Supermajority vs. micro-opposition: Parliament after the general election? - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 39 transcript

28 Jun 2024

Government Ministers have been warning of the risks if Labour wins a ‘supermajority’. But does the concept have any real meaning in the House of Commons?

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00:00:00:00 - 00:00:16:24 You're listening to Parliament Matters, a Hansard society production supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn more at 00:00:17:01 - 00:00:44:14 Welcome to Parliament Matters, the podcast about the institution at the heart of our democracy, Parliament itself. I'm Ruth Fox and I'm Mark D’Arcy. Coming up, supermajority blues. What does it mean if Labour come out of the election facing a tiny and micro opposition in the Commons? How will Parliament housetrain the generation of 2024, and how will events unfold when the MPs get back to business? 00:00:53:23 - 00:01:15:23 But first, Ruth, we’re one week out. We're recording this a week before polling day and I suppose you could say nothing very much has still changed. We were saying that last week. The campaign seems remarkably stable. The polling numbers are uniformly awful for the Conservative Party. I mean, it's got to the point now where a Conservative score in the 20s is greeted with hosannas in some quarters. 00:01:15:23 - 00:01:51:04 So I suppose you've got to have the massive health warning here if the polls are wrong. And a week or so from now, Rishi Sunak is triumphantly returning to Downing Street with cheering and slightly disbelieving crowds before him. I think the polling industry may collectively just go out of business. But if it doesn't, if they're right, we are looking for a quite unusual situation in parliament, a government so utterly dominant, so completely outweighing the opposition, that maybe the whole machinery of scrutinizing the actions of ministers, of scrutinizing the new laws they propose, is going to be dangerously unbalanced. 00:01:51:09 - 00:02:14:00 Yes, and we'll probably come on to that. But the concern I'd have is, yes, they've got a huge majority and can use that to push through whatever legislation they want. But the question is, have they got the democratic mandate for some potentially really difficult issues that they may have to tackle very, very early on in a new administration when some of these big issues have not really been discussed? 00:02:14:04 - 00:02:33:10 Well, there's no doctor's mandate. The things that struck me about this was that this is not the pursuit of power. This is the trivial pursuit of power. We've been talking about betting scandals. We've been talking about Rishi Sunak getting whacked. We've been talking about peripheral issues. But there's a massive cost of living crisis out there. There's a massive climate crisis. 00:02:33:10 - 00:02:54:06 There's a huge crisis in the public finances. The world looks an incredibly dangerous place. More dangerous than it's been for most of my adult life. And those have intruded very little into a campaign that seems mostly centred around who scored the cleverest point and delivered the funniest one liner in a prime ministerial debate. So there's no doctor's mandate. 00:02:54:06 - 00:03:13:05 There's no moment when anyone has turned to the country and said, this is going to hurt, but it's necessary. And that's, I think, is probably the concern here that if the government gets in, they know what the scale of the economic problems are. But what our one of our first interviewees on the podcast, Meg Hillier, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, talked about the big nasties. 00:03:13:07 - 00:03:26:18 When they start to uncover these and work out how are they going to have to tackle some of them. You can't keep putting them off. These are the big public policy problems that they're going to need enormous amounts of money to solve. And we know some of them, and there are plenty of others that are ticking away in the background. 00:03:26:19 - 00:03:44:20 This is the state of the prison estate. This is the fact that prisons are overcrowded. I mean, I saw an extraordinary story in the BBC this week suggesting that prison overcrowding was reaching a potential crisis point during the campaign, and they might have to use the powers in the Civil Contingencies Act. Now, that is the emergency legislation that's never been used before. 00:03:44:20 - 00:04:08:10 It would be quite extraordinary to have to use it in the middle of an election campaign, because the government had not tackled the problem of prison numbers. There's that there's a state of possibly Thames Water, there’s local government, there’s universities’ financial crises, you know, it just adds up and up. They're going to have to start tackling these. And I think one of the things about a very big majority is public expectations of delivery will be very high, because the question would be we haven't got any opposition. 00:04:08:14 - 00:04:29:17 There's nothing standing in your way to get on with this. So why aren't you? And they haven't prepared the ground potentially for some of the sacrifices that might need to be made. And thanks be to Grant Shapps, the defense secretary, we have this phrase that very often when sentences will never be mentioned, uttering, but we have this phrase supermajority bouncing around. 00:04:29:17 - 00:04:47:15 And the problem with it is that it has no meaning in the context of the UK constitution. A majority of one is enough to get something through the House of Commons. All right. You may want a majority of 40 or 50 so that you're not dependent as a government on the whims and fancies of a couple of your most wacky and eccentric MPs. 00:04:47:17 - 00:05:22:18 But beyond that, the size of the majority doesn't really impact on your ability to deliver your program. So it's meaningless in that sense. And in America, a supermajority is something that can be said to exist. You need a majority of two thirds of Congress to overturn a presidential veto on legislation, for example. But in this country, we've almost never had a supermajority requirement in legislation, except for the brief and unlimited period of the fixed term Parliament Act, when two thirds of the Commons would have had to have voted for an early dissolution of Parliament, as indeed they did in 2019. 00:05:22:20 - 00:05:58:13 But that has come and gone. That legislation has been abolished, and there is no supermajority pretty much anywhere in the UK constitution anymore. So it's a phrase that raises expectations and possibly sounds vaguely threatening without having actual meaning. Yeah, it doesn't unlock any new powers or any new procedures for the government, if that's what they're facing. I think the problem is this concept of a micro opposition is not that they are facing any new powers or any new procedures, but rather, frankly, have they just got enough bodies to go around to do all the jobs that effective range of scrutiny the government by the opposition would entail? 00:05:58:14 - 00:06:19:20 If you've got an opposition of perhaps something under 200 MPs sliced and diced several ways with several different parties are then literally going to be the people there to turn up at the delegated legislation committees to scrutinize statutory instruments, one of my favorite subjects. Are there going to be enough of them to turn up and do a decent job of challenging what the government's doing in public bill committees. 