Speaker poised to strip Labour of designation as Her Majesty’s Opposition in Autumn

by Atul Hatwal

Uncut has learned that House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, is considering action to strip Labour of the title, Her Majesty’s Opposition, if Jeremy Corbyn wins the leadership election and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) remains on strike, leaving the bulk of front bench roles unfilled.

Sources in the House of Commons administration familiar with his deliberations have told Uncut that Bercow has looked on with dismay at the impact of Labour’s civil war on the functioning of Britain’s parliamentary democracy. One said,

“The meltdown happened so near the end of the last term and the situation was so fluid that it would not have been appropriate to act. But if the situation persists into Autumn, when there is a full schedule of parliamentary business, some form of action is likely.”

Although the constitutional position is murky, the Speaker has a pivotal role in determining which party is the opposition. Normally the choice is clear – it’s the largest party opposing the government. However, with dozens of frontbench roles unfilled, Labour is in dangerous territory.

Official designation as the Opposition brings a series of institutional advantages for Labour, ranging from funding to influence over the parliamentary agenda.

At the end of the last parliamentary term, Jeremy Corbyn was only able to complete his shadow cabinet by asking some MPs to take dual roles.

Paul Flynn became shadow leader of the House of Commons and shadow secretary of state for Wales and Dave Anderson was appointed the shadow secretary of state for both Scotland and Northern Ireland. Currently the majority of shadow ministerial positions remain unfilled for Labour.

When the new parliamentary session begins, Labour’s Swiss cheese front bench is likely to be exposed.

For example, if there is a motion on the floor relevant to a shadow team, while a Standing committee is considering a bill in that team’s area, with relevant Statutory Instruments committees also sitting and a Westminster Hall debate on a topic in their brief, then Labour will not be able to provide a shadow front bench representative in each debate.

In practical terms, it means the government will have no opposition in one or more area. They will not be held to account by the opposition and a core component of parliamentary democracy, in the way it has been practiced for over 100 years, will have broken down.

John Bercow and his team have been worrying about this since Labour’s front bench resigned en masse.

They understand the gravity of an intervention such as removing Labour’s designation as the official opposition. But Bercow is clear about the role of the House of Commons in Britain’s democracy.

He has been a champion of backbenchers’ rights and the function of the House in holding the executive to account. Simply allowing such a major breakdown in the operation of the Commons on a permanent basis would be unacceptable.

The majority of Labour MPs expect Corbyn to defeat his leadership challenger, Owen Smith, and several are prepared for a war of parliamentary attrition over the next year.

With the level of acrimony increasing between pro and anti-Corbyn camps on a daily basis, the potential for the parliamentary party to come together after the election, if Corbyn wins, seems vanishingly small.

One option floated by PLP rebels looking to plug the accountability gap has been for the chairs of the PLP backbench committees to exercise their right to speak from the frontbench and provide an alternate source of senior scrutiny in the chamber of the Commons.

However, this is unlikely to be good enough for the Speaker. It does not address the numbers problem for Labour’s shadow teams nor does it enable Labour to fulfil its core function as the opposition, providing a coherent, government-in-waiting, shadowing Theresa May’s administration.

The psychological and financial blow to Labour of losing official opposition status after 98 years would be huge.

The only possible route out of this mess, would be for Labour MPs to return to the frontbench and serve under Corbyn.

For many MPs, this would represent the ultimate humiliation.

However, such a move, while painful, might not be quite as bleak as they fear.

The primary means a leader has of exerting discipline on a frontbencher – the threat of the sack and replacement by a more pliant colleague – would be largely absent.

Shadow cabinet members and ministers could publicly express their unexpurgated views of the leader with impunity. If he sacked them, their replacement could simply pick up where they left off – after all 80% of the PLP voted against Corbyn in the motion of no confidence.

Jeremy Corbyn could face a no win situation – tolerate the complete breakdown of his parliamentary authority without any ability to enforce his will on the front bench or remove rebels and face the prospect of the Speaker removing Labour as the official opposition as a direct result of his actions when he couldn’t fill the shadow ministerial vacancies.

John Bercow might be politically neutral but he could be forgiven for hoping Owen Smith can pull off an unlikely victory and unite Labour’s fractured parliamentary party, saving the Speaker from one of the toughest parliamentary decisions in generations.

Update 28/07/16 11:29: The Speaker’s office has got in touch with this comment from his spokeswoman,

“No such discussions have taken place. What constitutes HM Official Opposition, is determined by law, Standing Orders (the rules governing the House of Commons), and Erskine May. The Speaker’s position on this matter has not changed since he was asked to rule on this Point of Order by the SNP’s Pete Wishart on 29th June: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2016-06-29/debates/16062967000002/PointOfOrder. Everything else is simply speculation and the Speaker’s Office does not indulge itself in speculation.”

