We may not yet know the result of the election, but we do know that we will have a new parliament. David Natzler and David Beamish explain what will happen when the new parliament commences next week. No matter the outcome of today’s vote, certain processes will need to be followed: parliament will need to be officially opened, MPs will need to be sworn in, and committees will need to be re-established — and their members and chairs must be elected.
The first days of a new parliament follow a well-trodden path, and the surest guide to what will happen is usually to look up what happened last time, in June 2017. However, much depends on the political context. And we will not know that context until the early hours of Friday 13 December at the earliest. All we know for sure is that the new parliament will meet on Tuesday 17 December, and that if the current Prime Minister returns, the State Opening – the start of the new session – will be only two days later, on Thursday 19 December. If there is a hung parliament, the State Opening could be delayed.
The traditional process is rather laboured. In March 2015, anticipating a repeat of the 2010 negotiations which had led to the coalition government, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, chaired by Graham Allen, took evidence on how far the process of coalition formation could be accelerated. David Natzler, who was then acting Clerk of the Commons, provided a prospectus on which David Beamish, then Clerk of the Parliaments, commented. Natzler also gave oral evidence to the committee. Nothing came of the ensuing report at the time, but if the Johnson government is returned, the timetable may indeed follow some of the compressed procedures suggested then.
The two Houses will meet at 2.30 pm on 17 December. In the Lords a Commission of five peers, presided over by the Leader of the Lords or possibly the Lord Chancellor, will send Black Rod to summon the Commons. The Commons are normally led to the Lords by the Father of the House and the Clerk. The Father of the House in the previous parliament, Ken Clarke, is not standing again. This means that if Dennis Skinner is returned for Bolsover, that task would fall to him. He has in the past indicated he would not wish to participate in this , so the Clerk may have to lead the House up to the Lords alone. If Skinner is defeated, Sir Peter Bottomley would be the Father of the House.
Election of Commons Speaker and swearing in
The Lords would then normally start swearing in its members, commencing with the Lord Speaker, who enjoys a five-year term of office unaffected by a dissolution and general election. The Commons will return to its Chamber and elect its Speaker. The question put by the Father of the House will be that Sir Lindsay Hoyle do take the Chair of the House. It is a sporting certainty that this will be unopposed, as he was elected as recently as 4 November, and sitting Speakers are traditionally not challenged by fellow MPs. So rather than waiting for the next day, as has been the custom, it is more than likely that MPs will go straight back to the Lords, led by the Speaker-elect, to receive royal approbation and lay claim to the House’s ancient privileges, notably the right of free speech.
The Commons will then return again to their chamber and begin the laborious process of swearing in MPs, which will continue through Wednesday 18 December. The Lords will also continue the process of swearing-in, with the added complexity of the need to reconfigure the Chamber for the State Opening on 18 December. There are several new life peers awaiting introduction, including Sir Kim Darroch, the former Ambassador to the United States.
First proceedings of a new session
After the Queen’s speech, both Houses will meet to transact business. No business requiring notice can be taken, which includes presentation of a bill. The short titles of the Select Vestries Bill in the Lords and the Outlawries Bill in the Commons are read by the respective Clerks at the start of each new parliament as a ritual sign that the business of the House is determined independent of the matters laid out in the Queen’s Speech. For both Lords and Commons, the day is devoted to moving and debating the Loyal Address in response to the Speech. There are then normally four or five days of debate.
The Commons and the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill
This standard procedure is not likely to happen in the Commons if the Johnson government is returned, although there is no obvious reason why it should not do so in the Lords. The Prime Minister will want to press on urgently with the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. Notice of presentation of the Bill can be given by ministers on 19 December. Actual presentation could be on Friday 20 December, but only if the Speaker accepted the moving without notice of a procedural motion to sit on that day, as the Standing Orders, which govern the procedures of the Commons, do not provide for sitting on most Fridays. The default position is that the House would sit anyway on Monday 23 December. This is rather close to Christmas but is of course a normal working day for most people.
Proceedings on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill
It is unusual but by no means unprecedented in the Commons for a bill to have its second reading debated and decided on the same day as its presentation. Given that that this particular bill will presumably be in almost every respect identical to that to which the Commons – albeit a differently constituted Commons – gave a second reading by 329 to 299 on 22 October, and most MPs could be thought to be familiar with its contents, they could be asked to agree at the outset of 23 December sitting to a procedural motion enabling it to proceed to debate second reading immediately and to vote at the end of that debate. If second reading were then agreed to, the Commons would then likely also to be invited to agree to a Programme Motion setting out the timetable for its further consideration. That was of course the hurdle at which the Withdrawal Bill fell last time, by 322 to 308 votes.
What about the Commons debate on the Queen’s Speech?