00:06:19:20 - 00:06:38:17 When legislation starts flowing, are there going to be enough of them to get their voices really heard in the chamber and mount a successful or at least coherent challenge to the government in the main, debating center of our democracy. And that's a very, very big question. And it will matter. Well, I suppose the question is who is the opposition? 00:06:38:19 - 00:06:57:05 Well, you got to start with that one. I mean, I've just literally been looking at opinion polls suggesting that the Liberal Democrats could well be the second party. Now, I take some of this with a tonne of salt. But we discussed this course a few months ago when we thought it was good for a laugh. We had a nice jocular discussion about it, but now it seems conceivable. 00:06:57:05 - 00:07:14:15 I mean, the nightmare scenario for a speaker is what if you had exactly the same number of Lib Dem and Tory MPs 60 something each say, and the speaker then had to decide which one constituted the official opposition? It comes down to a decision that he would have to make when it's not clear simply on the numbers of MPs alone. 00:07:14:17 - 00:07:36:18 Yeah. So it's for his disagreement, his discretion. It's his final decision. Can't be challenged according to the rules. It's the ministerial and other salaries Act. Yes. So he would have to make the decision. And if the seat numbers were equal, I mean, it sounds preposterous really, but if we ended up in that scenario, then the speaker would have to decide, is it the Liberal Democrats? 00:07:36:18 - 00:07:57:03 Is it the Conservative Party? Now, at that point you think, well, what's the next criterion if not number of seats? And at that point, your share of the vote, the national vote becomes an obvious criterion that you would do so if the Conservatives got that number of MPs on 18% of the vote, and the Lib Dems got that number of MPs on 15% of the vote, it would be the Conservatives. 00:07:57:03 - 00:08:13:13 Yeah, I think so. I mean, I can't read the speaker’s mind. It would be for him to decide. And there's never been this sort of situation, there’s no sort of precedent to follow. But if you think about the logical criteria that you might apply, that would seem to be the fairest. You've won the largest share of the national vote. 00:08:13:13 - 00:08:31:21 So it would be the party, not second place necessarily in seats, but second place in shares of the national vote. So that would be the Conservatives, presumably. Yeah. But then you get to the situation of okay, so what if there was a handful of reform MPs who were prepared to vote for the Conservative seats to be the second party? 00:08:31:23 - 00:08:55:00 Would that change the arithmetic? Would there be a sort of then an opposition coalition, if you like. What if the Conservatives made David Cameron's phrase a big open offer to Nigel Farage to come on board? Would that give them enough MPs following Nigel Farage to make whoever was then the Conservative leader, the leader of the opposition ahead of Ed Davey, even if perhaps he had 1 or 2 more seats than the Conservatives. 00:08:55:02 - 00:09:16:09 Yeah, I mean, Erskine May says the party that has the right to be called the official Opposition is the largest minority party which is prepared in the event of the resignation of the government to assume office. Now, the Minister and other Salaries Act says that, it's those that have the greatest numerical strength in the House of Commons, which fits with that scenario. 00:09:16:11 - 00:09:46:07 And if any doubt arises, it's a matter for the speaker. Now, there's no modern precedent for an opposition coalition. Relevant sources that we're talking about here refer to the official opposition being a party in the singular. There’s no modern precedent. But there is, of course, the case in May 1940 of the wartime coalition, where you know, once Labour's Clement Attlee went into government with the Conservatives, with Winston Churchill, it left the House of Commons in effect without an official opposition. 00:09:46:09 - 00:10:11:19 And the very small Independent Labour Party sought to assume the status and indeed the frontbench in the House, and to get the privileges attached to that role. Now, the speaker acknowledged the situation was unprecedented, but he concluded it cannot be said that there is now an opposition in Parliament in the hitherto accepted meaning of the words, namely a party in opposition to the government from which an alternative government could be formed. 00:10:11:21 - 00:10:35:24 So he basically had to make some some changes. And he concluded that as there wasn't an official opposition and the Independent Labour Party couldn't be that because they weren't big enough, he decided that there was no opposition in the House, no official opposition, but that senior ministers who'd been ministers in the past 30, 40, 50 years ago but were not part of the wartime government, would be allowed to sit on the front bench. 00:10:36:01 - 00:11:10:21 So that's how they resolved that during the war. And I suppose there's another, issue, not exactly a precedent, but for much more recent history during Labour's internal turbulence, when Jeremy Corbyn was the leader. Yes, of course, in 2016, I think it was when two thirds of the shadow cabinet resigned, a motion of no confidence. And in Jeremy Corbyn and it was, I think, the SNP's Pete Wishart at the time, the MP who basically asked the speaker in light of that development and the fact that at the time the Shadow Cabinet hadn't got enough members in it to cover all the scrutiny of all the departments. 00:11:10:23 - 00:11:28:20 You know, it wasn't clear whether the parliamentary Labour Party was going to hold together. Would they could they continue to be regarded as the official opposition? And the speaker, John Bercow, basically said, for, you know, for the purpose of that moment, yes, they were. He regarded them as the official opposition and he didn't entertain any further discussion of it. 00:11:28:21 - 00:11:47:10 Yeah. And I think one of the concerns also is you could end up in a scenario where the Conservatives have 62 and the Liberal Democrats had 58, 59 say that could change during the course of the Parliament. Those numbers could reverse. Yeah. I mean, you know, you reformed scenario. What happens if there is this kind of, you know, some kind of deal done? 00:11:47:14 - 00:12:07:06 What happens if there are defections? What happens if there's a merger? It's all going to be very, very fluid. I mean, one thing that's absolutely clear is the future of the Conservative Party is going to be very much up for grabs in the backwash of this election. They'll presumably be if they lose a leadership contest. And I think the key question at that point will be about making plans for Nigel. 00:12:07:06 - 00:12:26:18 Will there be a Conservative leader elected who's willing to bring Nigel Farage on board? Will there be a structuring of the election such that Nigel Farage might actually contest the Conservative leadership? All sorts of possibilities are open there and that could change the numbers dramatically. You might have some Conservative centrists jumping overboard at that point and possibly ending up in the Lib Dems. 00:12:26:24 - 00:12:48:14 You might have an influx of reform MPs that bumps the Conservatives up to a point where they're the undisputed official opposition. So all sorts of possibilities, as you say, are there, which means that perhaps wise heads in the parties might like to get their heads together and not have a complete winner takes all approach to who gets the powers and prerogatives of the official opposition? 