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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The UK Monarchy: Moving to a regency that dare not speak its name?

Bob Morris

The recent consolidation of the Queen’s and the Prince of Wales press offices under the Prince’s former press secretary and a YouGov poll(i) apparently showing warmer feelings towards the Prince’s deputising increasingly for his mother draw attention again to the gradual anticipatory transfer of functions between the Queen and her heir. How constitutionally is all this to be understood?

Abdication – the ‘A’ word

We are firmly told there isn’t going to be one. The Queen swore to serve all her days and she continues to mean it. Some other – lesser? – monarchies use abdication to pass on the throne to mature heirs with yet many years still in front of them(ii) and before the abdicator is senescent. That way the crown may still be held for decades and the appearance of continuity – thought to be one of monarchy’s advantages – preserved.

In such cases, abdication has been a response to generational arithmetic which, if its course is not revisited, could with modern longevity result in a succession of gerontocrats.(iii) Thus without an ‘A’ event and, just taking an example almost at random, it is possible to imagine a monarch plausibly likely to survive until a few years past their centenary to be succeeded by an octogenarian ruling for a decade or so to be succeeded in turn by a mere sexagenarian pushing 70 themselves succeeded by a similar aged heir.

Vernon Bogdanor is not moved by the arithmetic argument: ‘…the notion of abdications strikes at the heart of the British monarchy. For it implies that monarchy is a vocation that one can choose or abandon at will.//As soon as the monarchy becomes a matter of choice, its usefulness is greatly lessened’.(iv) But the first point naturally raises the question whether monarchy is not in the end a public office like any other public office. If so, then the view of the office holder would normally be subordinate to the interests of good government – and not entirely without regard either to the demands upon the incumbent in their old age. The second point – utility – raises just what, constitutionally, monarchy nowadays does – a point dealt with further below.

Regency

The law is clear: there can be a regency only when it can be authoritatively certified that one is necessary because of the mental or bodily infirmity of the sovereign (or for some other definite cause). The Regent has to be able to satisfy all the normal requirements for succession (Including not being a Roman Catholic but being in communion with the Church of England) and swear the relevant oaths. Prohibited from assenting to Bills changing the succession or reneging on the constitutional guarantee to the Church of Scotland, the Regent otherwise assumes all the sovereign’s functions.

Happily, the statutory criteria for a regency cannot at present be satisfied. There may come such a day but, without mental infirmity for example, bodily infirmity would have to be quite extreme to render the sovereign ‘incapable for the time being of performing the royal functions’ – the key statutory test. At what point, for example, would the sovereign become incapable of signifying assent – what sufficient minimal physical gesture, and as assessed by whom – to statutes, orders in council, church and other appointments recommended by ministers?

Short of becoming regent, an heir has no ‘hard’ constitutional position except to represent the sovereign for purposes that do not require the exercise of powers only the sovereign can exercise.(v) In a modern ‘welfare’ monarchy, this leaves quite a lot of room in the case of general ‘public duties’. For example, there is no reason why the heir could not read the sovereign’s speech at fresh Parliamentary sessions. Similarly, the heir could represent the sovereign at a range of public events varying from the annual review of the household regiments to attending the annual assembly of the Church of Scotland or leading on inward and outward state visits. The heir has already substituted for the sovereign at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Present position

What seems to be happening is a movement to co-reigning where the sovereign is closely and explicitly shadowed by the heir but as the junior partner. The talk of an imminent ‘soft’ regency that is sometimes heard seems misplaced because no transfer of constitutional power is involved. There are ancient precedents for co-reigning monarchs but in very different circumstances: the aim seems mostly to have been to signify a preferred succession in turbulent times rather to arrange any real, immediate transfer of authority. Nonetheless, what is on hand does seem to be more a species of co-working than any other recognisable model.

Does any of this matter?

Were the sovereign still also the chief executive, then wooliness would be best avoided. Situations where there could be doubt whether an ageing sovereign could be relied upon to rein in a reckless heir’s dabbling in military matters or plundering the treasury cannot now arise. This is because the monarch is no longer the chief executive of the state: the modern head of state function in the UK is nowadays best understood as the hereditary president of a de facto republic.

