If Members of Parliament could shed their attitude of servility to the Prime Minister and government, this is what they should do: The House of Commons should elect its own leadership in the form of a committee of speakers – the Speaker and five or six deputies – to be in charge of parliamentary business and represent and speak for Parliament. The post of “Leader of the House” should be abolished.
Parliament wants to consider the government’s Brexit plan. The Prime Minister is resisting any serious involvement by Parliament. We have a parliamentary democracy. Parliament does not need to ask the Prime Minister. It should instruct her.
We the people elect Members of Parliament to manage out joint affairs: laws, public policy and budgets. Parliament appoints a government to implement parliamentary decisions and prepare parliament business. Parliament is the democratic boss. The government is its servant.
However, in Britain, constitutional practice, in this as in so much, is ambiguous. Brexit has plunged the country into a power struggle between Parliament and government. This has given Parliament a golden opportunity to assert itself and improve the constitution.
There are two reasons why it is difficult for the British Parliament to exercise its full democratic. First, Parliament is not in control of its own agenda. “The Leader of the House” is appointed by the government and manages parliamentary affairs under the government’s instructions. Parliament has no leadership of its own and no one has a mandate to speak for Parliament as such. The Speaker, who is elected by Parliament, has in this respect only a ceremonial role. Hence, in the ongoing power struggle, there is the government on the one side with all of its apparatus, and on the other side only individual MPs who can no more than appeal to the Prime Minister to involve Parliament. Parliament as such has no voice.
The other reason is in attitudes. It is thought normal by most people in and around Parliament and Whitehall that it is right and proper that the government, once appointed by Parliament, should be in command. The Prime Minister insists that she should be in command of the Brexit process by “royal prerogative” – but in a parliamentary democracy the Prime Minister can have no other prerogative than is accepted by Parliament.
The constitutional practice in which the government dominates Parliament makes for an unsafe system of decision making. The government, the Prime Minister really, has too much of a free hand and government business is not tested by adequate oversight and scrutiny. The Chilcot report last year levied a broadside of criticism against our system of political decision making which enabled Britain to fall into the catastrophe of the Iraq war. Britain is in fact badly governed in general. In their brilliant book The Blunders of our Governments, Antony King and Ivor Crewe, both esteemed constitutional experts, show that badly prepared and mistaken decision making is rather the rule than the exception. The reason for this is not that our politicians are incompetent but that the system is dysfunctional.
We would be better governed if there were a more balanced relationship between Parliament and government. The weak link in the system of decision making is the House of Commons.
In the ongoing power struggle the Prime Minister has, unwisely, decided to protect the government’s supremacy over Parliament. She now wants decision making over Brexit to be conducted in the same way that has long caused blunders great and small. Iraq was a big issue in which Britain got it wrong. Brexit is a big issue that is again being managed under an unsafe system of decision making. Parliament now has the opportunity to improve on our political system – if MPs are able to learn from previous mistakes and act in accordance with their instinct.