00:12:48:16 - 00:13:15:06 You know, speaking rights at PMQs and things like that might be divvied up more equitably, simply because who is the leader of the opposition might change. Yeah, but there's a lot of money at stake. Oh yes. Absolutely. The short money as it's called, named after Ted Short, the deputy leader of the Labour Party back in the 1970s. The official funding that goes to opposition parties to allow them to develop policies and staff themselves and generally run an effective check on government. 00:13:15:12 - 00:13:34:00 That money is up for grabs. It's 1 million pounds or thereabouts for the leaders of the oppositions office. So that in itself, and that's never been split, you know, between parties. I mean each party will get additional money for the number of seats. Then they'll then get a top up for, I think, something like 40 odd pounds for every sort of 200 votes or something. 00:13:34:02 - 00:13:58:18 So they'll get that depending upon their electoral performance. But the actual funds to support the leader of the opposition’s office is 1 million pounds. It's not a small amount of money. Big zlotys in terms of, you know, party funding that. I mean, it's interesting that it could be quite a challenging parliament for the speaker in terms of how the opposition parties are managed, you know, how they they're engaged and, you know, you mentioned Nigel Farage. 00:13:58:18 - 00:14:24:19 I mean, can you imagine a scenario in which the Liberal Democrats become the second largest party in terms of seats, but the fourth party in terms of share the vote, Nigel Farage arrives with, you know, substantial, reasonable share of the vote, significantly above the Liberal Democrats. But he's got 2 or 3 MPs at best. He wanted to get in the party leaders debate on the basis that he was he was the leader of the opposition because he, you know, in one poll he'd gone above the Conservatives. 00:14:24:21 - 00:14:50:02 It's not hard to imagine him sort of walking up to the front bench and trying to claim a space and saying, you know, I'm going to speak at the expense, folks. This time I, I'm, you know, the sort of third party. But I share the national vote, not my entitlement for my party. And he's not averse to theater, although it is worth saying that speakers and deputy speakers hate the Commons being used for theater, and so they might come down like a ton of bricks on people who they thought were just staging stunts in the chamber. 00:14:50:04 - 00:15:17:14 I remember John Bercow once getting very cross with Caroline Lucas for wearing a t shirt with a slogan on it. I mean, that's that's several notches short of of, Nigel Farage trying to swan in and take the central point in the opposition frontbench. Yeah. Well, talking about taking seats on the frontbench, we've had quite a number of questions from listeners, Mark, about what's going to happen at start the Parliament and if we have got a situation with so many Labour MPs, where are they going to sit, for example? 00:15:17:14 - 00:15:39:04 And we've had a question in from Charlie Feldman. He's in Canada, in Ottawa. He loves the podcast, which is good to know. Thank you. Charlie. He's curious to know how office space in Parliament is divided after the election. Famously, Congress has a seniority lottery system for offices in Canada. It's driven by the whips, but the speaker allocates space for unaffiliated members. 00:15:39:04 - 00:15:56:07 So what's the practice at Westminster? So offices and seats, when will they all go? First of all, you have to wait for the numbers to emerge from the general election to know what you're of juggling with. There are certain things that there's a sort of suite of offices that is traditionally the leader of the oppositions office in the Norman Shaw South building. 00:15:56:07 - 00:16:28:11 This is a big sort of Victorian building, a little bit off the main parliamentary campus, but in general, you'll have to wait for a sort of Rubik's Cube exercise by the accommodation whips who work out where people are going to go. And this is a combination of seniority and numbers. So if you are a rather grand Privy councilor Ex-Cabinet minister, you get a palatial office suite with dual aspect views of Parliament in the river in a nice sort of corner office in portcullis House, that big parliamentary office block where most MPs have their backs these days. 00:16:28:13 - 00:16:44:22 If you are a relative newcomer who no one's ever heard of and hasn't eaten previously, at the right dinner tables, you'll find yourself in a converted broom cupboard at the far end of the Norman Shaw North, which is like a 15 minute sprint from the voting lobbies. It'll all be worked out on that combination of seniority and party numbers. 00:16:45:01 - 00:17:02:22 And the grander you are, the better your office is. But it may not be very good. I mean, that's one of the things that new MPs actually find a bit of a shock, I think, when they get there. So they won't get an office straight away. No, no, there will be a period. we'll be talking about this later in the pod where they're basically using temporary facilities while policies are still sorted out. 00:17:02:22 - 00:17:22:20 Yeah. It's not I think is one of the things that comes as a bit of a shock thinking in 2010. You know, there was an obviously quite a turnover. Then after the expenses scandal, they did something like 1600 office moves and I think it was 31,000 changes to the telephone exchange numbers. So it is a big operation. And you say, well we'll talk about that later. 00:17:22:22 - 00:17:56:06 And then when the MPs arrived, first bit of business is they've got to select a speaker. Yes. Lindsay Hoyle will be running in his seat as surely without any great opposition as speaker seeking reelection. And he will come to the chamber expecting to be proposed, seconded, and more or less as a formality, voted back into the chair. I don't get much whiff of anybody wanting to challenge him at the moment, and then he will select temporary deputy speakers to cover the business window because he can't be there the whole time, and that will hold until proper deputy speakers are elected a bit later on. 00:17:56:06 - 00:18:14:13 It's usually three, sometimes there's an additional one. There's an additional Deputy Speaker serving for a while in the last parliament, but that will take a little bit longer because there will be a whole load of internal Commons elections that will have to follow. Yeah. The MPs will then have to swearing the speaker has to be there to take the oath and preside over that bit. 00:18:14:13 - 00:18:31:08 So that's why he's done first. Yeah. And that'll be over a few days. You'll see these, these pictures of the lines of them waiting to take the oath. And each one of them will hopefully then be publishing a screengrab of themselves on social media afterwards, because it's a very proud moment when you do it, particularly for the first time. 00:18:31:11 - 00:18:51:00 And of course, there is another point about this is the order in which you are sworn in 30 or 40 years down the road may determine whether you are the father or mother of the house, the most senior, longest serving MP, which gives you a role potentially presiding over the election of Speaker sometime in the distant future. And some people, believe it or not, have their eye on that. 00:18:51:01 - 00:19:09:15 Yeah, yeah. Well, I think if Peter Bottomley returns, he will continue to be the father of the House. But if he doesn't, then it will depend very much on who is left in the queue. And you're talking about people like Sir Edward Leigh and David Davis and so on. And if she gets back because Harriet Harman stood down, she was mother of the house. 