The exchange with Pete Wishart is below,

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Page 49 of “Erskine May” refers to the official Opposition as

“the largest minority party which is prepared, in the event of the resignation of the Government, to assume office”.

The current official Opposition has lost two thirds of its shadow Cabinet. Their leader and what remains of the Front-Bench team no longer command the support of the overwhelming majority of their Back Benchers. They can now no longer provide shadow Ministers for large Departments of State. They are clearly in no shape to assume power or to meet the key responsibilities outlined in “Erskine May”. Given these obvious failings, what steps would now need to be taken to have the official Opposition replaced with one that can meet the responsibilities set out clearly in “Erskine May”?

Mr Speaker

I am familiar with “Erskine May”, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, and I am genuinely grateful to him for giving me notice of his point of order. I can confirm that the Labour party currently constitutes the official Opposition and that its leader is recognised by me, for statutory and parliamentary purposes, as the Leader of the Opposition. He will have noticed that I called the Leader of the Opposition earlier to ask a series of questions of the Prime Minister. He will also be aware that today we have Opposition business duly chosen by the Leader of the Opposition, as indicated on the Order Paper. I should perhaps add that in making these judgments and pronouncing in response to points of order, I do give, and have given, thought to the matter, and I have also benefited from expert advice. These matters are not broached lightly. I understand the vantage point from which he speaks, but he raised the question and I have given him the answer. We will leave it there for now.

It’s a measured response from the Speaker’s office. Two points are noteworthy from the exchange with with Pete Wishart: first, the Speaker does seem to admit he reflected on Labour’s position as the official opposition and sought expert advice; second he confined his judgement on Labour remaining the official opposition to the situation at the end of June.

Clearly Owen Smith could win the leadership race and the problem could go away, but if Corbyn wins and the front bench remains empty, would the reflection and advice be the same several months down the line? Uncut’s source suggests not.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut


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27 Responses to “Speaker poised to strip Labour of designation as Her Majesty’s Opposition in Autumn”

  1. Dragonfighter says:

    Which group would Bercow replace Labour with? Estimates vary about the size of the front bench team, but the figure is around 90-100, so with 54 SNP; 8 LibDems; 8 DUP; 4 Independent (including the no Whip SNP); 3 SDLP; 3 Plaid; 2 UUP; 1Green; + 1 UKIP there are not enough MPs to be an opposition without Labour. I have not included the 4 Sinn Fein members as they won’t take their seats.

  2. Blair says:

    Hmmm, got the HTML a bit wrong there

    That is pure unadulterated drivel Atul – and what’s worse you know it is (or at least it can reasonablt be expected that unless you are brain-dead you know it is).

    Ministers of the Crown Act 1937.

    If the rebels won’t take the whip but remain in the Labour Party then Corbyn remains Leader of the Opposition because the Labour Party remains the second largest party. Section 10(1) includes a definition (which codifies the usual situation under the previous custom) -” “Leader of the Opposition” means that member of the House of Commons who is for the time being the leader in that House of the party in opposition to His Majesty’s Government having the greatest numerical strength in that House”.

    The Speaker can under Under section 10(3) designate the leader of a different party – and the rules quite specifically state ‘party’ – which means that:

    if the rebels don’t leave Labour, Labour remains second largest party and Corbyn remains leader of the Opposition.

    If the rebels do leave Labour but don’t form a fresh party then who so ever is bigger – rump Labour or the SNP, form the Opposition.

    If the rebels do leave Labour and form another party, registered with the Electoral Commission n time, then they will form the Opposition.

    Mind you, if the rebels continue then they will face almost certain immediate expulsion from the party anyway – which at least saves the problem of them being deselected. The only thing that remians unanswered is whether people on a 75K salary with a massive expenses entitlement, can find anything in life to behave in an even more childish way than they are already.

  3. AJL says:

    This is a load of nonsense. Official opposition has nothing to do with the number of shadow junior ministers in post. Howard had a shadow cabinet of twelve.

  4. It doesn't add up... says:

    Alternatively, the party can split, with the larger faction taking over as official opposition. There is a very useful guide to the practical issues here:

    https://constitution-unit.com/2016/06/29/what-if-labour-splits/

    which those considering such action might want to consult.

  5. Rallan says:

    Westminster will not do anything to damage the establishment. This kind of “threat” will never actually be made officially, it will simply be suggested so as to assist the Labour establishment in ridding itself of Corbyn and returning to business as usual.

