PM’s latest headache? Whether to extend Parliament session

by Nick Kent | 24.04.2019

As MPs return to Parliament this week they may be wondering exactly how long this marathon parliamentary session is going to last.

In 2017 it was decided that the current session of Parliament would run for two years until the middle of this year, although Downing Street has said there are currently “no immediate plans” for a Queen’s Speech. Whether to start a new session (a decision for ministers and not Parliament) has important implications for Brexit. The prime minister has a big calculation to make.

Two years ago it seemed like a good idea, after the Tories lost their majority in the snap general election, to announce a two-year session of Parliament in which the focus would be getting Brexit done. But now, as the sand trickles out of the egg timer, the prospect of having to end the current session and start a new one is less appealing.

It’s not just that ministers haven’t delivered the thing they dedicated their two-year session to achieving – Brexit. It’s also that to start a new session they need a programme to announce in the Queen’s Speech. But the Cabinet can’t agree about Brexit, they can’t agree on a new immigration policy; what exactly could they agree on? Regulation of the internet is important but hardly the central political issue of our time.

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But a new session would make it easier to hold yet another “meaningful vote” on the PM’s deal, which, like Rasputin, never seems to die. This is because the 1604 convention, that Parliament cannot be repeatedly asked to vote on the same issue in the same session, falls when a new session begins. Yet if a new vote were held and the government lost again, nothing would have been gained and the convention would spring back to life.

Then there is the on-off love match between the Tories and the DUP. Well, more of a marriage of convenience really. In their pre-nuptial agreement, the parties agreed to review their alliance after every session. But with hints from the DUP that they might withdraw support if not from the Tories but at least from May herself, it might be better not to have that conversation.

The DUP promised to support the government in motions of confidence and a new session requires the old-fashioned version of that – a motion to approve the Queen’s Speech. But if the DUP decided not to back it or Brexiter Tories rebelled, that wouldn’t immediately bring down the government (because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) but it would trigger a major crisis that might force May out.

Ending the current session might also interfere with another plan for progressing Brexit: the Commons approving the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. The Times reports today that the prime minister could introduce the Bill soon and put pressure on Labour MPs to back it. The trouble is that getting MPs to approve a timetable that would mean completing the legislation before May 22 seems unlikely.

If the session ends without the Bill having passed into law, then May would have to get another motion passed to carry it over into the new session. The DUP undertook to support Brexit legislation but if they are against May’s deal how can they vote for the law that would implement it?

It’s a nasty conundrum for the prime minister. Which is perhaps why rumours of an extension to the session to beyond October 31 were not denied by May last week. Kicking the can down the road? Now there’s a proven prime ministerial strategy worth trying.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe