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There’s no denying that whatever the implications of the country, there is great drama to be had in British politics when you combine high stakes with a hung Parliament.

James Graham’s stand-out play This House was set during the tooth-and-nails fight to keep the Labour Government of 1974-9 on the road, against the backdrop of devolutionary upheaval and the Winter of Discontent.

But whilst the crises, and many of Parliament’s rules, may have changed, it looks as if procedural skulduggery is back: Labour have accused the Government of trying to ‘rig’ bill committees.

The MPs on these committees, which scrutinise individual pieces of legislation as they proceed through Parliament, usually reflects the balance of the Commons. A Government with a majority in the House gets a majority on the committees. A Government without one… does not.

In light of Labour’s new and more confrontational approach to Brexit, these committees would thus have offered Parliament’s hardcore Remainers the opportunity to wage a procedural war of attrition against a Government already hard-pressed for legislative time.

So they have employed a counter-argument. Thanks to their working relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party, the Government has a de facto working majority in the Commons (at least on critical issues such as Brexit). Ergo, that should be reflected in the committees.

According to the BBC, there is precedent for this: Walter Harrison, the Labour whip and star of the above-mentioned play, apparently worked similar magic on behalf of the Government in the 1970s. In our convention-driven constitution, that provides ministers with useful cover.

Furthermore, as Stephen Bush points out in the New Statesman, the proof of the issue is in the vote itself. If the Government can win a vote in the Commons to give itself a majority on the committees, it’s hard to deny that such a majority exists.

This argument has also sparked a secondary row over the status of the ten DUP MPs. Labour figures such as Chris Bryant have suggested that if it is deemed to give the Government an official majority it ought to lose Short Money, the state funds used to support the work of opposition parties.

But although Theresa May reportedly sought one, the Conservative pact with the DUP is not a full-blown coalition and its MPs do not sit on the Government benches. The simple test for Short Money is whether or not a party enjoys the benefits of office, such as civil service support, for which the funds were intended to compensate. The DUP does not.

In bidding for a majority on bill committees, ministers aren’t seeking recognition for a majority government (which does not exist), but for a government-with-a-working-majority (which does, for the moment). Just the sort of argument that makes times like this such fun for constitutional geeks.

Brexit is still almost two years away. Expect a lot more of this sort of thing.

69 comments for: The battle of the bill committees is not an attack on the constitution

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