Last month, I gave the Bingham Lecture in Constitutional Studies at the University of Oxford. The title of the lecture was ‘Is the House of Commons too powerful?’
When I gave the Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture in 2016, I argued that for Parliament these were the best of times and the worst of times. They were the best of times in its relationship to government, in that it was now more effective than at any time in modern British politics in scrutinising and challenging government. They were the worst of times in its relationship to the people, in that people did not judge Parliament by what each House did, but rather by what individual members did. Scandals undermined public perceptions and people did not trust MPs.
In the Bingham Lecture I argued that events of recent months meant that for the House of Commons these were the worst of times, both in relation to government and in relation to the people. In recent months, attempts by MPs to wrest control of the timetable and of policy from government challenge the role of Parliament within the Westminster model of government. Parliament is a reactive body. Through elections, voters choose those they wish to govern. There is one body – the party in government – responsible for public policy. Bolstered by the convention of collective responsibility, it faces the House as one body, resting for its continuation in office on the confidence of the House. There is a clear line of accountability to the House and to the electors. Parliament may say ‘no’ to government, it may query and challenge, but ultimately government governs and is answerable to electors at the next election. Electors cannot hold to account a transient majority in the House of Commons.
Furthermore, electors do not see in a positive light the attempt to wrest control of policy from government. The most recent Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement found that 42 per cent of those questioned agreed with the statement ‘Many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament’. As I said in the lecture, we don’t know how many would have answered affirmatively if the question had been asked in earlier years, but it was not asked, presumably for the reason that it would seem a ridiculous question to ask. It reflects the extent to which the relationship with electors has changed. Whereas before, electors did not trust MPs, now they do not trust the House of Commons.
In terms of the Westminster model, there is a case that the Commons is, or at least teetering on the edge of, becoming too powerful, undermining accountability to electors – accountability that is at the heart of the Westminster model – and undermining public trust in Parliament.
This is a summary of the lecture. I am pleased to report that you will be able to read it in full, should you wish to do so: it is being published in the autumn issue of Parliamentary Affairs.