The relationship between Parliament and the Government?

The relationship between Parliament and government depends on a number of variable factors. Parliament has huge potential power, but its actual ability to influence policy and constrain government may be very limited. (See Norton's Typology of legislatures)

Four main factors affect Parliament’s relationship to government:

  1. Extent of party unity

  2. Size of majority

  3. Single party or coalition government

  4. Impact of the Lords.

The the most significant development in the relationship between the governments and Parliament is the emergence of disciplined and unified political parties. This development dates form the late 19 Century when modern campaigning required parties to create national organisations and agree manifestos. Party discipline is the main lever that the executive uses to control Parliament. By 1900, 90 per cent of votes in the Commons were party votes (that is, votes in which at least 90 per cent of MPs voted with their party).This was a direct consequence of the extension of the franchise and the recognition by MPs that they needed the support of a party machine in order to win elections. During much of the 20th century, MPs appeared to be mere ‘lobby fodder’.This created the impression that government had nothing to fear from Parliament.The government could always rely on its loyal troops in the House of Commons to approve its legislative programme and to maintain it in power, creating an ‘elective dictatorship’. However, this image of mindless party discipline is now outdated. Party unity reached its peak in the 1950s and early 1960s when backbench revolts all but died out. Since then, backbench power has been on the rise.

Examples of party disunity include:

• Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, 1974–79. During this period, 45 per cent of Labour MPs voted against the government at some stage, with 40 of them doing so on more than 50 occasions.

• Conservative governments under Margaret Thatcher 1979–90. Although the frequency of backbench revolts abated during this period, it was the failure of a sufficient number of MPs to support her in the 1990 party leadership election that caused Thatcher’s downfall.

• Conservative governments under John Major, 1990–97. This period was characterised by dramatic clashes between the Major government and a small but determined group of Eurosceptic backbenchers.

• Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, 2001–10. During Blair’s second and third terms, Labour backbenchers rebelled against the government on over 20 per cent of all divisions. Some of these rebellions were very large. On 64 occasions, 40 or more Labour MPs voted against the government, including major rebellions on high-profile issues, such as foundation hospitals (involving 65 MPs), university ‘top-up’ fees (72), the Iraq War (139) and the replacement of Trident nuclear submarines (94).

• Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition under David Cameron, 2010–15. This was the most rebellious parliament since 1945. In its first four years, Coalition rebellions occurred in 37 per cent of divisions, with no fewer than 159 Conservatives (52 per cent of the parliamentary party) and 42 Liberal Democrats (74 per cent of the parliamentary party) defying the party whip at one time or another. The major issue over which backbenchers revolted was relations with the European Union.

• Conservative government under David Cameron, 2015–16. Significant backbench pressure forced the Cameron government into making U-turns on at least 24 policies. Among the policies abandoned were the proposal that all schools should become academies, cuts to tax credits, and pension tax relief reform. In addition, the Cameron government was defeated three times, most memorably in March 2016 on the proposed deregulation of Sunday trading rules.

• Conservative government under Theresa May, 2016–17. The May government continued the practice of Cameron, in seeking to head off backbench restiveness by modifying or reversing policies before they provoked open revolt and possibly led to parliamentary defeat. This is a tactic commonly employed by governments with slim majorities, which cannot afford to stand up to significant backbench pressure. Examples of policy ‘rethinks’ in these circumstances under May included the commitment in January 2017 to publish a White Paper on the government’s Brexit plan just days after ministers had ruled out this step; the promise in February 2017 to give MPs and peers a vote on the Brexit deal negotiated with Brussels before it is due to come into effect; and, most embarrassingly, the withdrawal of the National Insurance hike for the self-employed one week after it had been announced in the March 2017 Budget.

March 2020 Boris Johnson suffered his first damaging backbench revolt since his election triumph, as Tory MPs demanded an end to Huawei's involvement in Britain's 5G network.40 rebels refused to bow to pressure to step into line – staging a show of strength ahead of another battle they are increasingly confident of winning in a showdown in the summer.The prime minister won the vote, but a government minister immediately hinted at concessions, saying their message has been “heard loud and clear”."

Significant Rebellions

2005 – An amendment to New Labour’s Terrorism Bill planned to allow the police to detain terror suspects without charge for up to 90 days. This was defeated by 322-291 after 49 Labour MPs rebelled.

2012 – An amendment that would call for a real terms cut in the European Union budget was passed by 307-294 after 53 Conservative MPs rebelled.