  6. james says:

    Labour just don’t get it. Neither do the left. Always hiding behind legalese or how `we can still carry on as before`.

    It matters not what Bercow says as much as what Nuneaton Man/Woman says. You cannot form an opposition. You cannot put forward a convincing coherent case to the British people. Don’t you think that’s a more important issue than whether Bercow is correct or not?

  7. Gordon Cowan says:

    Does anyone honestly think the SNP wouldn’t do a better job of being the official Opposition anyway?

  8. Mark Livingston says:

    The Tory-lites should stop their wrecking campaign now. It’s been going on for nearly a year, and it’s FAILED!

  9. At last this is coming down to basics, constitutional basics indeed. The most significant division between the two camps is parliamentary democracy. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/15/looking-beyond-jeremy-corbyn/

  10. Dragonfighter says:

    @Gordon Cowan, I think the SNP would be worse as an official opposition, I don’t like the idea of people whose main focus is Scotland attempting to destroy the parts of the Engish education system that the Tories haven’t, Scotland’s education system has been plummeting down the international league tables faster than the English one.
    Anyone for the idea of a State appointed guardian for their children?
    Would you trust an SNP trade minister to care about Welsh Cakes or Cornish Pasties?
    How about oversight of the police after the fiasco that is Police Scotland (well known for putting “Police Aware” notices on crashed cars with a badly injured, but alive, person inside) who now buy equipment from charity shops?

  11. Gus Friar says:

    ^^^^ Blair
    The legislation you cite is obsolete.
    Legislation relevant here is s. 2(2) of Ministers of the Crown Act 1975.
    Speaker has already given his view – for now: read carefully here.
    https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2016-06-29d.340.0#g340.3

  12. Tim says:

    Blair @11:18pm

    I don’t think your analysis is correct, for two reasons.

    1. Your analysis relies on a reading that omits the words “for the time being” and “in that House” from the definition of s10(1) MCA 1937. In my view, the correct reading of that provision is that the Leader of the Opposition is the Member of the House of Commons who, at the time the Speaker designates the Leader of the Opposition, leads the second largest party in the House of Commons. Therefore, if the PLP were to elect an alternative leader of the PLP who would then lead the Labour Party in the Commons, that person would fit the requirements of s10(1) MCA 1937. Whether the PLP can do that within the bounds of Labour’s rules, I don’t know – but that’s a Labour Party problem, not a Parliamentary / constitutional one.

    2. The MCA 1937 does not actually define what the Leader of the Opposition is, despite the regular claims that it does. What the MCA 1937 does is set salary and payment rates for ministers (and equivalent roles), and it defines who shall be the Leader of the Opposition for the purposes of deciding who will be paid the relevant salary. I cannot see a Court accepting that a definition for the purposes of setting salaries has the legal effect of defining a constitutional role. So I think, instead, we are likely left in the hands of the Speaker to determine, in accordance with convention. And I am certain, based on precedent, that the Courts will refuse to overturn a constitutional action of the Speaker founded in convention, as per the Lords’ opinion in R v Jackson.

  13. David Houldsworth says:

    @Dragonfighter
    Listen to yourself – Scotland has had MP’s representing eg Cheltenham, Windsor, Buckingham, Hampshire etc deciding what’s best for Scotland for 300 years.

    Do those MP’s really have the best interests of places like Kincardine, Hamilton, Motherwell etc at heart ?…really ? – do ther even know where they are ?

    So, fine for some English home counties MP’s who have absolutely no interest in Scotland deciding Scotland’s future, but we absolutely cannot have it the other way – utter hypocrisy.

  14. Dragonfighter says:

    @David

    I chose devolved issues, not the ones that 300 years ago the Scots in the last act of their previous parliament assigned to Westminster.

  15. Tim says:

    @Blair
    @Gus Friar

    Gus, thanks for pointing that out. You are quite right that the MCA 1937 is no longer in force – I got carried away with that. Although it was not replaced with the MCA 1975, section 2(2) of which relates to the transfer of property on appointment of a new Secretary of State.

    For a piece of primary legislation which defines the Leader of the Opposition in the same terms as set out under s10(1) MCA 1937 (as was!), see s2(1) of the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 – which remains in force as at the time of writing. It states: “In this Act “Leader of the Opposition” means, in relation to either House of Parliament, that Member of that House who is for the time being the Leader in that House of the party in opposition to Her Majesty’s Government having the greatest numerical strength in the House of Commons”.

