As the Conservative Party considers the timing of a general election, some of its own MPs are questioning whether much of the legislation the government is attempting to push through Parliament will make it onto the statue book before the nation goes to the polls next year.
Flagship laws such as the “stop the boats” Illegal Immigration Bill, and Renters (Reform) Bill – which aims to ban no-fault evictions – could become victims of a legislative logjam that is clogging up both the Commons and Lords, according to one senior backbench Tory MP.
“If you think about it,” says the MP, “We’ve got recess, then maybe a few weeks around party conference season in September and October to get things through in this session.
“But then we have the King’s Speech in November, and we may even see a light load in terms of bills going forward into the next pre-election session.”
There are currently 28 government Bills at various stages in Parliament, and this is not the only Tory MP to think that’s too many to pass before election mode kicks in.
As well as “stop the boats” and renting reforms, there’s bills that have hung around for far longer, such as those on national security, online safety, social housing, free speech in higher education settings, and strike legislation.
Of these 28 bills, nine are still with the Commons, of which only three have been presented for first reading.
A further twelve have made it to the Lords, of which only three have been returns to the Commons for a second reading. Four bills are in something of a ‘ping pong’ between the two houses as the Lords amends and the Commons rejects those amendments.
Three bills have effectively been shelved, but not formally withdraw. Those being the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – effectively replaced by the Windsor Framework – the Bill of Rights, which lays dormant alongside the political career of former deputy PM Dominic Raab, and Schools Bill, which has been heavily criticised – including by Conservative former Secretaries of State – for the sweeping powers that Ministers sought and the lack of clarity about the government’s policy intentions towards academy schools.
The 28 bills stuck in this legislative logjam, would have been 29 had the government not controversially abandoned the Kept Animals Bills, which would have banned live animal exports and introduced powers to tackle puppy smuggling.
As for the Online Safety Bill, campaigners for legislation to force social media giants to remove content such as revenge porn and hate speech may well be disappointed as the Bill is already in its second Parliamentary session and could fall if it fails to make it through.
“After the King’s Speech we’re into Christmas recess before you know it, and then its 2024, election year,” added the Tory MP, who chairs a select committee that will be looking one of the government’s more high-profile Bills.
“The government will be in election mode pretty early on, and when it comes to legislation they’ll want it to be easy to pass and positive. Things like tax cuts, policy that boosts household income.”
Another Tory Select Committee chair has their own theory on why a government with so many bills to pass may not be too worried about running out of time.
“It could be said that the government is already campaigning with bills such those to protect renters and, especially, the ‘stop the boats’ bill,” said the MP.
“If ministers can’t get these bills, and many more, through Parliament before the next general election, then you can be certain they will form much of the Tory manifesto leading into it.
“The government will also, no doubt, blame the fact that the policies are not already law on Labour, on the awkward squad in the House of Lords, and even on the civil service ‘blob’ as that will help, rather than hinder, their messaging.”
The government denies the claim, and says that legislation currently going through the law-making process will have been passed by the time the UK goes to the national polls.
“We are confident we will deliver our legislative programme,” a spokesman for the Government said.
“Already in this session over 20 bills have received Royal Assent, including Acts to secure post-Brexit trade deals, protect the public from disruptive protests and cut crime.
“The Government remains focussed on delivering on the PM’s five priorities for the British people, working with Parliament. The timetable for bills will continue to be set out in the usual way.”
No 10 is understood to have pencilled in mid-November as the most likely time to prorogue Parliament and hold the King’s Speech, having cancelled the Commons recess that usually takes place around that time.
But Dr Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society, is sceptical that the government will get all that it wants through Parliament before the election. She does though accept that it could, if it so wanted, force through its big-ticket items.
“Once they’ve decided to prorogue Parliament before the King’s Speech, the government will have a couple of weeks for what’s called the ‘wash up’.
“That’s the informal term for when they work out how they’re going to get legislation through before the current session ends, and it involves negotiating with opposition, primarily in the Lords, during those final days to see what concessions both sides are willing to make.”
The government has hinted this is precisely the root it will take, even though many believe Bills are, as a result, passed without adequate scrutiny.
Back in February, and before she became a star of the King’s Coronation, Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt told MPs that the government would be “prepared to sit through the night, if necessary” to get the Illegal Migration Bill through before Parliament rise for the Summer recess 20 July.
The current session has already been extended beyond its usual 12 months.
There have also been rumours of a move to curtail the summer recess in the Lords, so peers would find themselves scrutinising bills in late August.
Dr Fox raises the prospect of an even more dramatic card that the Government could play if it is desperate to get all its key legislations through the house before the next election.
“The government could choose not to have a King’s Speech, not prorogue Parliament, and make this session an extra long one.
“That’s the other thing that’s not surfaced yet, but they could decide to have a full two-year session.”
At the moment the government is pouring cold water on the idea. “There are no plans to do that,” a spokesman for Rishi Sunak said. “We are planning for a fourth session and will set out details in due course.”
But the unlikely sounding tactic has been employed by Tory administrations in recent history.
David Cameron’s coalition with the Liberal Democrats had a two year session from 2010, while the 2017-2019 session saw MPs and peers sitting for 296 days, the longest since the English Civil War, when the session lasted the duration of the conflict from 1642 to 1651.
“It depends on their thinking on the timing of the election,” adds Dr Fox. “But, it they want an election next summer or early next autumn, they could run the current session through and not have a King’s Speech.
“That means the government loses the advantage of what the speech gives you, which is them big platform for their programme, but it depends where they are with that and where they are now with the timing of the election between now and 20 months out.”
While such a move will deprive our new monarch his first State Opening Of Parliament as King, it just could be the only way the Government can ensure it keeps it promises to get so much policy into law.