came to the house looking to settle into the slightly archaic procedures of the Commons and develop a strong Scottish-centric line that would cut through every debate.
The government remains determined to draw on the momentum of the election victory to push through some controversial reforms. However, they’ve found themselves hampered at times by Labour, the SNP and importantly a number of their own back benchers.
Significant climb downs on the Human Rights Act and changes to fox-hunting law, as well as amendments to the EU referendum bill have taken some of the shine off the election victory and will leave the frontbench concerned. If back benchers are willing to disobey at this stage in the parliament, what scale of rebellion will the government face later on? With the EU referendum looming, something that has so far been a headache may well develop into a fully-fledged political migraine for Cameron.
Conservative backbenchers, though, are finding a number of silver linings in their thin majority and seem particularly pleased that their leadership is spending more time in the Commons than usual. As a case in point, Tony Blair only voted in 251 out of 3,024 votes between May 1997 and June 2007, averaging an attendance record of less than 10 per cent. So far in this parliament, Cameron’s voting attendance record is closer to 33 per cent. While this is admittedly low for a backbench MP, it’s practically stratospheric for a modern day prime minister.
Labour’s interim leaders, keen to use their custodial role as a means of reinforcing party unity, have instead seen their budget response lead to significant rifts among their backbenchers. Forty-eight Labour members voted against the government’s welfare bill on 20 July, including 18 from the 2015 intake.
At the same time, the party is faced with a voter base at odds with itself on three fronts. Abandoned by voters in Scotland, caught out by Ukip support in the north of England, and shunned by many of their supporters in the south, leadership candidates are fighting battles on their left, their right, and at their centre. A divided parliamentary party, while in many ways reflecting the wider problems that Labour faces across the country, will do little to provide any short term solution.
Meanwhile, the SNP continue to be the talk of the town. The scale of their victory in Scotland and the hallmark activism of their support base left many in Westminster wondering how they would react to the formal and procedure driven nature of the House of Commons. Early skirmishes over seating arrangements and appropriate parliamentary procedure did nothing to dampen high expectations.
In reality though, they settled quickly – if not quietly – into a solid parliamentary rhythm, and the bolstered ranks of the party in Westminster have been vocal in a large number of debates. With Labour and the Liberal Democrats (until recently) leaderless and currently without clear long-term strategies, the SNP’s anti-austerity, Scottish-centric messages have rung loud and clear through the opposition benches.
That being said, their stated intention to vote against the government on the fox-hunting bill and a recently unearthed letter from Angus Robertson to SNP MPs may indicate a significant shift in strategy. Previously, the party has maintained that it would not vote on matters which only affect England. However, in his letter to MPs, Robertson insists that “as the effective opposition in the House of Commons, our progressive policy agenda is relevant to stakeholders and communities across Britain and Ireland”.
English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs will have the next six weeks to ruminate on how this change in Scottish strategy will affect them come the autumn.
All things considered, the first phase of parliament has been very busy indeed. The government’s ambitious legislative programme spans issues from devolution to psychoactive substances and a great deal in between. For the three main parties, the last few months have been characterised by a mixture of settling in, muddling through, and coming to terms with a radically altered make-up of the House of Commons. While UK business leaders will be reassured that all parties have taken pains to be vocally pro-business, it has become quickly clear that ‘business as usual’ is no longer a viable option in Westminster.
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