On the last afternoon of the final parliamentary session before the Christmas recess, Theresa May could put it off no longer and appeared before the Liaison Committee. In this blog post Dr Mark Bennister, Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University, utilises his new parliamentary academic fellowship to look at the Committee performance having watched the session from the Committee room.

This was Theresa May’s first appearance before the Committee which comprises of select committee chairs. With combative Treasury chair, Andrew Tyrie, in charge, flanked by Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper ready to challenge on Brexit, and Sarah Wollaston and Meg Hillier waiting patiently to take her on over NHS funding, this was a new parliamentary test for the prime minister. Having put the appearance off until the last possible moment and after having given a statement in the House on the EU Council the day before, the prime minister clearly hoped this would be a low key Brexit interrogation.

The Liaison Committee sessions with the prime minister have now been in existence since 2002 and May is the fourth prime minister to appear. These committee sessions occur up to three times a year and are standalone sessions, generally with little continuity or cohesive committee strategy. Yet they are more streamlined than they used to be as our research has shown. The sessions are an important alternative forum in which MPs can probe the prime minister’s policy approach. As Ben Worthy has written, May was as taciturn as ever and rather inscrutable in front of the committee. Without helpful backbench interventions, she appeared exposed and at times diffident. The forum calls for a more conciliatory response from the prime minister, but she continued her dogged avoidance approach. So how did the committee do?

1. The chair matters

Andrew Tyrie proved to be a rather combative chair in his approach to the prime minister sessions when he took over after the May 2015 election. The two sessions with David Cameron were lively including some sparky exchanges. He carried on the more confrontational approach with May, repeatedly intervening to challenge her on the interpretation of Article 50. With Benn and Cooper seated either side of Tyrie, an axis of remainers led the dynamic in the committee. The sessions do not tend to facilitate supplementary questioning from other members, but Tyrie often does intervene. Tyrie showed his frustration with May’s avoidance and obfuscation, pressing May in particular after Benn’s questioning on timetabling and Cooper’s on student numbers.

2. Parliamentary process cannot be ignored

Much of the parliamentary activity, including 38 inquiries across both Houses at present, is symptomatic of the current phoney war evident before Article 50 is triggered and negotiations get underway. Yet in the meantime, direction from the prime minister is crucial in setting out the process and sequencing aspects. In Liaison Committee this is where pressure can be applied on how and when Parliament will be consulted. Hilary Benn pushed hard on this aspect: ‘Will Parliament scrutinize the deal?’ Will Parliament vote on the deal?’. May, though, was not helpful: ‘we are very clear we want Parliament to be able to have the opportunity to debate and discuss these issues’. Parliament can assert itself in a many ways to force a greater clarity and expose fault lines in the government’s approach to Brexit, utilise scrutiny tools to draw Parliament into the process.

3. Select committees may benefit from Labour’s troubles

This was the first Liaison Committee session with the Prime Minister for Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper. They bring ministerial experience and political nous to their new roles as committee chairs. As major political players, no longer encumbered by front bench roles, they were active participants, drawing attention to their own committee work, but also repeatedly taken on the prime minister. The exchanges between Cooper and May on immigration figures were direct and placed the prime minister in uncomfortable territory. They of course have history with Cooper having shadowed May when Home Secretary. Indeed, the exchanges demonstrated the value of the forum; MPs can pursue a line of inquiry repeatedly and the prime minister must engage in the dialogue without the comfort blanket provided in the chamber.

4. Watching the PM

The committee forum has a dynamic of its own and is a very different scrutiny tool from PMQs and statements to the House. May should be experienced having given evidence to the Home Affairs Committee many times, but the Liaison Committee has a wider brief and potentially a wider audience. Though the political sketch writers all left after the Brexit questions, they would have been able to see May under pressure and seemingly not well in charge of her brief.  According to reports, she had cancelled Cabinet that morning, presumably to prepare. May is regarded as a meticulous preparer, though this was not evident in the session. Aside from the misinterpretation of Article 50 exchange, she also seemed less well briefed on social care in the second half of the session. May has yet to produce an overarching policy plan, tested at election. She is defined by Brexit and consumed by both trying to avoid it publicly and managing it privately. The Liaison Committee forum exposes the PM to a degree of interrogation, not encountered elsewhere and while she may have given little away, she also did little to improve the connective tissue between the executive and the parliament.

Infrequent though these sessions with the PM may be, they do have the capacity to shine a light on senior committee chairs and the PM. The exchanges may appear less a collective endeavour and more of a series of one-to-one interrogations, but this is less evident now. Informal alliances between Tyrie, Cooper and Benn were hinted at and Sarah Wollaston and Meg Hillier suggested a degree of cross-party collaboration. If the committee sessions are there to question the PM on whole-of-government issues – where the PM has particular responsibility – there is no greater example than Brexit at present, a fact not lost on the committee members.

Questioning the Prime Minister: How Effective is the Liaison Committee? By Mark Bennister, Alix Kelso and Phil Larkin is available to download here [opens PDF].


Mark Bennister is Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He has recently been appointed Academic Fellow at the House of Commons. He is on Twitter: @MarkBennister.

A previous version of this post appeared on the blog of the PSA Specialist Group on Parliaments and Legislatures on 18 January 2017.