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The 2017-19 Minority Government & Opposition Days: pragmatism, precedent and power

Published Tuesday, March 5, 2019

This Commons Library briefing covers the use and treatment of Opposition Day motions including humble Addresses and motions of censure, used in the 2017-19 Parliamentary Session.

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Following the 2017 general election, the Conservative Party was returned as the largest party with 317 seats but did not have a working majority in the House of Commons. A confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was announced on 26 June 2017.

Despite this, the Government has been challenged significantly by the use of Opposition Days during the 2017-19 Parliamentary Session. Opposition Days are days where non-government parties have control over the subject of business. Due to the limits of what the aforementioned confidence and supply agreement formally covered and the wider context of governing with a minority, the Government has sought to challenge precedent and employ pragmatism in order to preserve its control over the Commons.

Early in the 2017-19 Parliamentary Session, the Government had delayed the allocation of Opposition Days and the number that were allocated within this extended session. This was then followed by the Government’s decision to not generally amend or participate in divisions on Opposition Day motions, despite participating in Opposition Day debates. Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, sought to establish a “new convention” by setting out the Government’s plan to respond to Opposition Day motions which have passed within 12 weeks.

In response to this, the Opposition have made a number of demands for papers to be provided to Parliament and Commons Select Committees via the mechanism of a binding motion for a return (humble Addresses). As a consequence, the Government has been forced to either amend or vote down the motion, or to provide the documents.

Within Government there has been a long-standing convention that the advice given by Law Officers is not disclosed publicly. This is the Law Officers’ convention. On 13 November 2018, the Opposition tabled an humble Address for the legal advice the Government had received from its Law Officers on matters relating to Brexit. This challenged the convention and the Government initially refused to comply with the Address. A privilege motion was subsequently tabled and passed, finding the Government in contempt of the House for the first time in the history of the UK Parliament, and the Government was forced into providing the necessary document.

The Labour Party has also used Opposition Days to table motions of censure in Government Ministers in order to reduce their salary and criticise their policy decisions. Three censure motions have been debated on Opposition Days in the 2017-19 Parliamentary Session.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8516

Author: Previn Desai

Topics: Central government, Constitution, Parliament

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