00:19:09:15 - 00:19:24:21 She stood down at the election. So I think the next in line would be Diane Abbott. If she wins, well, that would be at the dawn of what was the 87 intake of memory. So. So yeah. So watch this space. Find out who takes those positions as the Commons. But it's a fond farewell to MPs who sat there in the 70s. 00:19:24:24 - 00:19:43:06 Yeah. And then of course, the first item of business will be the King's Speech on the, 17th. Yeah. July. So barely will MPs have recovered after the rigors of the election campaign. They'll be straight into Westminster a few days later. And then the week following, they've got the King's speech. So the government will have to put together. 00:19:43:06 - 00:20:09:05 And in less than a fortnight it's speech for the King, state opening, all the panoply and all the ceremony that will no doubt talk about a bit near the time. And, yeah, the government will lay out its legislative program. Yeah. This will be the program of bills it intends to pass in the coming parliamentary session. If they're really interested in getting a lot done very quickly, they may even do what the coalition did back in 2010, which was announced as a two year parliamentary session. 00:20:09:05 - 00:20:39:06 So the to get rid of the annual cycle and possibly allow themselves a bit longer to push a vast program of legislation through without the distraction of another King's speech in the middle of speculation on my part. And that will be the start, I think, of a bit of a legislative jump. Yeah. I mean, this is I found really frustrating in the last week or so, the number of political journalists who don't seem to realize that the King's Speech is actually constitutionally necessary at the start of the parliament, but also that they are going to want to bring forward bills very, very quickly afterwards. 00:20:39:06 - 00:21:02:24 And if you look at what happened in 2010, if you look at what happened in 1997, when you had the change of government, and then, of course, in 2010, the coalition was put together within a day or two of the King's Speech, the first bills were being presented. There's the academies bill, I think, in the in the coalition years, listening, which was a Michael Gove effort, which presumably his then acolyte Dominic Cummings had had drafted and ready to rock. 00:21:03:00 - 00:21:22:15 Yeah. And in 2010 they had the identity Documents bill, the local government bill. And as you say, the academies. In 1997, they had quite a raft of bills. But of course, the referendums Bill for Scotland of Wales was the first back to the the stocks. And I think it'll be interesting to see what are the first few bills that come forward for this government. 00:21:22:15 - 00:21:47:14 I mean, it's suggested that one of the first ones they will want to get through and will want to lay down is a marker, as a flagship bill is sort of this idea of the taking back control, the sort of devolution to regional government, much more decent decentralization, much more powers for those elected mayors, mostly Labour now and then, those big sort of super regions that have been created and that will be a spearhead of Labour's program. 00:21:47:14 - 00:22:06:09 But I'm sure there will be much, much more as well. But of course, the critical question that we don't know the answer to, but which affects a lot of the timing and procedures that are going to follow once you've got the King's speech out of the way, is when the recess will be. So the summer recess, they normally break late July in the last Parliament. 00:22:06:09 - 00:22:28:11 They recess date break of the 23rd of July. So that's the week after the King's Speech. Now, that will no longer apply. They'll have to provide new dates for the recess plans. So how later they're going to sit into July. Are they going to August. Are they going to come back early in August, perhaps after the bank holiday and sit maybe the last week in August and then for a couple of weeks in September? 00:22:28:11 - 00:22:55:17 Will they break for party conference recess for three weeks? Well, they might be able to do two weeks, you know. Will they sit through conference period? It seems unlikely, but until we get the answers to those questions, it's pretty difficult to look too far ahead and to think when a things like select committee is going to be set up, because those are sort of going to be dependent upon how much time there is when Parliament sitting before it breaks and the MPs go away for a well-earned rest in their constituencies. 00:22:55:21 - 00:23:21:19 And one of the critical things that, of course, will be coming down the track will be the first Labour budget. Yes. And that may take a little while because there are various necessary preliminaries. Rachel Reeves has already said she wants to be sure there's proper office for Budget Responsibility forecasts available for what she'll be proposing. You may remember, this is the problem that Liz Truss's government got into when they said they didn't want to bother with the fuddy duddy old OBR and its doomsaying predictions. 00:23:21:21 - 00:23:50:12 And that way madness lay, as it turned out. So Rachel Reeves will certainly want to have those folks in place, and they take a bit of a while. But there's a much, much wider question of what they're going to do about government spending in general, because clearly there's a huge crisis hanging over the public finances, and some very painful decisions will have to be made, which means a comprehensive spending review and look right across the board at all government spending cutting here, possibly allocating more money there, but mostly cutting. 00:23:50:13 - 00:24:10:23 Yeah. The OBR requires ten weeks to prepare its report to accompany in the budget. So if you count forward assuming that if she is indeed Chancellor of the Exchequer, as one assumes, she gets into the Treasury on the Friday after the election and she instructs the OBR, a big red button on the desk to push, you know, beyond our forecasts required. 00:24:10:23 - 00:24:31:03 And the klaxon starts to sound, assuming that's the case when you count forward ten weeks from that date, the earliest possible date you could have a budget would be 13th of September. Now, going back to what we just talked about in respect of recess that following weekend is when Liberal Democrat conference starts, and then you've got Labour conference a week after a Conservative conference, so on. 00:24:31:03 - 00:24:50:16 So it seems to me unlikely, unless they are going to sit through a normal conference recess, it seems to be unlikely they're going to get a budget in before because the budget on the day, that's then a several day long budget debate. You could theoretically delay that for a few days and stretch that out, but I don't. And you can delay over sort of three weeks or so. 00:24:50:16 - 00:25:13:09 That's difficult. So it seems to me that the budget is most likely to be in October. But then you said, well, the comprehensive spending review, I mean, they need departmental spending plans for the next financial year starting next April. And my understanding is that, in effect, departments and agencies and so on need to know what the department allocations is going to be in December in order to prep everything in place for April, start of April. 