MPs’ changing habits in the Palace of Westminster

Those interested in parliamentary culture, and particularly how its affects the legislature’s ability to check the government, should read Chris Mullin’s recent article in the London Review of Books.

The former Sunderland South Labour MP notes the shrinking window for parliamentary business as Commons members increasingly retreat to their constituencies to handle casework after prime minister’s questions on Wednesday afternoon.

As he puts it: ‘I’m in favour of constituency-based MPs. That’s not the problem. I was one myself. I wonder, however, if the balance has tipped too far. Scrutiny of the executive is what Parliament is supposed to be about.’

On the flipside, he notes speaker John Bercow’s generous granting of ‘urgent questions’, which call a minister before the Commons, and the rise of ‘select committees’, which can investigate widely and call important people to testify – though as Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings has proved, those summoned can refuse.

Though much has changed, Parliament retains a few oddities, not least in its refusal to implement electronic voting for members. However, as Mullin points out, this does offer the chance for interaction in the division lobbies between ministers and MPs, the former ‘unaccompanied by an entourage.’

As the piece attests, parliamentary life, much like the Palace of Westminster, is a tad ramshackle, with the new grafted messily to the old. For the foreseeable I find it unlikely that the legislature, and moreso the British constitution, will alter its reforming habits.