2018 – Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement was defeated by 432-230 in January 2019. This was an historic defeat and happened after 1818.

2021 – Boris Johnson’s plan to introduce vaccine passports for COVID-19 in the UK was opposed by 99 Conservatives. As it was supported the Opposition it passed, but this was a significant rebellion for the Prime Minister

Why has party unity declined?

There are long-term and short-term answers to this question.

The long-term answers might be:

• MPs are generally better educated than they were in the 1950s and 1960s, coming overwhelmingly from professional middle-class backgrounds. This has made them more critical and independently minded.

• More MPs are now ‘career politicians’. As politics is their only career, they have the time and resources to take political issues more seriously. Many MPs used to have ‘second’ jobs, usually in business or as lawyers.

Since the 1990s, the process of ‘modernisation’ in, first, the Labour Party and later the Conservative Party has focused on a bid for centrist support and alienated MPs in each party who hold more ‘traditional’ views (Labour left-wingers and Conservative right-wingers).

The short-term factors include: the public standing of the government and the likelihood of it winning re-election, the personal authority of the prime minister and the radicalism of the government’s legislative programme. This helps to explain, for example, the difference between Blair’s first government (1997–2001) and his second and third governments (2001–07). In the latter period, Blair’s personal standing had dropped as a result of the Iraq War, the government’s majority and its poll ratings had fallen, and divisive issues such as anti-terror legislation, welfare reform and university ‘top-up’ fees had become more prominent.

size of majority If the party system is the single most important factor affecting the performance of Parliament, the second is that the governing party has traditionally had majority control of the Commons. This has occurred not because of voting patterns (no party has won a majority of votes in a general election since 1935), but because of the tendency of the ‘first-past-the- post’ voting system to over-represent large parties This has happened very reliably: for example, until 2010 only one general election since 1945 (February 1974) had failed to produce a single-party majority government. However, the size of a government’s majority has also been crucial. The larger the government’s majority, the weaker backbenchers will usually be. For instance, with a majority of 178 after the 1997 election it would have taken 90 Labour MPs to defeat the Blair government (assuming that all opposition MPs voted against the government). Once Blair’s majority had fallen to 65 after the 2005 election, this could be done by just 34 Labour MPs. The contrast between small and large majorities can be stark. The 1974–79 Labour government, which had at best a majority of 4 and was for some time a minority government, was defeated in the House of Commons on no fewer than 41 occasions. However, with landslide majorities in 1997 (178) and in 2001 (167), the Blair government suffered no defeats in the House of Commons in its first two terms.

The formation of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010 was that it led to the creation of a majority government despite the election of a ‘hung’ Parliament. The Coalition’s ‘official’ majority of 77 seats amounted, in practice, to an effective majority of 83, due to the fact that some Northern Ireland MPs never take up their seats. This helped to reduce the number of government defeats during the 2010–15 Parliament, although a number of other devices were also used for this purpose, including calling free votes on government bills.The Cameron government thus suffered just six defeats in five years, compared with the 1976–79 Callaghan government, which ended up with no majority, which was defeated 34 times. Although the Conservatives gained an overall majority in 2015, starting with a working majority of just 12 left the Cameron and May governments unusually vulnerable to backbench pressure. single-party or coalition government There is a general expectation that coalition government will rejuvenate Parliament. This is based on the belief that a coalition will radically alter the dynamics of executive–Parliament relations. Single-party majority governments (the norm in the UK since 1945) were able to control the Commons so long as they maintained party unity, and, if their majorities were substantial, even backbench revolts had only a marginal significance.

Brexit and Parliament: How has Brexit changed Parliament?

One of the main arguments for leaving the EU was in order to restore sovereignty to Parliament. Has this happened?

To an extent - yes. Statute law is no longer subject to EU law and the European Court of Justice has no jurisdiction over EU law as is applied in the UK. The precedent set by the Factor Tame Case no longer applies. However, apart form the argument that sovereignty was never lost; since Parliament always had the option to leave or the argument that the referendum diminished parliamentary sovereignty more substantially then membership of the EU, there is an argument that any trade deal with the EU involves some continued loss of sovereignty sine the treaty will have some lasting restriction on Parliamentary freedom of action. For example, N Ireland now remains within the single market - and any future regulatory changes are open to EU sanctions. You might argue that sovereignty itself is a rather out dated concept give the globalised and interdependent world we live in.