    All points in my previous post at 11.54am stand, therefore, as the statutory definition (for the purposes of salaries only) continues. The Leader of the Opposition in the Commons is the person who at the time of definition is the leader *in the House of Commons* of the largest party opposed to the Government. So, on my reading, it must be the person who leads the PLP in the Commons.

    But, as per my point 2 above, that definition was only intended by Parliament to define the person who is to receive the Leader of the Oppo’s salary, and frankly I am not sure the Courts would be prepared to say that it could be broadened out so widely as to become a constitutional principle.

  16. HertsEssex says:

    @Dragonfighter.

    Nevertheless David’s point is entirely valid regardless of the issues you highlighted. You cannot selectively discriminate.

    Indeed it’s somewhat silly that you select devolved issues when you should be looking at the performance of the SNP MPs at Westminster who would (in theory) become the official opposition. It strikes me that they have been very disciplined and thorough in holding the government of the day to account.

  17. Jelly Bean says:

    The same Atul who denied, right up until the result was announced, that Jeremy would win the last leadership election? I don’t think your judgement really counts for much.

  18. John P Reid says:

    Mark Livingston, if a backbencher sees labour far behind in the polls due to Jeremy they’ve a right to complain, if by failed you mean the party members would prefer us to lose heavily with Jeremy, yes you’re right

    If Jeremy is still leader by 2019( assuming there’s no election) and even though we do very bad in the 2018 council elections , I think some of the MPs who refuse to serve in the shadow cabinet should stand down as MPs, to let others take their place,it’s not as if Jez,is strict on following the whip, suppose a MP voted against the whip last week on Caroline Lucas bill for proportional representation/votes at 16′ I’d hardly call that a scalable offense from the shadow cabinet

  19. Anne says:

    Tim’s analysis seems the most probable to me. Let us hope that Owen Smith wins the leadership contest – he is the one coming up with ideas and policies – we can then move on to unite the party and provide a viable opposition. Jeremy still has time to do the decent thing and stand aside.

  20. Graham Woodhouse says:

    If as seems likely Jeremy Corbyn does win then the PLP should act like adults, accept the result and get on with the job in hand of getting the Tories out of power and the SNP out in Scotland. My fear is that that they’re so full of their own delusions of self-importance that they’ll have another go at getting rid of Corbyn before 2020 while the queues for Food Banks keep growing in the real world.

  21. paul barker says:

    To say that there is no effective Opposition to the Government in The Commons is simply to state the obvious. Bercow is probably trying to push the 172 into actually doing something. Backing the useless Smith doesnt count as something.

  22. Mike says:

    Anne – Smith is taking ideas from Corbyn. Having Smith elected would just prolong Labour issues because Smith is currently posing as a hard left person and if he wins and runs on that Labour will lose along with Blairite Labour. Best option is to have Corbyn stay, lose to May heavily and then Labour finds its sense and has a real leader from the centre or right if the party. Owen Smith would not be s contender in a real contest (like last year).

  23. The salary is set by the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975:
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1975/27/section/2

    It gives the salary of leader of the opposition to—

    “in relation to either House of Parliament, that Member of that House who is for the time being the Leader in that House of the party in opposition to Her Majesty’s Government having the greatest numerical strength in the House of Commons”

    This is clearly not the leader of the party as an institution generally; it’s the leader *in the House* of that party. If there’s doubt, the Speaker rules about who that is. So it is actually possible for Labour to have a leader *in the House of Commons* who might be recognised by the Speaker, who is not leader of the Labour party.

  24. Poor Atul is off with the fairies again. Why not just take Bercow’s statement at face value unless otherwise proved to be untrue?

  25. Mike Homfray says:

    I think it’s blatantly obvious that Owen Smith couldn’t unite the party any more than Jeremy Corbyn could
    But its very much up to the PLP. If they don’taccept the outcome f the election should Jeremy win it’s clear action will have to be taken. Think it will only be a minority

  26. John p Reid says:

    Mike himfray, the cobynistas have either a ridiculous view they can win,or are part of the it’s better to lose on that manifesto, rather than be red Tory lite, new liberal,sell outs, as its a moral victory, maybe Smith supporters, can focus on the Corbynistas will never accept they’re wrong, but to help the leader after next win, is a moral status, maybe after a few corbynistas Lise their council seats due to him, next year, they will have to unite, behind smith

  27. Peter Kenny says:

    This article is such drivel.

    ‘A core component …as practiced over the last hundred years, will have broken down’

    In 1931 the Labour Party was second with only 52 seats.

    Who was the opposition – the Labour Party.

    What agenda are you pursuing here, Atul?

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