00:25:13:11 - 00:25:35:20 So you're looking at doing an initial comprehensive spending review just for one year, just to cover what's coming up and then possibly a sort of three year comprehensive spending review looking further ahead. So I suppose the question arises, might they delay the budget to match up with the comprehensive spending on how the sort of Big Bang Mega Financial announced later in the autumn? 00:25:35:21 - 00:26:04:10 Yeah. So who knows what's in Rachel Reeves’ mind, but that's something that they're going to have to grapple with. And then, of course, the other thing you mentioned spending is the estimates. Now, you know, this is one of the bits of unfinished business. Yes. So I'm checking this and asking some Clerks to confirm this, but I don't think at the end of the Parliament in May, I don't think the government had laid what are known as the main estimates before Parliament and that they'd been approved. 00:26:04:12 - 00:26:25:18 Now, main estimates are essentially departmental spending plans for the financial year. So basically departments get 45% of their money upfront in advance. In the first stage of the estimates cycle. This sort of financial cycle for the year. And then they submit their main estimates, which are the detailed spending plans, and they have to be approved by early August. 00:26:25:20 - 00:26:43:17 But they haven't been so far as far as you can tell. No. And they normally sort of submitted, you know, late May, June and get approved by July. And the problem, of course, is 45% of your departmental money in advance. Once you get past the sort of halfway point of the financial year when you can see the problem, you start to run out. 00:26:43:17 - 00:27:04:02 You know it depletes. So you need to ensure that you've got the main estimates in place. So you've got that financial cover. Now they could go beyond August. This is set out in standing orders. They'd have to amend the standing orders set aside come up with a new date. But when that new date would be linked to the questions of, well, how tight are things in some of these departments? 00:27:04:05 - 00:27:22:03 If they run out of money? I'm sure there are options. Surely it makes sense to squeeze them in in July before MPs go away? I would assume so. And normally that would entail several days worth of debate, because there are estimates day debates attached to the spending. Yeah. And select committees, of course, are the bodies that normally look at the departmental estimates. 00:27:22:03 - 00:27:43:05 So departmental select committee will be sent the estimate they will look at it. They're assisted by a scrutiny unit in the House of Commons where they've got some some accounting experts who will be poring over the spending plans and will report and then any backbench MP. But primarily it's often select committee chairs will bid for a debate on one of the departmental estimates. 00:27:43:07 - 00:28:05:17 Now here's then the interesting question. Then select committees are not going to be up and running. Select committees are unlikely to be up and running before September. So who's going to choose the debates and those estimates if they're going to be laid essentially by a government who hasn't had any role in preparing them? They're not the departments spending plans that the new government wants. 00:28:05:19 - 00:28:28:24 They'll have to go ahead in order to ensure the financial cover, and then there's going to be nobody to scrutinize them really for several months. But they'll have to be approved. So the next five, six months, I think there's quite certain quite important, significant things that are effectively going to go on scrutinized because the various sort of bodies and procedures are not going to be established in time for it to happen. 00:28:28:24 - 00:28:50:16 And when you say various things we're talking about here is billions upon billions of taxpayers money. Yeah. I mean, department estimates is essentially all the money that the departments will spend this year. And as you say, billions of pounds. Now, let's put this in context. They don't get much scrutiny in the normal run things. And so it's one of our but it's not exactly serious scrutiny of the government spending thing. 00:28:50:16 - 00:29:08:10 It's always struck me as one of the biggest weaknesses in the structure. That's kind of evolved over the years, is that no one really looks at how the government spends its money and says, hang on, should we take a couple of billion from this department and put it into education? Or should we take a couple of billion from the Home Office and put into defense? 00:29:08:10 - 00:29:36:09 There's no mechanism for Parliament to do that except this kind of vestigial estimates process, which is never actually used for that purpose. No. And you get to debate 2 or 3 of the departments the way the estimates are put together, they're so high level. When things are grouped together in sort of the accounts that it's very, very difficult to, you know, if you've got a particularly controversial program in a department, it's very difficult to pick that out and the estimate and say, I want that program eliminated that line in the estimate. 00:29:36:11 - 00:29:57:10 So an individual MP can't propose an amendment to remove it because it's wrapped up with a whole load of other spendings. And you can't disaggregate it, and MPs can't add to the estimate. They can try and reduce the estimate, but they can't add to it. So the way the system works is poor. There's very little incentive for MPs to engage with it because they can't really affect things. 00:29:57:12 - 00:30:17:19 But nonetheless, having select committees look at these and having even if it's 2 or 3, only being subjected to a little bit more detailed analysis is better than nothing. And they couldn't get much at all this time in some minor check on government as well. This brings us very neatly on to the question of what's going to happen with the select committees. 00:30:17:19 - 00:30:50:12 I think the committees have, over the last couple of decades, become increasingly important in the kind of Whitehall Westminster ecosystem as the place where you really do get a good detailed look at what the government's doing and when ministers do get really serious questioning. Now, if you've got a micro opposition facing a government with a mega majority, one of the things that happens in the House of Commons is that the chairs and membership of select committees are allocated according to the strength of the parties in the Commons, so Labour will get most of the chairs of the select committees. 00:30:50:12 - 00:31:11:17 There are a few that are kind of set aside for the opposition, and Labour will get most of the members of the Select Committee. So you will have Labour MPs dominating the scrutiny of a Labour government. Yeah, but also it's going to take a while for all that to get put in place. Yes. And you know, this is where the appointment of the government ministerial team will take place. 00:31:11:17 - 00:31:30:14 So we need to know who isn't going to get junior jobs and who are the senior members that are left that just I'm going to bid to be select committee chairs. So are the Angela Eagles and the Meg Hilliers, for example, going to be ministers rather than being available to chair a select committee? Yeah. So that's the that's almost a starting point for this really. 