We need clearer reporting on the 2015 election

Akash.Paun-70The 2015 election is one of the most unpredictable in decades. But last Monday’s dissolution of parliament was the most predictable event of the year and still large parts of the media got it wrong. This does not bode well for how the post-election period will be reported, writes Akash Paun.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), passed in 2011 and amended in 2013, Parliament was automatically dissolved last Monday, 25 working days before the first Thursday in May, when the country goes to the polls. Nonetheless, several major news outlets managed to confuse their readers and viewers by reporting that David Cameron had to request a dissolution from the Queen (as was the case before the FTPA was passed).

There are more important parts of our constitution than the precise mechanism used to dissolve parliament. But this is just one of a number of misconceptions likely to confuse voters in the run-up to and days following the election, particularly if there is another hung parliament. Even the Government’s Cabinet Manual, created expressly to clear up confusion about such matters, has not been kept up to date and incorrectly states that the election occurs 17 (rather than 25) days after dissolution (at page 96).

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How should parliament decide who will be the next Prime Minister: by a nomination vote, or the Queen’s Speech?

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Robert Hazell weighs up options for establishing who can command the confidence of the House of Commons, which will be particularly significant in the likely event of another coalition. This is the fourth in a series of posts about government formation after the election.

The Cabinet Manual explains the rules as follows:

‘… the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House [of Commons] to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government’ (para 2.8)

In a hung parliament that appears to require the Queen to play a guessing game. But the Cabinet Manual goes on to say:

‘Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, political parties may wish to hold discussions to establish who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government. The Sovereign would not expect to become involved…’ (para 2.13).

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May 2015: Who forms the UK government in the event of a hung parliament?

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The polls continue to predict a hung parliament after the May 2015 election in which more than one potential government could be viable. In this context, Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu ask how government formation negotiations will proceed and which actors will have a privileged role in the bargaining process?

When several alternative governments are viable, negotiations are in practice guided by constitutional principles that determine which actors are asked to form the government and in what order. These principles are referred to as recognition rules in the field of comparative politics and they are often central in narrowing a range of potential government formation options decisively.

In the UK, the prime minister designate is appointed by the sovereign and asked to form a government. The monarch is expected to discharge this role in government formation without becoming involved in any negotiations. This is not difficult when a single party commands an outright legislative majority so that the prime minister designate is directly identified by the election result. However, in hung parliaments, the task of naming an appropriate government formateur often involves political choices. Moreover, who is selected as the formateur can have important consequences for the nature of the government that forms. In the past, the UK has applied a range of different principles to select formateurs. The problem is that these principles are potentially contradictory. The need to resolve the contradictions is becoming increasingly pressing in the context of long-term changes in electoral behaviour, which make it unlikely that the hung parliament of 2010 will remain an isolated outcome.

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The Cabinet Manual and the caretaker convention

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In the second of a short series of posts about government formation after the election, Robert Hazell discusses the weaknesses of the Cabinet Manual in terms of offering guidance on role of the incumbent PM and the caretaker convention.

On 23 February I gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for their inquiry into government formation after the election. We discussed the inadequacy of the guidance in the Cabinet Manual about two things:

  • Whether there is a duty on the incumbent Prime Minister to remain in office until it is clear who can command confidence in the new Parliament
  • The caretaker convention, which requires a caretaker government to avoid actions or decisions which would bind the hands of a future government.

Duty on incumbent Prime Minister to remain in office

The draft Cabinet Manual published in December 2010 stated:

‘The incumbent Prime Minister is not expected to resign until it is clear that there is someone else who should be asked to form a government because they are better placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons and that information has been communicated to the Sovereign.’

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Preparing for another hung parliament: 9 key questions answered

robert_hazell (1)Recent polls have suggested that the 2015 general election will result in another hung parliament, with no single party gaining an overall majority. The media and voters may assume that 2015 will then see a replay of 2010, with the swift formation of another coalition government. Not necessarily so, as Robert Hazell, along with Peter Riddell of the Institute for Government, has been explaining in pre-election briefings for the broadcasters. 

1. Will the leader of the largest party become Prime Minister?

Not necessarily. The constitutional rule is that the politician who can command the confidence of the House of Commons becomes PM. This could be the leader of the second largest party, if he can secure sufficient support from third and minor parties.

2. Does the Queen play a formative role?

No. The political parties must establish between themselves who can command confidence in the new House of Commons. The Queen will be kept informed, and will appoint that person as Prime Minister when the result of the negotiations becomes clear.

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Defining the office of Prime Minister

The British Prime Minister has extensive and growing powers, yet the role is ill-defined in UK constitutional documents. Graham Allen argues in favour of clarifying the role of the Prime Minister. He also suggests it should become a directly elected office, to ensure that it is properly answerable to the UK public.

It is symptomatic of the British constitution that the more important something is, the more vaguely defined it is, and the harder it is to make it democratically accountable.

This principle certainly applies to the office of Prime Minister.

We do not know for certain when it came into existence. Historians tell us that the most important person in this process was Sir Robert Walpole, in the early eighteenth century. His reputation for corruption hardly makes for the most auspicious beginning for any great institution of state. Anyway, he did not actually officially create anything and always denied that he was a ‘Prime Minister’. The fact is that the most important job in British government has come about over a long period of three hundred years without anyone ever knowing precisely what it was; and without Parliament or the public ever having been consulted about it.

The House of Commons select committee of which I am the elected chair, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, has been looking at the office of Prime Minister for a number of years now, and we recently published a report on the subject. One of the surprising things we learned when investigating the subject was how little formal definition there is, even today, of the office of Prime Minister. The most that can be found is a few lines in a document published in 2011, The Cabinet Manual. Yet this text is – as the name suggests – an operational guide for government, aimed mainly at officials and ministers. It is not a full public definition of the prime-ministership, nor does it have proper legal force.

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Continuing resentment against ‘establishment’ politicians has brought the right of recall back on to the legislative agenda

Robert Hazell discusses the challenges around developing legislation that will permit MPs to be recalled.

It was not a complete surprise to see the right of recall in the Queen’s Speech. The coalition government had kept open the option of legislating in a series of exchanges with the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee over the last two years.  The proposals stem originally from the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, which led all three major parties to include almost identical proposals for a right of recall in their election manifestos in 2010.  The precise commitment of the coalition parties in the May 2010 Programme for Government was framed as follows:

Image credit- UK Parliament

Image credit: UK Parliament

‘We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP was found to have engaged in serious wrong doing and having had a petition for a by-election signed by 10 per cent of his or her constituents’.

True to its word, in December 2011 the government published a draft bill and White Paper.  But in 2012 the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) produced a very critical report, which led the government to pause.  The committee feared that the restricted form of recall proposed could reduce public confidence in politics by creating expectations that were not fulfilled.  The government’s long pause suggests that it may have shared the committee’s doubts.  But the rise of UKIP in the 2014 elections and continuing resentment against ‘establishment’ politicians tipped the balance: the government felt obliged to be seen to be doing something.

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