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”?
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