00:31:30:20 - 00:31:50:20 Who's the potential cast of characters. Yeah. And I think Labour's front bench currently is too big in terms of prime ministerial posts that are permitted by law. So they're either going to have to find that out and people are going to not get jobs they were hoping for, or some of them are going to get jobs, but they're not going to get paid, which is possibly the worst scenario of all. 00:31:50:22 - 00:32:10:22 But it means that there could be some fallout from the front bench, so who there might be available and might therefore be effectively offered a select committee slot as a bit of a payoff for losing prospect of ministerial office if the Conservatives are the main opposition, if they win enough seats, what happens in terms of their leadership election? 00:32:10:23 - 00:32:28:10 Because one has to assume that Rishi Sunak will stand down if he suffers the worst defeat in modern history for the Conservative Party. When will their election take place? And that will then lead to a further sort of change on their front bench, who's who's going to be on the front bench and who might decide that actually they'd rather chair a select committee. 00:32:28:10 - 00:33:04:06 I was thinking David Davis, well, most interesting people in the Conservative benches for many years, he's a kind of chronic conspirator. You might say, about somebody else. But he's a very, very, very sharp and clever operator. In 1997, looking at the vast Labour majority that had he basically decided to sit that Parliament out, not go on to the opposition frontbench, which he would have walked onto otherwise, and chair of the Public Accounts Committee, and that had the dual advantage of being a very prominent post where you got on to, for example, the today program very often because there'd be a report saying this disaster has happened and he would go on and present that report. 00:33:04:06 - 00:33:26:13 And also, you got a salary. Yeah. Yeah. Well, it wouldn't surprise me if he decides to run for the PAC again. We've actually had a question related to all of this from John Fittonby, one of our listeners who says, you know, given the distribution of chairs and the political makeup of select committees, if there is a large majority, if they're heavily tilted in favor of the government, could this make them less impactful? 00:33:26:16 - 00:33:47:24 It very much depends who the chairs then, or if the chairs are people who are members of the awkward squad, who are temperamentally, you know, scrutineers who want to see ministers justify their decisions and make them all very uncomfortable. If they don't, if you get those people, they'll be pretty effective. But that will depend on the individual elections for the individual committees. 00:33:48:01 - 00:34:08:19 And it may well be that an influx of new MPs, who possibly not mostly met each other before, won't be able to make those judgments very easily. So you'll have lots of newbies electing people that they may vaguely have heard of, but don't really know to positions who's powers and abilities they don't possibly fully understand. So it will be a slightly messy situation. 00:34:08:19 - 00:34:27:16 So don't be surprised if you you got a great sort of phalanx of gimlet eyed scrutineers chairing ministers limb from limb every time something went wrong, I think it will be much more consensual and kind of getting with the program. Yeah, but then you look at the way in which the new intake in previous parliaments have used the select committees as an opportunity to make their name. 00:34:27:16 - 00:34:54:06 And you say the bully pulpit sort of approach. Alicia Kearns on Foreign Affairs. Tom Tugendhat before her, and, well, running for the leadership and then and then bagging a seat in government. So probably not in the first one, possibly two years of the parliament. But this is going to be an awful lot of Labour MPs who are not going to get ministerial jobs in this Parliament, and therefore a berth on the select committee looks like a good option and a way to make their name. 00:34:54:06 - 00:35:28:16 And of course, some select committees are more prominent than others. The Treasury Committee is always a very good committee to get into, but it tends to be one with quite senior people at the Foreign Affairs Committee. Similarly, but further down the line, there are committees that could be a lot more effective than sometimes they are. When Mary Creagh, who's attempting to return to Parliament in this election, took over the Environmental Audit Select committee, she turned it from a committee that was very much focused on a very specific auditing function into something that had much wider inquiries, that attracted a lot more attention. 00:35:28:16 - 00:35:51:03 So people can suddenly find a gig and turn it into something better. Yeah. And I think one of the features of the election of select committee chairs these days is that they feel that they owe their allegiance to the House. Yeah. So yes, Labour will have most likely a big majority. But any Labour MP wanting to run for a chair of a select committee will still have to attract support from the other side of the House, not least because I need nominations. 00:35:51:03 - 00:36:09:00 Yes, you need a certain number of nominations to come from non governing parties, so they will need that support. They'll have to make their case. I presume that given the sheer number of MPs there may be some competition. That's not always been the case. In recent years. Some select committee chairs have been uncontested, but I think that's less likely. 00:36:09:00 - 00:36:38:18 I think they can be very, very stern competition because it does give you some kind of public platform. I imagine more or less, any senior Labour MP who isn't in government as a minister will be out there trying to find a berth on the committee corridor. Yeah. And as the last government found, they may be your own party, but once they've got that berth, they can turn into something of an irritant, which is probably healthy and good for ministers souls, even if it doesn't feel like that when you're squirming in the TV lights, getting a grilling that's going out live on the news channel. 00:36:38:20 - 00:37:02:08 The other thing, of course, is what Prime Minister's questions will look like. So we've had another question in on Twitter this time. So it was Linda who asked us. She says, if I recall correctly, green and plaid cymru, the Welsh party, had always got to ask a question at PMQs. So presumably as leaders of their party in Westminster. So if Nigel Farage is elected, will he always get a question? 