Don’t run scared of the ‘money resolution’ bogeyman

by Nick Kent | 05.02.2019

Gleeful Brexiters are dancing on the grave of the People’s Vote campaign. They think the chances of a People’s Vote have receded, they are back in charge and they have got the prime minister in their pocket.  

One reason for the Brexiters’ excitement is Westminster muttering about a newly identified Parliamentary obstacle to securing a People’s Vote. A new referendum has to be agreed by legislation. That Bill will require a “money resolution”, that is a motion in the Commons agreeing to taxpayers’ money being spent on the vote. But standing order 48 of the Commons says that the House will not receive any proposal to spend public money unless it comes from “the Crown”.  

As the respected academic Vernon Bogdanor says, the words “the Crown” these days mean government ministers. In other words, if Theresa May won’t agree to hold a referendum, one can’t be held because only a minister can propose the necessary public spending. Game, set and match to the Brexiters then? Well, not quite.

First of all there is that well known tennis player, the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow. He made an important point in an interview with CNN when he said: “In circumstances where there is a minority government, the Speaker still has, and perhaps even more so, to be conscious of the need to give the House as a whole the chance to express its will”.  

If Parliament wants a People’s Vote, a minority government should not be able to block it.  That could mean the Speaker, if ministers refused to bring forward a money resolution, allowing a motion to suspend standing order 48 once to let a money resolution be voted on.

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But secondly, this shouldn’t be necessary because it is a convention that ministers table a money resolution for all Bills granted a second reading by the Commons, including those proposed by backbenchers. That’s what the then Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, told the Procedure Committee in 2013. Indeed, when this convention was debated last year, the leading Brexiter Peter Bone supported a Labour MP complaining that such a resolution had not yet been tabled in respect of his Bill.

Thirdly, Vernon Bogdanor and others have not taken fully into account the unplanned consequences of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The purpose of that Act was to end the Prime Minister’s discretion over the timing of a general election by imposing fixed-term parliaments for five years. But in doing so, the Act separated the question of a loss confidence in government policy from a loss of confidence in the government as a whole.  

So, as May demonstrated spectacularly last month, a government can lose an important policy vote but still stay in office. This effectively gives ministers the right to ignore a majority in the Commons if the motion isn’t legally binding.  

This happened again last Tuesday when the House rejected leaving the EU without a deal but May then ignored it. If ministers can now ignore a majority against them, they can’t expect to rely on interlinked constitutional conventions that in the past restricted the roles of backbenchers in determining business or proposing legislation.

The clash between direct democracy (the 2016 referendum) and representative democracy (the House of Commons) is creating major constitutional turbulence. Although the situation may require unconventional parliamentary procedures, if MPs want a People’s Vote they can make it happen.

Edited by Hugo Dixon