The new opposition: How will SNP MPs influence Westminster politics?

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Louise Thompson argues that the constitutional challenges we will see over the next 5 years will be a product of the changed composition of Parliament. Here, she specifically considers how SNP are likely to try and amend proposed constitutional reforms announced in the Queen’s Speech last week.

We are only a couple of weeks in to the 2015 Parliament, but we can already see signs of big changes from the previous Parliament, as well as some major parliamentary and constitutional challenges ahead. Last week’s Queen’s Speech proved what most commentators had already suspected; the first majority Conservative Government for nearly two decades will oversee a period of major constitutional change. This includes greater devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as to English cities and an In-Out referendum on membership of the European Union to be held by the end of 2017. The constitutional ground is beginning to move already. The Prime Minister has already met with the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to discuss the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

As returning MPs took their seats in the chamber following the Queen’s Speech last week, they were met with a sea of unfamiliar faces as 182 new Members took their seats in the chamber. There is nothing new about a high turnover of MPs – the 2010 General Election saw an even higher turnover of Members. But the composition of the new intake, with record numbers of women and ethnic minority MPs, a massive drop in the number of Liberal Democrat MPs and the arrival of a much larger number of SNP MPs is very different to what the House has seen before. The challenges we will see over the next five years to the government’s planned constitutional reforms are very much a product of this changing composition.

Although David Cameron can bask in the glory of leading the first Conservative Government in over two decades, the Conservative Party majority in the House of Commons is not something he should be too confident about. A majority of 12 is far better than pollsters had predicted over the course of the general election campaign, but David Cameron begins this Parliament with the smallest parliamentary majority since Harold Wilson following the 1974 General Election.

As Phil Cowley writes, the government is vulnerable in the Commons on paper, but in practice any rebellions from the Conservative backbenches is likely to be more annoying than destabilising for the new Government. Events this week seem to have backed this up somewhat, with Tory rebel Philip Davies noting in his contribution to the Queen’s Speech debate that he hopes he ‘will not need to rebel so often’ in the coming parliamentary sessions.

The Prime Minister is also faced with a new and very vocal opposition party in the SNP. As the third parliamentary party the Scottish Nationalists are now entitled to all of the parliamentary rights previously enjoyed by the Liberal Democrats. They will have two questions to the Prime Minister each week and now hold the chairmanship of two select committees. So far they have gone about their parliamentary work with zeal, showing themselves to be a highly cohesive parliamentary party in the process, as their initial appearances in the chamber have shown. During debates on zero hours contracts and Trident last week, the party had nearly its full complement of Members on the green benches, in stark comparison to the other parties. Their leader Angus Robertson spoke of their determination to be the ‘effective opposition’ to the new Government. But they are unlikely to be able to inflict serious damage on the government in big divisions on the floor of the House. For to do so would also require a fairly sizeable number of Conservative Party rebels to vote with the opposition, something that Philip Cowley notes is not true of most rebellions from the party’s more right-wing MPs.

Their biggest chance to influence legislation may therefore be at committee stage. The government will again have a majority on all public bill committees, but only by a couple of MPs. Constitutional reform bills will most likely take place in the Commons chamber as a Committee of the whole House. But this could provide the SNP in particular with two valuable arenas to allow their new MPs to cut their political – and parliamentary – teeth, tabling rafts of amendments to government bills.

There are already signs that they are planning to heavily amend some of the Government’s flagship bills. The forthcoming EU Referendum Bill could be the site of the first battle here. Angus Robertson has already noted that the party will seek to amend the legislation to ensure that 16 and 17 year olds will be able to vote. And it is not only at Westminster that Cameron will have to counter a strong SNP challenge in the run up to the referendum. There is also strong scrutiny on his plans coming directly from Holyrood, with Sturgeon and others demanding that Scotland be able to veto any plans to leave the EU.

There are some signs that the Prime Minister has already recognised the potential problems the SNP could pose over the next parliamentary session. For although the Queen’s Speech mentioned several constitutional reform bills, it implied that the much-talked about measures to introduce English votes for English laws (EVEL) would be brought about by Standing Order rather than through an Act of Parliament. David Cameron confirmed this when challenged in the chamber by the SNP’s Pete Wishart. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon had firmly criticised initial plans for EVEL that were published at the end of the previous Parliament and she confirmed that SNP Members would vote on English-only legislation. But the use of a Standing Order to bring about the change brings far less opportunity for the SNP to obstruct the government’s plans, with just a simple vote needed in the House of Commons for the measure to be passed. Neither did the bills mentioned in the Queen’s Speech include a British Bill of Rights. If the SNP’s new justice spokesperson Joanna Cherry’s passionate maiden speech was anything to go by, this may well have been a very wise move.

We are yet to see what will happen to the government’s package of constitutional reform measures. With the Labour party in something of a disarray until their leadership election is over, all eyes will be on the SNP over the coming weeks and months. As I argued last week, with so many new MPs, unfamiliar with the ways of Westminster, they will have a hard task ahead of them. But the Prime Minister may come to regret his challenge to the SNP to ‘stop talking and start acting‘.

About the Author

Louise Thompson is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey. She has a PhD from the Centre for Legislative Studies at the University of Hull under an ESRC Scholarship. She has previously worked for a Member of Parliament, for the Smith Institute and for the Labour Party.  She is currently the Managing Editor of the Political Studies Association’s blog.

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