00:37:02:14 - 00:37:24:04 And how does the speaker decide who to call from the opposition? The answer to that on Nigel Farage is, of course, yes. If you've got a party with a certain level of strength in the House, you will qualify to get a regular slot on PMQs. It may not be every PMQs. There isn't always a sort of guaranteed Plaid Cymru question at every PMQs, for example, for a party that has, what, three MPs? 00:37:24:06 - 00:37:43:15 so they don't have absolute guarantee for every week, although some of their members may, by the luck of the draw, pop up on the ballot, because there's a sort of random ballot that provides the list of questioners, and the speaker then slots in the kind of required questions from the leader of the opposition and from the leaders of the various parties who have a piece of the pie. 00:37:43:17 - 00:38:05:09 In Prime Minister's question. Sir Ed Davey is leader of the Liberal Democrats. For example. We get a question every few weeks, but not guaranteed every week. The SNP, as the stated third party in the last Parliament, always got to ask two questions. Now, if the Lib Dems are the third party in the coming parliament, they will be the ones asking those two third party questions every week. 00:38:05:15 - 00:38:23:11 And the SNP will be perhaps relegated to scrambling around for a regular slot that gets once every few weeks, depending on entirely on the numbers. And there will also, as you say, there'll be Nigel Farage, there will be Plaid Cymru, there will be the Greens, there will be the Northern Ireland parties, they will all have their brief moment in the sun. 00:38:23:13 - 00:38:44:23 and of course the main opposition will get six questions each week. So you know that. But again, when it comes down to sharing the spoils of opposition, that is that is a key thing. That huge boost. Yeah, yeah. Just circling back to what we were saying about select committees. I mean, I do wonder if the Labour Party, we're talking about the small parties at PMQs and their share of the entitlement to ask questions. 00:38:45:00 - 00:39:12:20 I do wonder if the Labour Party, because of its dominance, might decide that, a good route for it is to be generous towards the smaller parties and actually offer up seats to them on some select committees so that, you know, the Greens, Reform, the SNP, Liberal Democrats, if, depending upon their performance, that they get some representation on select committees because otherwise it could be, you know, essentially a two party split on, on pretty much all of them. 00:39:13:00 - 00:39:39:21 Yeah, I think there would have to be a sensible distribution and Labour would, in effect, control that. And it might be wise of them to make sure that they do, chivalrously, if you like, make sure that the smaller parties get a look in. And it also has the advantage for them. Maybe it slightly dilutes the opposition voice against them if it's shared out between several different voices, attacking them from several different positions, rather than them constantly having a sort of concerted barrows from one direction. 00:39:39:21 - 00:40:06:19 Yeah. The other thing, of course, is we don't know what the government's plans are in terms of Whitehall machinery of government. If the government decides that it wants to restructure things that will affect select committees, it affects departmental questions. Of course. When Tony Blair came in, for example, John Prescott was given an empire, the Department for environment, transport and the regions and the whole committee structure had to be kind of rebuilt around that to shadow that rather than the previous set up. 00:40:06:20 - 00:40:27:10 Yeah. So we might lose some committees, we might get creation of new committees. But then even amongst the sort of the existing committees, the sort of areas where, you know, they could maybe think a little bit more radically about new areas they want to scrutinize or how structure things, an obvious one that needs a bit of remedial work, I think, is European Scrutiny Committee, which of course was Bill Cash. 00:40:27:10 - 00:40:47:16 His old committee, been on it for years, chaired it for a very long time, but its focus has been very much sort of scrutinizing very technical documents emerging out of the EU when we were a member and now looking at them from as a third party perspective for their implications for the UK, for our trade arrangements, for our relationship with member states. 00:40:47:18 - 00:41:05:18 But there's potentially ways to retool that now Bill's gone. And how does the House of Commons want to scrutinize European matters, do it in a different way? And how does the House of Commons want to scrutinize your favorite subject? Delegated legislation, all those statutory instruments going through every day. In the House of Lords, of course, they have a delegated legislation committee. 00:41:05:18 - 00:41:21:18 I was about to say I could never understand why the House of Commons didn't have a delegated legislation committee, except I do perfectly well understand why they don't have one, which is because the government doesn't want it scrutinized in that way. Yeah. I mean, to be fair to to Lucy Powell is assuming that she's going to be the next leader of the House of Commons. 00:41:21:18 - 00:41:42:01 I mean, she has highlighted the inadequacies of delegated legislation. Scrutiny is something of concern. So hopefully we will see some focus on that. And of course, we talked last week about the prospect of a modernization committee, which will have to be set up. That'll be another committee that will have to be staffed with MPs. Well, Ruth, I think that's probably a very good point for us to pause. 00:41:42:03 - 00:41:49:14 00:41:49:16 - 00:42:17:18 We so we're back, Mark. And well, what are the newbies going to experience when they, they arrive at Westminster? well, Ruth, a very close observer on election night, when you seen all those declarations where a new MP for a particular constituency is declared, the very sharp eyed, if the cameras stay on them long enough may see the returning officer handing them a brown envelope, not an envelope, I should immediately say containing betting winnings go well. 00:42:17:18 - 00:42:50:09 We sincerely hope so. Anyway, this is going to be the envelope telling them what happens next. This is the instructions on entering Parliament and what they've got to do to get on with the business of starting their operations as an MP. And as it turns out, the House of Commons has a gigantic operation to induct quite a large generation of newbies who will be coming in after this election, get them used to the procedures of the House, getting through all the gory details of setting up their offices and setting up their email accounts and all that kind of thing. 00:42:50:11 - 00:43:10:08 And this is something they've done for several elections now, and it's quite an elaborate process. Yes. I mean, if it's broadly mirrors what's happened in the past, which I think it probably will. In previous elections, they've had House of Commons staff acting as bodies to new MPs on their arrival. So they sort of team them up and that body accompanies them around on that. 00:43:10:08 - 00:43:31:19 Certainly their first day takes them into the new members reception area, helps them get set up, as you say, with the, well, I think what they used to call the four P's, the security passes, their passes, the pay and pensions, their post, and their PCs, which I suppose now is, is their iPad or their laptop. Guide them through the processes and the offices to get all of that done. 00:43:31:21 - 00:44:02:13 There'll be advice on sorting out your staff, recruitment of your staff and so on. And then the guide them to the lockers and it will be hot desking. The new MPs, as I understand it, are going to be met at the entrance to Westminster Hall, and then they'll be whisked into the New World of Westminster, which they've entered, I suspect, in some cases, slightly unexpectedly, I think we may find that there's quite a lot of people coming into Parliament this time who decided to be candidates just to cut their teeth in a particular seat, or because it was their local area without actually much hope of being elected. 