Why the winner won't take it all in tomorrow's General Election

07 June 2017

RPC trainees have a chequered record when it comes to clairvoyance. We have predicted "resounding" victories for the Remain Campaign and Hillary Clinton and stated universally that there would be no election in 2017.

You might as well look to the horoscope section of your local paper for any accurate electoral prediction (if you're interested, Theresa May is a Libra and Jeremy Corbyn a Gemini). That said, it is a fact that on 9 June 2017 a car will pull up to Buckingham Palace and either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn will be asked by Her Majesty if they can form a Government.

The next five years

There is a strong possibility that if the person to emerge from the car door is Theresa May, she will lead a majority government. The last time that a single party was returned with a comfortable majority was in 2005 under Tony Blair. To critics, Parliament failed to scrutinise many of that government's decisions and there are understandable concerns that a firm electoral endorsement of a single party might lead to a similar situation.

Much of the election is presented as a presidential-style race, with all the associated trimmings (Channel 4's "May v Corbyn Live" a prime example). There is a natural subsequent assumption that the agenda is set solely by the incumbent of Number 10. Arguably that has not been true for the past seven years and is unlikely to be true after this election. If you want evidence of the slipping monopoly of Number 10 just look at the causes of this election.

The Brexit election

The reason we are here is Brexit - Theresa May's electoral announcement effectively said as much. A major reason for that is because a number of MPs from outside the Government were able to place pressure on David Cameron to demand a referendum on the issue; they were able to do so through the Backbench Business Committee. It allowed a core squad of eight MPs with a particular anti-EU passion to keep relentless pressure on the Government; tabling a debate and motion, then a campaign and finally a threatened amendment to the Queen's speech. The combined effect was to force David Cameron into promising a European referendum.

The opportunities provided by the Backbench Business Committee to guarantee floor time in the House of Commons should not be underestimated by anyone. If there is no strong majority government after the election these will only be amplified.

Beyond the Commons

It is not simply in the House of Commons that there has been constitutional evolution.

The House of Lords has become an increasingly active chamber, testing constitutional constraints to defeat the Government's plans for tax credit reform. Although they are unlikely to firmly resist Brexit, especially following a general election on the issue, that does not mean that they will not intervene on other matters on the domestic agenda. Last Parliament saw Lords propose laws on a number of controversial issues including: assisted dying; limiting the ability of the Government to deploy troops without Commons approval; and political lobbying.

Outside of Parliament, Gina Miller's successful case to demand a parliamentary vote in advance of the triggering of Article 50 led to a Supreme Court judgment which reaffirmed the courts' willingness to ensure that proper constitutional procedure is followed. In a time of large constitutional upheaval, the role of the constitutional lawyer is likely to be even more in demand.

Bringing it all together

Telling the future by looking at the past assumes that the conditions remain constant. This is like driving a car by looking in the rear-view mirror. Ignoring Herb Brody's dire warning, can any of this recent constitutional change be of use to the world beyond Westminster? Arguably yes.

If future historians define the last seven years through the Brexit prism then the last two Parliaments could be reduced to a tale of triumph for special interest groups. Brexit has shown the power of a motivated cadre of backbenchers. Gina Miller has shown the abilities of well financed organisations to call the Government to account through the courts. The Lords' revolts have shown increasing interventionism from the Upper Chamber and willingness to intervene in more emotive political issues. Any number of other groups, looking at the triumph of the Brexiteers and Gina Miller, must be aware of the potential for those same powers to be used in promotion of their own agendas. As the saying goes 'change but the name and the story is told of yourself'.

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