In the last few months, the UK has seen what might be called an "activist parliament". There have been comments on TV/radio in the context of Brexit, that MPs have been setting their own agenda, not just following voting days set by government, and so on.

I understand that the UK model is that Parliament has absolute legal authority, and the govt chooses the agenda to allow them to follow their legislative/platform agenda.

But my understanding of the "modern traditional norms" is pretty hazy - the varied and unwritten understandings that have habitually delineated the Government and Parliament's respective spheres, areas of authority over national matters, demarcations, prerogatives, and conventions. (For example, the recent resignation of a minister because traditionally a member of the government can't/shouldn't move to modify a government matter, suggests two distinct "sides")

I expect these understandings/norms have changed over time, and that Brexit is completely atypical and in a category of its own (but may be changing those norms).

What are the traditional understandings in these areas, within say, the last 50 years (or the post-WW2 era if a better choice of time period) and how have they gradually changed/how are they changing nowadays?

I'm somewhat interested in what's driving it, but mainly for this, I'm mostly interested in focusing on how it is, and how its changing/changed/evolving/evolved.

  • 1
    The resignation is a little bit more subtle than that. The concept is that the government shouldn't change a government motion or bill through an amendment, but rather by editing the original text. I believe the concept is more that "government speaks with one voice", rather than a distinction with parliament.
    – origimbo
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 12:09

2 Answers 2


Historically the whip system has been strong enough that it's the other way round: the Government sets policy, and MPs are ordered to vote it through. The height of this was probably the Blair government, where ministers were also issued with pagers so they could be told what policy was at all times.

Exceptions to that have been times of crisis (74-79), and the gradual evaporation of the Major government towards the end.

Traditionally within the Conservative party the influence of non-government "backbench" Tory MPs on the government has operated through back-channels, such as the "1922 committee", since they have the power to choose the party leader.

A critical and under-appreciated change was the "Fixed Term Parliaments Act", part of the surrender of the Liberal Democrats in their coalition agreement. This made it significantly harder to collapse the government, even if the government was unable to pass legislation. Without it, May's Brexit government would almost certainly have collapsed on one of the recent votes.

My personal opinion is that we're entering a constitutional crisis period, where conventions of nice behaviour and "would not normally do" are abandoned and replaced with more direct questions of who has the power to make whom do what.

  • +1 - Usually the goverment is made up of members of the strongest faction of the strongest party. The current problems are due to the fragmented nature of both the major parties. This is very unusual Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 14:25
  • People say that FPTP achieves strong governments, but to the extent that it does this it's by suppressing dissent. Euroscepticism has been suppressed internally, but has broken out and disrupted traditional party factions. In a more PR system, there would be a small Faragist party in Westminster instead of a power struggle within the Tory party.
    – pjc50
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 15:05
  • Can you clarify/fix "who has the power to may whom do what"?
    – hkBst
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 9:18
  • @hkBst corrected to "make whom do what" - questions like "the Prime Minister is not going to voluntarily change her plan (her deal or no deal), is Parliament willing to either construct a legal compulsion or fire her?"
    – pjc50
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 11:16

The normal procedure is for each political party to discuss amongst itself what it would legislate for, if it were in government, and then whomever has won the general election starts doing those things.

The MPs of the governing party may have slightly differing priorities for particular things, but they accept the collective decisions. Every year all the parties have conferences, the main point of which is to discuss all these conflicting priorities. Every so often an MP on the edge of a party will get disgruntled enough about their priorities being ignored that they switch to a different party (or become independent), but mostly they see the benefit of working together.

The difference we are seeing now is that neither Labour or the Conservatives could agree within themselves1 beforehand how to deal with Brexit. Both parties have strong factions of Remain, and strong factions of Leave.

1 - The only agreement that Cameron could get about it was to ask the public.

  • Insightful and interesting
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 12:18

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