00:44:02:13 - 00:44:37:05 And now that they've been there, they are fully fledged honorable members of Parliament, and so they'll have quite a lot to absorb, in what one MP once called Hogwarts on Thames. It's a really different world and quite an intimidating one, and it can chew you up and spit you out if things go badly wrong. And the House of Commons seems to be making every possible effort to smooth the process for them, and there are some quite disturbing aspects to this in the security requirements for members of Parliament will be considerable, and it's not unnecessarily two members of Parliament in the last few years. 00:44:37:05 - 00:45:05:01 You know, Jo Cox in 2016, David Amess more recently have been murdered in the course of their parliamentary duties. So this is a serious matter and quite an intimidating one to have to get your teeth into. So shortly after arriving in Parliament. Yes. Well, if you go into Portcullis House at the moment, which is a modern annex adjacent to the Palace where a lot of MPs have their offices and select committee rooms and so on, and the new MPs will be guided through that to the to the reception area. 00:45:05:03 - 00:45:27:04 There's a sort of a door set up in the corner of portcullis House and, it displays all the security precautions that new members or indeed returning members, old members might want in their house. So welcome to Westminster movies and you name it. And it's there. Yeah, quite an alarming prospect bringing you MPs. Well, quite a dash of cold water after the euphoria of victory. 00:45:27:04 - 00:45:43:16 You suspect when people realize that this is one of the things that they're going to have to live with, but that, unfortunately, is the world that our politicians currently do live in. And the other aspects, of course, they'll have to get briefed on and give a lot of thought to cyber security. It's not just their personal security, but it's also the digital, the IT side of things. 00:45:43:18 - 00:46:10:00 We know that Parliament is a risk. We know that it's a target. So we'll be briefings, no doubt on that. And these will start pretty rapidly. And the sort of folk memories in Westminster of newly elected MPs turning up at 7 a.m. on the Friday after the general election. So keen, 2 or 3 hours, perhaps after their own declaration, they're turning up at the doors of Westminster in the small hours of the morning, wanting to get their teeth into their parliamentary work. 00:46:10:02 - 00:46:31:23 I don't know how many will be quite that eager this coming Friday, but, you never know. There may be a few. And so there's an operation that's going to extend through the weekend and into the Monday. And then on the Tuesday after the general election, MPs can start by electing a speaker and taking the oath themselves. But in the time in between, there's an awful lot of setting up to do. 00:46:31:23 - 00:46:51:04 They've got to have an account set up so that they can start claiming necessary expenses for things like the setting up of their office and whatever. And of course, it's not just a Westminster office, it's also a constituency office. So it's a double sided operation because the big thing for them to look forward to on the Tuesday before they elect the the speakers will be a chamber briefing for all the new MPs. 00:46:51:04 - 00:47:12:09 So it'll be their first encounter unless they've worked there before their first encounter with the House of Commons chamber, an opportunity to familiarize themselves with it. I suspect a lot of them will be quite shocked at how small it is if they've never been in before. an opportunity to find out from the senior staff of the House, probably some senior members from each party who will give a bit of guidance. 00:47:12:09 - 00:47:29:03 And so on, and find out about the basic etiquette of being in the chamber, the do's and don'ts of when you speak, when you stand, when you sit down, how you enter the chamber. We'll get some guidance on that. So that Tuesday afternoon they're ready to go. You're going to have a little bit of familiarity about where they should be sitting and what they should and shouldn't do. 00:47:29:06 - 00:47:50:20 And there are plenty of don'ts that can get you into a lot of trouble. Very quickly. If, for example, you take part in a debate and make your maiden speech and then just disappear, oh no, no no no no, no, Mr. Speaker, you're expected to be there for speeches immediately after you next two speeches after you speak up, and you get the next two speeches at least before you then leave the chamber, and you’re expected to be back in the chamber for the winding up. 00:47:50:20 - 00:48:12:24 And if you're not, woe betide you, because at that point you get marked down by the speaker or the Deputy Speaker in the chair, and you may find that you have a bit of difficulty getting called after that. And a bit of advice to new MPs don't stand when the speaker is standing. You're expected to sit down in respect to the chair and don't walk in between the speaker and the speaker himself. 00:48:12:24 - 00:48:31:20 You know, don't get in the eyeline of the two. That's a no no as well. So there are plenty of dos, don'ts, and rituals to absorb for the newcomers. And that's just the start. It takes quite a while, I think, to attune yourself to the wacky and wonderful world of Westminster. But the sooner the people involved managed to do it, the more effective they become. 00:48:31:23 - 00:49:00:00 Yes, indeed. So, Mark, I think that's probably all we've got time for this week. We should just say obviously next week we would normally be recording on a Thursday, but that would be general Election Day. So it seemed a bit pointless to be talking about the election whilst it's happening and we don't know the results, so we can record on the Saturday after the election when things have settled down a bit, we know the results and we'll be talking about who these new MPs are and who might be the stars of the new intake all assisted. 00:49:00:00 - 00:49:16:15 we hope, by the great Michael Crick, who's been on the pod before talking about candidates. Now he's got a chance to talk about them as honorable members. Join us then. Looking forward to see you next week. Bye bye. 00:49:16:17 - 00:49:34:15 Well, that's all from us for this week's episode of Parliament Matters. Please hit the follow or Subscribe button in your podcast apps to get the next episode as soon as it lands, and help us to make the podcast better by leaving a rating or review on Apple or Spotify and sharing your feedback. Our producer tells us it's important for the algorithm to give the show a boost. 00:49:34:17 - 00:50:00:01 And Mark, tell us more about the algorithm. What do I know about algorithms? I write my scripts with a quill pen on vellum and then send it in by carrier pigeon. Well, before we go, a quick reminder also that you can send us your questions on all things Parliament by visiting We'll be discussing them in future episodes, including our special Urgent Questions editions dedicated to what you want to know about Parliament. 00:50:00:06 - 00:50:18:01 And you can find us across social media @HansardSociety to get more content related to the show and the wider work of the Hansard Society. 00:50:20:01 - 00:50:36:05 Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. For more information, visit or find us on social media @HansardSociety.

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