Making social science accessible

23 Mar 2020

Constitution and governance

UK-EU Relations

Parliament faced unprecedented challenges during the tumultuous Brexit years – many of which remain unresolved – a new academic report finds.

The report, Parliament and Brexit, explores key questions about how parliament adjusts to a post-Brexit context.

Academics find that throughout the Brexit process parliament, in spite of ferocious attacks on its legitimacy and processes from prime ministers, ministers, MPs, the media and the public, did its job.

With a minority government that lost the support of the House of Commons, parliament used its scrutiny procedures creatively to hold the government to account for its Brexit policies. However, it is doubtful whether Parliament will be able to exercise this level of scrutiny over the government during the future relationship negotiations.

The report notes that parliament has a unique place in the country’s political system: parliamentary sovereignty lies at the core of its constitution and both Commons and Lords remain central to the functioning of the country’s democracy.

Attacks on parliament became commonplace in the wake of the EU referendum:

  • A populist ‘anti-elite’ message was propagated by the same sections of the media which ran the infamous ‘enemies of the people’ headline about the judiciary’s decision that Article 50 should be triggered by Parliament
  • After the second rejection of Theresa May’s Brexit deal the prime minister went on TV telling the British public she was on their side, while blaming MPs for the failure to deliver Brexit
  • Parliamentarians attracted fury from critics who labelled them ‘wreckers’ or ‘mutineers’
  • The zenith, when Boris Johnson become prime minister, was when he prorogued Parliament, which was subsequently ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court
  • During the election campaign that followed, the Conservative manifesto criticised the ‘failure of parliament to deliver Brexit’.

From 2016 to 2019 the key dispute was between Conservative governments and their own backbenchers with the two sides holding conflicting visions of Brexit, and one side in particular claiming to speak for ‘the people’. Twenty-eight ‘Spartans’ voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal three times, alongside the Democratic Unionist Party. Had they not done so, her deal would have passed on the third occasion and Boris Johnson might never have become prime minister.

The report finds that parliament, as a complex representative body in a divided nation, ended up taking much of the flak for the resulting delay in completing the country’s withdrawal from the EU.

Sir John Curtice shows that Leave supporters soon became critical of parliament. They also turned against the idea of resolving the impasse by holding another referendum. Meanwhile, Remainers went the other way.

Looking at how the parties dealt and will deal with Brexit, the report shows:

  • 180 Conservative MPs defied the whip on Brexit votes with 118 doing so on the first meaningful vote. Conflict may return on the Conservative benches if no trade deal looks likely as the transition period comes to an end
  • The problem facing Labour MPs was reconciling their own Brexit preferences with those of their constituents. Only 10 of Labour’s 232 MPs in 2016 voted Leave. However approximately 148 of those constituencies saw a majority vote Leave. In 142 constituencies, the Labour MP voted Remain while the majority of constituents voted Leave
  • The cross-party collaboration that took place between 2016 and 2019 is far less likely in future: incentives for inter-party cooperation are weaker than parties’ desire to seek individual partisan advantage.

The report also identifies a number of future challenges for parliament:

  • Brexit implementation will still require a substantial amount of primary and secondary legislation – and the existing scrutiny procedures for secondary legislation may not be fit for purpose
  • Parliament’s powers with regard to treaty scrutiny are currently inadequate: it needs to be given more powers to effectively scrutinise future trade deals
  • The relationships between Westminster and the devolved administrations have been seriously unsettled during the Brexit process. Parliament and government should invest in strengthening these relationships
  • Select committees are likely to be at the forefront of parliament’s ongoing Brexit work. But to support the most effective possible scrutiny over the longer term, including to accommodate scrutiny of policy areas currently governed at EU level, parliament may need to adapt its structures and procedures.

In the midst of the current Coronavirus crisis, these challenges and questions might no longer seem so pressing, but they will not go away.

Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe, said: “The 2016-2019 period will go down as one the most bitterly fought battles in parliamentary history.

“Given the critical role the institution plays in our democracy it’s incumbent on MPs, and the media, to do what they can to restore public trust in parliament post-Brexit, through communicating its proper scrutiny role and enabling this to develop to meet the new challenges that lie ahead.”

Read the full Parliament and Brexit report here


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