The EU (Withdrawal) Bill raises questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the legislative process

leston.bandeira.thompson.and.mace (1)The EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons saw SNP MPs protest about their voices having been excluded from the debate. Louise Thompson explains how parliamentary procedures can indeed restrict debate for smaller opposition parties, and considers whether something ought to be done about it.

Following the first session of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons, most newspaper headlines focused of the battle between Theresa May and the group of backbench Conservative rebels seeking concessions from the government about parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal. The front page of The National instead highlighted the lack of debate on the devolution clauses within the bill, which was limited to just 15 minutes, as well as the fact that only one SNP MP was able to speak. Just a few hours later, every single SNP MP walked out of the Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in protest about this issue – and the Speaker’s refusal to allow a vote that the House sit in private to discuss it. It’s not unknown for the SNP to deploy tactics like this in the chamber and it raises interesting questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the Commons.

The parliamentary position of small ‘o’ opposition parties

When it comes to opposition in the House of Commons, it’s easy to focus attention solely on the ‘Official’ Opposition. But there are four (or five, or six) other opposition parties, depending on where you position the DUP and Sinn Fein. Just as parliamentary architecture in the Commons privileges a two-party system (with the green benches facing each other in adversarial style, the despatch boxes for the use of the government and official opposition party only), parliamentary procedures also help to underpin a system which seems to prioritise the ‘Official Opposition’. Hence, the guarantee of questions at PMQs.

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Party conferences and Brexit

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Party conference season presented an opportunity for each of the political parties to set out their responses to the EU referendum result. Unsurprisingly, there were major differences between their respective visions for the post-Brexit landscape. Whilst the Liberal Democrat and Green leaders called for a second EU referendum, and the SNP promised a draft bill for a second independence referendum, at the Conservative conference the Prime Minister vowed to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Brexit. Ailsa McNeil offers an overview.

Following a long summer of uncertainty, with only Theresa May’s vague and much repeated statement that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ offering any semblance of clarity, conference season was a chance for Britain’s political parties to outline their post-referendum strategy. Of the main UK-wide parties the Greens were first to hold their conference, from 2–4 September, followed by UKIP on 16 and 17 September and the Liberal Democrats from 17–20 September. Labour’s conference was held in Liverpool from 25–28 September, whilst the Conservatives gathered in Birmingham from 2–5 October. Finally, the SNP conference took place in Glasgow from 13–15 October.

Conservative

Brexit dominated the Conservative conference. As well as the usual party leader’s speech to close the conference, Prime Minister Theresa May also delivered a speech focused on Brexit on the opening day.  She firmly dismissed the demands for a second referendum and promised to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, pledging to invoke Article 50 by the end of March 2017.

In defiance of a legal challenge aiming to prevent the government from triggering Article 50 without parliament’s consent and of a large number of MPs and peers who have called for a parliamentary vote, the Prime Minister told the conference that it is ‘up to the government to trigger Article 50 and the government alone’. Although not unexpected –  in August she indicated that no parliamentary vote would be held – May’s stance is at odds with a considerable body of legal opinion, contending that such a move would both expand the royal prerogative arbitrarily and subvert parliamentary democracy (by undermining the express intention of the legislature, as expressed in the European Communities Act 1972).

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