In recent months, MPs and commentators have referred to backbenchers “taking control of the order paper” in the House of Commons to avert a no-deal exit. But what does “taking control of the order paper” mean, and why is this mechanism being attempted?
The default rule – Standing Order No. 14
In the House of Commons “precedence” (i.e. priority) is given on every sitting day to business tabled by the Government. This default rule is set out in Standing Order No. 14(1).
Although other MPs can table substantive motions, this rule means they are unlikely to get time for debate. Even if there is not very much Government business, the time can be filled with (unamendable) motions on general debates on subjects of the Government’s choosing.
The exceptions to the rule
There are, however, three important exceptions to this general rule included in the standing orders. On 20 days per session, opposition business is given priority. On 27 days per session, priority is given in the Commons chamber to backbench business. On 13 Fridays per session, precedence is given to the consideration of Private Members’ Bills, with priority being given to those on the ballot.
The standing orders limit the type of business that can be considered on these days. They do not afford much flexibility to hold complex deliberative exercises (like Indicative Votes) or to pass primary legislation against the Government’s wishes.
For all practical purposes, therefore, an MP wishing to do any of those things will need to create a distinct exception to the default rules of the House.
How have MPs “taken control over the order paper” in recent months?
On 25 March the Government moved an amendable motion on its proposed ‘next steps’ for Brexit. This requirement was triggered under the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 when the Commons rejected the Government’s deal in a ‘meaningful vote’.
Oliver Letwin proposed an amendment to the Government’s motion. That amendment was approved by the House. The final order set aside a future sitting day – 27 March – during which the rule in Standing Order 14(1) would be (temporarily) overridden. Priority would be given instead to a backbench Business of the House motion and a series of Brexit motions. A day on which such a Business of the House motion takes priority is hereafter referred to as “a Letwin day”.
On 27 March, the Business of the House motion was approved. This meant the House could then debate and vote on certain items of business, including proposed legislation, against the Government’s wishes.
How have MPs used their control over the order paper?
The use of the first “Letwin day” was determined by the Business of the House order of 27 March. It set the rules for the first Indicative Votes exercise and enabled further “Letwin days” to be set aside for other backbench initiatives.
The “daisy-chaining” of “Letwin days” (whereby approving one Business motion sets aside a day to consider another Business motion, and so on) eventually allowed the Commons to consider and approve a Private Member’s Bill. Yvette Cooper’s Bill became the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2019 against the Government’s wishes and compelled the Prime Minister to seek an extension of Article 50.
Why is it difficult to take control over the order paper?
If a majority of MPs can agree, all that is needed to override the precedence of Government business is an order of the House of Commons. However, the opportunities to vote on a motion that could become an order are limited.
MPs were only able pass an order in March because the Government was legally obliged to bring forward a motion on Brexit and that motion was amendable. If the Government makes no further attempts to pass a meaningful vote, there is no mandatory Government business to which an amendment can obviously be attached between now and 31 October 2019.
Backbench business motions cannot be used to modify Standing Order No. 14.
Opposition days can (theoretically) be used to amend the Standing Order, but the Government is not obliged to grant one for any particular day. It may be reluctant to do so if the opposition day appears likely to be used to secure one or more “Letwin days”.
In the 2017-19 Parliamentary session the Government has already allotted 19 opposition days. There is only one more allotted Opposition Day remaining in this Parliamentary session. Moreover, the Official Opposition has already received its minimum allocation (17 of the 20 days to be allotted).
Why did the latest attempt fail?
On 12 June, Labour tried to use an unallotted opposition day to “take control of the order paper” on Tuesday 25 June. However, the House rejected the motion by 309 votes to 298.
To understand why this attempt failed, where previous ones succeeded, it is useful to compare how MPs voted on key votes to “set aside” a Letwin day.
The first successful attempt on 25 March 2019 was approved by 329-302. The House amended the statutory motion to give priority to a Business of the House motion over Government business on 27 March 2019.
That Business of the House motion was then approved by 331-287. This enabled Indicative Votes to take place that day and gave priority to a further Business of the House motion on 1 April.
The second Business of the House motion was then approved by 322-277. This enabled the second round of Indicative Votes to take place and gave priority to a further Business of the House motion on 3 April.
The third Business of the House motion was then approved by 312-310. This enabled all of the Commons stages for the Cooper-Letwin Bill to be considered that day.
An unsuccessful attempt was made to amend the third business of the House motion. Had Hilary Benn’s amendment passed, a further day would have been set aside (for a third round of indicative votes). The amendment fell after the Speaker broke a 310-310 tie by casting his vote against it.
These different majorities show how volatile the levels of support can be for proposals to take or maintain control of the order paper. Sustaining support for this initiative is a sophisticated political exercise. It is one that can be ended abruptly if, at any point, MPs conclude the default rules should be retained or reinstated.
At least three considerations appear to have influenced how MPs voted on key “Letwin day” votes:
- how clear the purpose was for which the “Letwin day” was being sought;
- how urgent and desirable the business that was to be debated was perceived to be; and
- how likely and desirable it was that further days subsequently may be set aside for as of yet undisclosed purposes.
Graeme Cowie is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Brexit.
Sandip Samra is Marketing & Communications Manager at the House of Commons Library
Photo credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor