This summer the Prime Minister has received a good deal of criticism for his many holidays. In a recent interview with the BBC, Keir Starmer was forced to defend his decision to take a short holiday with his family. The Labour Party has demanded that Parliament be recalled two weeks early to deal with the cost-of-living crisis.
While there are differences in these cases, it seems a common theme is emerging – pressure is mounting on our elected representatives to work through the summer.
Certainly, the Tory Party has been active in choosing its leader and our next Prime Minister over recent weeks, but away from the campaign trail, the House of Commons and the House of Lords have settled into the gentle slumber that overcomes them each year in late July.
The summer recess, formally labelled a ‘period adjournment’, is so much a part of the political calendar that it might well be considered part of the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom. Summer breaks are the norm across the parliaments of Europe, but with an ever-accelerating news cycle and increasing pressures placed upon our elected representatives, it’s up for debate how long this convention will remain untouched in the UK.
At present, the summer recess and all other period adjournments are carried through by a Resolution, with Parliament retaining the right to adjourn itself, independent of the monarch. In fact, the last time Parliament was adjourned by a king or queen was in 1814, when:
The Earl of Liverpool acquainted the House ‘That he was commanded by his royal Highness, The Prince Regent, to signify to their Lordships that it being the Prince Regent’s Pleasure, acting in the Name and on Behalf of His Majesty, that the Parliament should be adjourned until Monday the Twenty First of this instant March.’
Since 1814, the Speaker of the House has conventionally reassembled Parliament from adjournment, with this summer’s recess scheduled to end on September 5th. So far, so normal. Erskine May: Parliamentary practice informs us that generally Parliament will adjourn from late July until early to mid-September. After returning for a week or so, it is then typically adjourned once more for a break during party conference season.
As with all of us, after some time off, the House usually takes things slowly, and in the period after the summer recess does little beyond finishing off business left over from July. The ‘spill over’ period, as it is often known, is likely to be less relaxed this year, though. If Liz Truss wins the Conservative leadership election as is widely predicted, then Parliament could be in for a busy autumn. Truss has already stated she expects to deliver a new budget by the end of September.
With the regular rhythm of the parliamentary session already disrupted then, how might Parliament be recalled early as per the wishes of the Opposition? Well in fact there are only two ways this might be accomplished; the first by Proclamation, and the second by order of the Speaker of the House.
The Meeting of Parliament Act 1870 provides that Parliament may be recalled by Royal Proclamation, requiring the House to sit at least six days after the Proclamation is made. The circumstances under which the Queen would exercise this power remain typically vague, though. While we might expect it to be under advice from her Privy Council, little detail exists beyond this. In practice the chances of the Queen recalling the House against the wishes of her government seem vanishingly small.
More commonly, having received representations from that government, the Speaker of the House may recall the Commons under Standing Order No. 13., with the same power exercised in the Lords by the Lord Speaker under Standing Order No. 16.1.
Worth reflecting on here, then, is the fact that without the approval of a government, it is almost inconceivable that Parliament would be recalled early from recess, regardless of the circumstances.
One can well imagine a situation in which the Opposition was eager to recall Parliament early, and in which some national crisis merited this. If the government of the day considered this to be unwise, though, there is little that could be done to force their hand beyond an unprecedented intervention by the Queen. This seems highly unlikely to occur this summer, if at all, and so Labour’s plea is likely to go unanswered. The benefit to this is that MPs are likely to enjoy a reasonable summer break this year, but the implications of this constitutional norm are more concerning.
Like many aspects of our constitution, the summer recess exists by convention. Since 1812, the power to adjourn and recall Parliament has resided in the House of Commons, and in particular the power to reassemble the House early has lain with ministers. As our elected representatives come under increasing pressure to be accessible to the media year-round, though, we may see this convention change. If it does, we would do well to consider how period adjournment might be better reformed to take power away from the executive, that it might lie instead with representatives from across the House.
Dexter Govan is the communications manager and researcher of the Constitution Society. He holds a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh and is a historian of unionism in Britain and Ireland.
The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.
 Malcolm Jack (ed.), Erskine May: Parliamentary practice, 24th Ed. (London, 2011), pp 144-145.
 Journal of the House of Lords, 1813-1814, p. 747.
 Jack, Erskine May, p. 327.
 Daily Mirror (5 August 2022), accessible at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11083813/Liz-Truss-plans-September-budget-wins-power-unleash-advantage-Brexit.html
 Standing Orders of the House of Commons – Public business 2018, 13, accessible at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmstords/1020/body.html ;
The Standing Orders of the House of Lords relating to public business, 17.1., accessible at: https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/house-of-lords-publications/rules-and-guides-for-business/the-standing-orders-of-the-house-of-lords-relating-to-public-business/ .