The former key constitutional functions of granting Parliamentary dissolutions and selecting prime ministers no longer exist: the first was removed by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (which substituted a statutory procedure) and the second by agreed procedures for government formation set out in a Cabinet Office Manual. The royal assent to Bills has long been a routine formality and, it has recently been argued, is ripe for statutory regulation.(vi) Otherwise no constitutional or executive function is exercised except on the advice of responsible ministers. Nonetheless, as Vernon Bogdanor points out, there are certainly important monarchical functions left, chief among them being the relationship with the prime minister, head of state in fifteen other Commonwealth ‘realms’ and headship of the Commonwealth itself. In addition, the crown is one of the few institutions operating throughout the UK. Though the longer term range of the role must be in doubt, the sovereign remains also involved in forms of UK-wide civil religion.(vii) The ‘welfare’ monarchy may beneficially continue to draw attention to causes that otherwise might struggle to obtain recognition. Helping an ageing sovereign more closely has advantages for both the sovereign and the heir, and co-working prepare the way more acceptably for accession – even to the point perhaps of smoothing passage to headship of the Commonwealth for accession to which there are, as yet, no agreed rules.

It seems, therefore, that the nation can expect a period of experimentation with co-working where, perhaps opportunistically, roles are transferred in relation primarily to public duties. One outcome should be a better prepared heir. Another – when that heir succeeds – might be a fresh look at the merits of resort in the long run to abdication as a part of succession planning.

Footnotes
(i) ‘Feet up, Ma’am, Let Charles do the work, Sunday Times 26 January 2014.
(ii) Thirty-two years each in the case of Queens Juliana and Beatrix of the Netherlands.
(iii) See Robert Hazell’s post – ‘Shouldn’t we allow our monarchs to abdicate, like the Dutch’ – 19 February 2013.
(iv) Daily Telegraph 20 January 2014.
(v) Brazier R. (1995) ‘The constitutional position of the Prince of Wales’, Public Law, 401-416, discusses the then minimal substance, a discussion taken further in Evans v Information Commissioner [2012] UKUT 313 (AAC). See also Perry A. (2013) ‘Constitutional Conventions and the Prince of Wales’, Modern Law Review, 1119-1128.
(vi) Brazier R. (2013) ‘Royal Assent to legislation’, Law Quarterly Review, 184-204.
(vii) For a recent discussion, see Bonney N. (2013) Monarchy, Religion and the State: Civil religion in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the Commonwealth (Manchester, Manchester UP).

The Workings of the British Constitution and the Cabinet Manual

 Constitutional and Administrative Law Bar Association (ALBA) event

Topic: Government in the Age of Coalition: The Workings of the British Constitution and the Cabinet Manual

Speakers: Lord (Peter) Hennessy, Lord (Gus) O’Donnell, and Andrew Blick

Chair: Lady Justice Arden

Date: 14 March 2012, 17.45-19.15

Venue: Bingham Room (formerly the Spy Room), Gray’s Inn

Further details:

 

The Cabinet Manual: where’s the beef?

After almost two years of drafts, three select committee reports, the UK now has a Cabinet Manual. I received my shiny grey copy of the first edition of the Manual a few days ago, and am only just beginning to read it. The grey cover is completely appropriate of course: it is a civil service document through and through. Truly, it is—as Lord Hennessy suggested memorably—a herbivore’s document. Nothing wrong with that.[1] But this is not a manual that ministers will use. It is far too formal for that. That’s a shame, but early days: this is only the first edition.

As with all good and great things, the Cabinet Manual has begun to develop its own little academic industry—which, of course, one can only applaud. But it’s easy to talk about what could and should have been in the Manual: eg., more about the Human Rights Act, Europe, a better discussion of parliament and its conventions, etc etc…. the list goes on. Instead, I would like to briefly talk about two matters, which are connected.

First point: it’s a surprise that the Manual was published at all. It needs to be recalled that prior to 2010 there were a fair number of executive guidance documents of varying size and accuracy scattered in different locations, and in some areas of executive practice there was no guidance at all. There was little understanding that this might be a problem—not just because of the possibility of a hung parliament, but because the scattered, incomplete nature of these documents might impact upon executive effectiveness. More generally, there was a need for greater transparency or at least openness about government. Robert Hazell and Peter Riddell’s original submission calling for a Cabinet Manual was made with all three considerations in mind. And if you read the submission, you will notice that many of the points are made quite cautiously. That is because there was no guarantee that anything would be done. To put it differently, the Manual’s publication was by no means inevitable.