Is it necessary to have a long debate on the Queen’s Speech? The technical answer is no. It is for example theoretically conceivable that ministers could indicate that they were scheduling only two days of debate on the Loyal Address. But there are many political and procedural obstacles to this, and it will probably be more appealing to all sides to interrupt the debate and resume it in January. Opposition parties will feel entitled to an early opportunity to express their opposition to the new government rather than the Commons spending all of the first two weeks of January on successive stages of the Withdrawal Bill. That said, some vigorous dissent can be expected, whatever ministers propose.
New members for old
This is all hypothetical and breathless stuff. But it is of course not all that will happen at the start of this new parliament. Members of the Lords return as if nothing had happened; they are of course unelected, so nobody will be unexpectedly absent due to a shock result. In the Commons it is very different. Defeated former MPs need time to clear their offices and make arrangements for their staff, who are employed directly by MPs and not the Commons. Given the number of former MPs not standing again, it looks at this stage as if there will be more than 125 new MPs. They will need to register their particulars with IPSA and get a pass to allow access to the Palace of Westminster. And they will get a loan of parliamentary IT equipment. This process starts early: new MPs start arriving on the Friday and Saturday, subject to advice from their parties. And there needs to be some induction. There is an official event in the Chamber and various party meetings, where everything from security to declaration of interests is covered. Advice on employing staff is also available.
Offices are redistributed in a bewildering merry-go-round of many hundreds of office moves. The mixture of planned and unplanned vacancies, ministerial reshuffles and the ambitions of those hoping for a better office have to be sorted out under the auspices of the party accommodation whips, for whom these days are frantically busy. There will be plenty of stories about the irritation of new MPs who for some time have to operate with a laptop, a desk in an open-plan office, a locker and no staff, at the same time as attempting to work out what exactly they are supposed to be doing in a role for which there is no apprenticeship.
In the Commons the process for electing the three Deputy Speakers will get underway, leading to an election by secret ballot when the House returns after Christmas. If the committee stage of the Withdrawal Bill does indeed start very promptly in January, the successful candidates will be busy. There are two vacancies on the Conservative side and one on the Labour side, as these posts are allocated by party irrespective of the election outcome.
Select committee chairs
In the Lords select committees get going very swiftly once formally appointed by the House: membership was refreshed as recently as July 2019 and there is no turnover of members in an election, so that is not a complex process. Things are alas very different in the Commons. Most select committee chairs will be elected by secret ballot in January, once the distribution between parties has been agreed on the basis of a proposal from the party whips. How that will play out is anybody’s guess, and the process may be complicated if a new government opts for a reorganisation of departments. Of particular interest will be whether the Committee on Exiting the European Union, chaired by Hilary Benn since its creation in 2016, will be set up afresh or allowed to lapse.
The Standing Orders envisage a lengthy period for candidates to campaign for these posts, but the timings are a matter for the Speaker, who may consider that speed is of the essence and that the Christmas break is sufficient time for candidates to canvass their colleagues. Four chairs likely to be returning to the House – Clive Betts, William Cash, David T C Davies, and Bernard Jenkin – are time-expired, having served continuously on the same (or virtually the same) committee for the maximum permissible period.
To general frustration the selection of the members of committees takes rather longer, as it takes time for the frontbenchers on both sides to be identified and then for intra-party elections to fill the vacant committee seats. It would not be realistic to expect Commons committees to be underway before February, by which time the UK may well have left the European Union.
Select committee chairs meeting together constitute the Liaison Committee, whose principal political function is to scrutinise the work of the Prime Minister by holding several sessions of public oral evidence each year. A Resolution of the House is required to identify those committees whose chairs are to be members. That is likely to include a few committees who still elect their own chair, so that the Committee is not fully constituted and may not be able to elect its chair until such committees have been nominated, met and elected a chair. It will be interesting to see if ministers are willing to assist in formation of the committee, by tabling the founding resolution promptly. They could go further by inviting the House to agree to a mechanism for a rapid meeting of the committee to elect its chair, or proposing a specified chair in the Resolution, potentially a senior member not chairing a committee. Members of the committee will be keen to get an evidence session with the Prime Minister, which are supposed to take place three times a year. However the committee has been frustrated by the purported prorogation in September and further postponements subsequently, most recently by means of a handwritten letter to the chair from Boris Johnson himself, who has yet to appear before the committee, more than six months after taking office.
Resumption of parliamentary politics
Whatever the outcome of today’s election those interested in the working of our parliamentary democracy can be assured that the first few weeks of this new parliament will be anything but boring.
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About the authors
Sir David Natzler is a former Clerk of the House of Commons and co-editor of the 25th edition of Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice. He is a Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit.
Sir David Beamish was Clerk of the Parliaments, House of Lords, from 2011 to 2017 and is a Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit.