How do you amend an unwritten Constitution? The British Constitution has been amended over the centuries at crucial moments by action of Parliament, and even there by the elected chamber. The House of Lords prides itself as the body which will caution the House of Commons to think again. But when push comes to shove, it is the House of Commons.
In previous centuries, the Commons have gone to war against the King as they did with Charles I and beheaded him in 1649. They threw out his younger son James II and replaced him with the Dutch son-in-law of Charles II in 1688. Since then the sovereignty in the country rests with the Crown in Parliament. The Prime Minister represents the Crown in the House of Commons and has the Royal Prerogative of signing Treaties and going to war without a vote in Parliament.
Recently, this Constitution has been in a meltdown. Prime Minister Theresa May has practically lost control of her party and been defeated three times over her principal proposal. But she cannot be made to resign nor can she call an election as in the old days. Thus is because of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act passed during the coalition government of 2010-15. This puts strict conditions on the no-confidence mechanism for dismissing the PM.
The deadline of March 29 for Brexit was approaching. Theresa May promised to resign if the House of Commons, i.e. her party especially, would pass her ‘Deal’.The House still refused. So she did not resign. But then a backbench revolt happened encouraged by the Speaker. After centuries of the Executive dominating the proceedings in Parliament (the pattern followed in India), the backbencher got a chance to take control on selected days to explore alternatives.
But Parliament is divided as is the country. Two days of debate led by the backbencher put a dozen alternatives to an indicative vote but they rejected them all. Then, on April 4, Wednesday, the House of Commons debated a motion to ask the Prime Minister to seek an extension of the deadline which had already been revised once. The new deadline was April 12 unless Parliament passed the Prime Minister’s Deal.
Normally, a Bill cannot be taken through all stages in a day in either House. But special procedures were agreed by the Speaker and the Bill passed in a day by midnight on April 4 by a single-vote majority.
The Bill had to be passed by the House of Lords. Again the procedure had to be amended for the House of Lords to admit a private members’ (backbencher) Bill to be debated at all in a short time. Every Bill has a Second reading, a Committee stage, then Report, and then Third Reading. The House of Lords had procedural wrangles all day on Thursday April 5 but got to the Second Reading by the evening and finished by midnight.
Then on Monday all the other stages were completed and Royal Assent was given late in the night. The Commons then passed the Bill, which had to be introduced from the Executive, implementing the backbench Bill, and it passed by a large majority.
Parliament has asserted its power against the Executive. This will change British politics forever.