Dilemmas of Accountability: will the Brexit committee succeed?

by Marc Geddes

Please note that this blog originally appeared on the Political Studies Association’s blog on 30 March, and is available here.

On Tuesday, 28 March, a private committee meeting of the Brexit select committee didn’t go exactly to plan: it’s been reported that a number of MPs walked out of the meeting. The reason, according to media sources, is that a draft report proposed by Hilary Benn, the committee chair, was ‘too gloomy’ and not worthy of further consideration. The UK select committee system prides itself on the unanimity of its reports and the ability of MPs to proceed through consensus. This seems to be stretched to the limits in the case of the Brexit committee, a committee which faces huge obstacles not only in terms of its policy focus, but also in its routine, day-to-day running. So we might see instances of vocal discontent happening more often, which is an ominous sign for parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit.

We can explain the walkout for a range of different reasons. First, we can look to the diversity of MPs’ interpretations of their scrutiny role. Typically, committees are made up of MPs that have a deep interest in a policy issue; in other words, they are specialists and policy advocates. Many will have deeply-held political views and some will go so deep that they will pursue those interests at all costs and irrespective of their party’s position on the matter. Other committee members will have different reasons for joining, such as supporting their constituency or to learn about a particular policy issue. The approach taken by committee members means that scrutiny is pushed and pulled in divergent directions. For the Brexit committee, these divergent policy priorities are a formidable challenge. An ordinary committee would have 11 MPs; the Brexit committee has 21. So that’s 21 different interpretations of scrutiny that can range from pro-Brexit optimists to anti-Brexit pessimists. As Hannah White has previously pointed out, this makes it difficult for the committee to speak as one, let alone speak as one in an effective way.

Can these diverse interpretations of scrutiny be reconciled? That is the task that falls to the chair of a committee, who will not only have to bring all these different interpretations of scrutiny together, but also lead inquiries, ensure committee members work together and represent their committee in the media and elsewhere. In general, chairs have two choices about their leadership role: either they act as a catalyst, i.e. committee-orientated facilitators for their committee members, or they act as a chieftain, i.e. leadership-orientated and likely to promote their strategic priorities within and beyond the committee. The chair of the Brexit committee, Hilary Benn, is generally respected across both sides of the House of Commons. However, he also voted to for the UK to remain in the European Union, which means that Brexiteers (almost half the committee) regard him with at least some suspicion. This should not be a problem, however, given that several committees in Parliament are chaired by Labour or SNP MPs.  The Public Accounts Committee, for instance, has always had a chairing MP from the HM Opposition.

Benn’s leadership style in public evidence sessions has been consensual, i.e. giving committee members ownership over questions, without intervening too much or contradicting members. In private, his approach cannot be known. However, it seems that those walking out of the committee meeting largely blame him for what has happened: it was a draft report drawn up by clerks and the chair (nothing unusual here – all draft reports are done in this way), in which Benn has, according to some members, not consulted members for their views, sought to build consensus among all sides, nor given advance notice of the 155-page draft report to be discussed and published in the coming days. If true (and no one has disputed this so far), it does suggest Benn is adopting elements of a committee chieftain that – given the high-profile nature of this policy issue – is unlikely to be successful.

Other committee chieftains (think of Keith Vaz, Margaret Hodge or Bernard Jenkin) have been able to get unanimous reports in the past. Chairs with clear priorities often construct consensus through horse trading or compromise, whether with respect to a particular recommendation, a report, or between whole inquiries. This type of leadership is particularly difficult in this instance, however, because the committee is considering the most important policy priority of the UK and one that will define British history for centuries (regardless of whether we think of it as independence day or catastrophe). As such, the committee will be in the limelight and MPs of all colours will be under pressure to stick to their pre-conceived ideas about Brexit. Given also the high-profile members on the committee, including Michael Gove and John Wittingdale, the stakes are high. This suggests that it will be particularly difficult for Benn to impose his view or to operate without building consensus as an inquiry unfolds.

Consensual reports are the prize for any committee because it suggests cross-party appeal that government cannot easily brush aside. This raises the question: can the Brexit committee become an effective vehicle for parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit? Almost every social scientist will answer with: it depends. We can point to three factors. First, it depends on the focus of inquiry. Most committees are unable to unanimously agree on reports if they are based on the underlying, grand principles of policy (especially not flagship policy); instead, committees build consensus around implementation issues, overlooked topics, or issues where the government does not have a strongly-held view (or manifesto commitment). The biggest challenge here is that we do not seem to know what the principles of Brexit are, never mind the policy outcomes. We do know, however, that it is a defining issue in British (and European) history. This implies that the committee is left at only looking at implementation of Brexit, which could mean, especially for Remain-supporting MPs, that the committee capitulates on more hard-hitting scrutiny. Second, effective scrutiny depends on the working relationships between committee members and the chair. This takes time, and the Brexit committee was only recently established. Further, the committee is also much larger, with members that have diametrically opposing views, and it is considering high-profile policy. Building consensus in this environment is not easy, and it again raises the question around what all members can coalesce around in the first place.

A final factor that the committee must consider goes to the heart of the parliamentary process: what is the committee trying to achieve? The referendum presents a nightmare scenario for many MPs because popular sovereignty has been invoked, crashing against the principle of parliamentary sovereignty on which the UK constitution is ostensibly built. So, does scrutiny mean clarity and transparency to the Brexit process as envisioned by government? Or does it mean blocking, limiting and amending Brexit? If it’s all about transparency, then the focus will turn primarily to its committee hearings, especially in holding ministers to account. The pressure to agree on evidence (which, unfortunately for the Brexiteers, is gloomy) and to write a consensual report becomes a non-issue. However, if the committee chooses this route, it would also abdicate a policy-influencing role. And this opens wider, possibly uncomfortable, questions for Parliament: does it have the capacity and the will to scrutinise Brexit? Given the approach taken by MPs over triggering Article 50 and the utter failure of HM Opposition to do anything substantive so far, big questions remain over what Parliament can and will do to influence a defining moment in British and European history.