David Davis, Brexit and Parliamentary Scrutiny

Usually, when I write a blog piece, I do so having watched a story emerge through the national press. It was fascinating, therefore, to have such an excellent example for Year 12 Politics, and to be there as it happened – as I sat in the Brexit Select Committee, events unfolded very quickly! The events of 25 October 2017 show just how effective Parliamentary scrutiny of government can be, and in particular highlights the role of Select Committees, PMQs and Urgent Questions.

Brief outline:

  • 9.15am, 25 October – The Brexit Select Committee, chaired by Hilary Benn (Lab) was taking evidence from David Davis, the Cabinet Secretary for Brexit. A question from Semma Malhotra (Lab) asked him to outline the Brexit timeline. During his answer, he suggested Parliament might not get a vote on the final deal until after March 2019…i.e. after the exit deadline! This immediately became a story on Twitter and quickly on to the BBC, Guardian and Telegraph.
  • 12.00pm, 25 October – At PMQs, Stephen Kinnock (who is a member of the Brexit Select Committee) asked Theresa May to explain “how it is possible to have a meaningful vote on something that has already taken place?”. This made the story even bigger and pressure mounted on the government over the timing of this vote.
  • 2.30pm (ish!), 25 October – By mid-afternoon, The Department for Exiting the European Union had had to issue a statement saying, “We are working to reach an agreement on the final deal in good time before we leave the EU in March 2019. Once the deal is agreed we will meet our long-standing commitment to a vote in both houses and we expect and intend this to be before the vote in the European parliament and therefore before we leave”
  • 10.10am, 26 October – David Davis is summoned to Parliament for an Urgent Question put forwards by Keir Starmer (Lab)

All of this is incredibly useful for UK politics students…

This is a great example of the government being held to account by Parliament (Democracy 1.1/Parliament 2.2) and especially the role of Select Committees in being effective in scrutinising the actions of the government. It also severed to underline the sovereignty of Parliament (Constitution 2.1/Parliament 2.2) as not only was Parliament able to scrutinise the government, they were doing so on a matter that directly affected the sovereignty of Parliament – if Parliament was not given a vote before March 2019, their sovereignty could be highly questionable.

This example also highlights the developing methods by which the government is scrutinised. The use of Urgent Questions has increased massively under the leadership of Speaker John Bercow; in demanding that David Davis attend the House of Commons and explain himself to Parliament, a very clear pecking order was established – Parliament over government (Democracy 1.1/Parliament 2.2/Relationship between branches 2.4). In both cases, Select Committees and Urgent Questions are methods of scrutiny employed by backbench MPs, and goes some way to demonstrate their power. Whilst they may only be particularly power at the moment due to the lack of outright government majority, the last three elections have delivered no, or small, majorities, meaning that for some time now, backbenchers have seen their power increase (2.2 Parliament).

It is also an example of a rare occasion where PMQs has been effective rather than simply theatre. Stephen Kinnock’s question elicited a response from the Department for Exiting the European Union and resulted in the Urgent Question the following day (2.2 Parliament/2.4 Relationships between branches).

In terms of the Prime Minister, it perhaps highlights further the weakness of a small majority, and the importance of circumstances, in terms of their power (2.3 Prime Minister). Certainly, this was only such a big, and useful, example because the issue at hand was Brexit, something which the public and media has an interest in. The lack of a coherent plan to exit the EU has caused much concern and Davis’ statement played into that. These circumstances are crucial when evaluating a Prime Minister’s power – had Theresa May had a clear and firm (strong and stable?!) majority, she would have perhaps been able to deal with this issue with more power. However, knowing her own party are divided over the issue (1.2 Parties), and lacking a majority in Parliament, means that balance of power seems tipped in the favour of Parliament and away from the Prime Minister…for the time begin at least (2.4 Relationship between Branches).

It also highlights the difficulties the Prime Minister can have in controlling her Cabinet (2.3 Prime Minister). Ultimately, she was being held accountable for a comment David Davis’ had made earlier that day whilst he was being interviewed by the Select Committee. But, as a collective government, and a ‘primus inter pares’ she had to explain his comments. Whatever goes on behind closed doors, it is difficult for a Prime Minister to be embarrassed by a cabinet member, yet it can be difficult to control them; never more so than in time of small (or no) majorities.

The speed at which this entire event happens can also be a useful example – the role of social media and the internet is clearly important (1.1 Democracy/1.4 Voting and the media). That Davis’ comment was able to be reported on directly before PMQs, which itself is televised, meant that national news outlets were able to pick the story up quickly and increase the pressure on Davis’. This could arguably be a development of Parliamentary scrutiny too – an ability to scrutinise the government by using the media to create pressure on them (2.4 Relationships between branches).

This is such an excellent story that covers almost all topics of UK Politics in the Edexcel syllabus. It is far more important for a student to know one or two examples really thoroughly and be able tot use and apply them, than to know lots of names but no detail. This is a story that is well wroth knowing, as Parliament being so swiftly ‘effective’ is a rare occurrence…that said, all Davis and May have given in response to all of this is a promise and hope that Parliament will have a vote in advance…the reality remains to be seen!