How does the government maintain authority in parliament?
The Government and not Parliament is running the country but needs control of Parliament because:-
- It needs Parliamentary approval of its policies to make them legitimate in the eyes of the public because the public has elected Parliament and not, directly, the Government. It is now accepted that Parliament has to approve major military action.
- Parliament has to pass the legislation that the Government needs to carry out many policies, it has to approve the Budget by which Government raises money and it has to approve Government spending.
- Parliament is often gladiatorial so that the Opposition looks to weaken the Government and any defeats in votes in Parliament or even rebellions of Government backbenchers failing to vote with the Government are seen as a failure. The media are also quick to pick up on these and to portray the Government as weak if they happen.
How does the Government keep control of Parliament?
There are a number of ways in which the Government keeps control of Parliament:-
MPs are party MPs. They are chosen by the local constituency party and elected on a party label to support a Government of that party. They are normally people who have spent some time being active within the party and report back regularly to their local party. As long as a Government has a majority in Parliament it can control what happens. Parliament is organised on a party basis with clear dividing lines between the Government and Opposition except in a few areas such as Deportmental Select Committees.
The Government can use its majority in the Commons to control the procedures and it is accepted by the Opposition that it can:-
- The Government decides what happens in the Chamber and when, and a Government minister, the Leader of the House, sets out the timetable for the week ahead, even though it is accepted that some time is allowed for the Opposition and backbenchers to choose topics for debate.
- It can use its majority to close a debate.
- It sets out a Programme Motion for each Bill in order to limit the time spent on it
- It appoints a Government majority of MPs to Public Bill Committees to ensure that Bills are passed in the way that the Government wants.
The Government keeps in touch with the MPs who make up its majority by means of the Whips and Parliamentary Private Secretaries.
The Whip is an instruction from the Government to its MPs as to how to vote that week and is marked one, two or three line depending of the importance of the vote to the Government. All Government legislation will have a three line whip.
The Whips are MPs, who are also Government Ministers. Their main function is to manage Parliament and the MPs who support the Government to see that the Government’s business goes through and that the Government wins the votes. . At present, the Chief Whip is a Conservative MP who sits in the Cabinet and the Deputy Chief Whip is a Liberal Democrat. They have a team of other MPs who act as whips for their respective parties.
- The Whips keep in regular contact with MPs of their party to check that they are happy with Government policies and legislation and feed back any dissent to the party leadership. Serious and widespread dissent may lead to the Government changing its proposals.
- When a vote is imminent, the Whips will check that all MPs will be present and seek to talk round any MPs who are unhappy with what the Government is proposing.
- If an MP rebels on a three line whip they may well have the whip removed. This means that they have to sit as an Independent and, if the whip is not restored by the time of the general election, will be opposed in their constituency by an official party candidate.
- A Whip goes onto each Public Bill Committee so ensure that the Bill goes through as the Government wants. They also manage the debates to make sure that enough MPs are present and influence who speaks.
- The Whips allocate MPs to offices, provide the equipment for it, decide who goes on some Committees and on other positions such as all party delegations abroad. Thus they can dispense considerable patronage.
- Although the Prime Minister decides the major ministerial posts, the Chief Whip is likely to recommend MPs for many of the junior ministerial positions. This is another power of patronage.
Some Government MPs are Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The Prime Minister and the Departmental Ministers each have a PPS whose jobs it is to liaise between Minister and backbenchers in Parliament to find out what MPs are thinking about issues and how well the Minister is doing inside and outside Parliament and to promote the Minister’s policies to backbenchers. This is often seen as the first step on the ministerial ladder and also gives the MP some understanding of how the Department works.
The personal prestige of the Prime Minister also helps to ensure Government control of Parliament. Although success in national policies, including foreign policy, and in the opinion polls and general elections are the major factors in a Prime Minister maintaining discipline within the Parliamentary Party, an effective performance in Parliament, including at Question Time, helps. A party divided on policy, as with the Conservative on Europe during John Major’s period as Prime Minister, will weaken prime ministerial authority.
It is much more difficult for the Government to control the House of Lords. The sanctions of the Whips have little effect as member of the Lords are there for life and do not face re-election. As the hereditary peers have largely been removed this is the first Government with Conservative ministers without a majority in the House of Lords. Nevertheless many members of the House of Lords take the party whip and are ex-party politicians or are party supporters and so have been nominated by the party. The House of Lords accepts, under the Salisbury Convention, that it should not delay or reject legislation that was proposed in the Government’s election manifesto and also that it should not unduly thwart the elected Commons. Even so the present Government has been defeated over 60 times in the Lords.