The second point is from my brief experience in the Executive: the aphorism ‘bills are made to pass like razors are made to sell’ applies equally to executive guidance documents. Just because a need has been identified doesn’t mean it can be answered in an ideal form. There is a process, or processes by which things happen within the executive; and the executive is not a monolith—it consists of different groups with different interests. And sometimes the silences, omissions and ambiguities of the Manual are unintentional, and sometimes they are deliberate. That is the nature of the executive, because it does not necessarily speak with one voice, and because the executive also has to be aware of the other branches of government.

Is this cryptic? I hope not. But my basic point is this. The Manual is an imperfect document. But to me it is still a surprise that we have the document at all. [2]

[1] So perhaps it should have been called ‘the Cabinet Office Manual’, as all three select committees recommended. That would make it clear that it is a manual for officials rather than for ‘Cabinet’.

[2] This is not a veiled way of saying ‘be pleased with what you got’. I only wish to point out that two years ago no such document existed.

Why Written Constitutions are a Good Thing

The historian Linda Colley has written an article in the Guardian on the British experience of constitution-making. It is an argument about the uses of history. For too long, Colley argues, the British (the British elites, perhaps) have had a selective memory about constitutions and constitution making. Until the 19th century, there was a ‘cult’ of devotion in Britain towards various written constitutional documents—the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, and above all, the Magna Carta. This receded over time, and although this is not stated in the article, it may have been a response to the proliferation of ‘written’ constitutions, particularly on the Continent, and the need for Britons to distinguish themselves as different. Having said that, the British continued to draft written constitutions for their colonies well into the 20th century.

Colley’s point: it is not un-British to have or engage in a process of drafting a constitution. Britons have been interested and engaged in constitutional processes in the past; it is quite possible they still are. Colley ends by suggesting that years of ad hoc reforms and the increasing disunity of the United Kingdom may make a written constitution more important than ever. Whatever the drawbacks of a written/ codified constitution, one benefit may be it would offer “a single, recognised source from which citizens can learn about how their state is supposed to operate.” As they say, read the whole thing.

As an aside, the finalised version of the UK Cabinet Manual was published last week (more on this another day). I raise it not to point to its (murky) constitutional status, but rather to point to it as a neat inversion of Colley’s description of how constitutional ideas were transmitted from the centre to the periphery: the NZ Manual was the inspiration for the UK Manual. And so, New Zealand gives back to the Mother Country. It’s the least we could do.

Thou Shalt Not Chill: Cabinet Manual Seeks a Clear Audit trail

The new cabinet manual published today goes to some lengths to emphasise the need to have a clear chain of record-keeping around decisions and prevent a ‘chilling effect’.

It gives a very wide definition of information

‘Official information is information created and commissioned in the course of official government business. It includes information created or received by ministers in a ministerial capacity. Official information can be in any format, and includes correspondence and memoranda, guidance, emails, datasets and databases, websites, official blogs and wikis, and film and sound recordings. Other formats that emerge will also be covered.’

 It then goes on to describe what information needs to be kept in relation to decisions:

 ‘The role of ministers’ private offices

11.4 Guidance issued by the Cabinet Office and The National Archives1 emphasises the need for private offices to record ministerial decisions on any correspondence or submissions to ministers or officials, including special advisers, and outside interest groups, private sector organisations and MPs. This would include any meetings, telephone conversations and communications via the internet where decisions are taken that relate to government business, so that there is a clear audit trail.

11.5 All papers and electronic information relating to a minister’s personal, party or constituency affairs remain the minister’s personal responsibility during their time in office and once they have left office or moved to another ministerial appointment. Private Office staff and special advisers should manage and maintain personal, party and constituency papers and information separately from departmental material and Cabinet and Cabinet committee documents.2 Data security of constituency material is the responsibility of the minister in their capacity as an MP. Responsibility for party information is a matter for the relevant political party to determine.’

It would be interesting to know if this is preventative, a subtle telling off for certain ministers who may be trying to hide communications or whether they know something about the extent of the chilling effect that we don’t.