Theresa May lost her majority in June, but she's trying to use the Repeal bill to undemocratically cling on to power argues Josh Holmes
On Tuesday, Theresa May will try to pull off a parliamentary coup that will give her the power to pass any law she wants, despite not winning the election. And the chances are she’ll get away with it.
The Tories are in a very difficult position. In June, they lost the power to pass laws in Parliament without major compromise, but they know that calling another general election would mean handing power to Jeremy Corbyn. May has therefore been attempting to stabilise the ship – first, with the DUP deal, which is already looking shabby and moth-eaten, and now with her new plan: simply to rig Parliament to give her the majority she didn’t win in June.
To understand the seriousness of May’s power grab, it is necessary to look at how British democracy works. Although it is home to the mother of all Parliaments, Britain has a peculiarly limited form of democracy. In fact, an honest observer would find it very difficult to describe Britain as a democracy at all. Yes, the British people can vote, but not for any of the institutions that actually exercise power.
Power is held by a Government that is unusually centralised by the standards of other democracies. In the 1960s, the right-wing Lord Halisham, fearing the enormous power that would fall into Labour’s hands if that notorious radical Harold Wilsongot into office, described the British system as an elective dictatorship: once someone gets into government, they can do pretty much whatever they like with no checks on their power. The term stuck, and is today used by many constitutionalists.
Unlike most other democracies, we don’t vote for our Government. Whereas Americans have three separate votes – for the House of Representatives, the Senate and the presidency – we vote for only half of our Parliament. That might be acceptable if the House of Commons had the power to stand up to the Government, but it doesn’t. The whole point of a Parliament is to scrutinise and amend the laws that the Government puts before it,butunder normal circumstances every single vote in the House of Commons is rigged. If the Government has a majority, it can guarantee that, unless there is a major rebellion within its own ranks, it will win every vote. Blairlost only four votes during the whole of his 10 years as Prime Minister, and Cameron lost only nine,despite the fact that the Tories were a minority party for most of his premiership.
This is why the June election was so significant. For the first time in living memory, the House of Commons is functioning like a Parliament, and the Government has got to fight for every victory. It has already had to concede a Labour amendment to the Queen’s Speech – previously unthinkable – and has responded by avoiding Parliament as much as possible. But it can’t do that forever. It has now got to the point at which it needs to engage with Parliament to pass laws, which is why Theresa May is launching her coup.
To become a law, a Bill generally has to go to a legislative committee, which debates it and signs it off. Normally, these committees are also rigged in the Government’s favour. Membership is assigned according to the party composition in the Commons, so a majority Government will automatically have a majority on the committee and will therefore win every single vote. In normal circumstances, committees are thereforea mere technicality: the Opposition may object to something the Government is trying to do, but they have no power to do anything about it.But if the Government has no majority, it is in trouble, because the Opposition will be able to vote down clauses it doesn’t agree with and make amendments. Every piece of legislation therefore becomes a real battleground.
If Theresa May carries off her coup, the Government will be given a majority on committees, even though it doesn’t have a majority in the House. This may sound merely technical and a little arcane, but it has the most serious consequences for democracy. It means that the Tories will win every single vote between now and the next election – which may well be in five years’ time.
May says she needs these powers because, without them, it will be hard for her to pass the Brexit legislation. She is right: it will be hard, and the legislation probably won’t end up looking like what she wants. It will be subject to proper scrutiny, and Labour, the SNP and every other party in Parliamentwill have a real say in shaping its final form. Britain’s post-Brexit future will not be written by the Tory party alone.
But the problem is even more serious than this. If May pulls off her coup, it will apply not just to the Brexit legislation but to any law she wants to push through Parliament – which may be to attack workers’ rights or weaken the welfare state.
The June election was a genuine triumph of democracy. The British people said no to the Tories at the ballot box and stopped them in their tracks. Given the political developments elsewhere in the world, Britain looks like a beacon of hope. If May is unhappy with governing as a minority party, she has a clear option before her: call another election.