Party conferences and Brexit


Party conference season presented an opportunity for each of the political parties to set out their responses to the EU referendum result. Unsurprisingly, there were major differences between their respective visions for the post-Brexit landscape. Whilst the Liberal Democrat and Green leaders called for a second EU referendum, and the SNP promised a draft bill for a second independence referendum, at the Conservative conference the Prime Minister vowed to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Brexit. Ailsa McNeil offers an overview.

Following a long summer of uncertainty, with only Theresa May’s vague and much repeated statement that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ offering any semblance of clarity, conference season was a chance for Britain’s political parties to outline their post-referendum strategy. Of the main UK-wide parties the Greens were first to hold their conference, from 2–4 September, followed by UKIP on 16 and 17 September and the Liberal Democrats from 17–20 September. Labour’s conference was held in Liverpool from 25–28 September, whilst the Conservatives gathered in Birmingham from 2–5 October. Finally, the SNP conference took place in Glasgow from 13–15 October.


Brexit dominated the Conservative conference. As well as the usual party leader’s speech to close the conference, Prime Minister Theresa May also delivered a speech focused on Brexit on the opening day.  She firmly dismissed the demands for a second referendum and promised to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, pledging to invoke Article 50 by the end of March 2017.

In defiance of a legal challenge aiming to prevent the government from triggering Article 50 without parliament’s consent and of a large number of MPs and peers who have called for a parliamentary vote, the Prime Minister told the conference that it is ‘up to the government to trigger Article 50 and the government alone’. Although not unexpected –  in August she indicated that no parliamentary vote would be held – May’s stance is at odds with a considerable body of legal opinion, contending that such a move would both expand the royal prerogative arbitrarily and subvert parliamentary democracy (by undermining the express intention of the legislature, as expressed in the European Communities Act 1972).

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So this is how liberty dies? Hungary’s EU migrant quota referendum


On 2 October a referendum was held in Hungary on the EU’s plans for refugee and migrant resettlement. 98 per cent of those who turned out supported the government in voting ‘No’ but the result was invalid as the 50 per cent turnout threshold was not met. Zoltán Gábor Szűcs discusses the background to the referendum and the campaign itself. He suggests that the referendum and campaign, the most expensive in modern Hungarian history, fell short of what we would expect in a democratic country. 

The 2 October referendum on the EU’s migrant quota did not make it much easier for foreign observers of Hungarian politics to understand what is going on. The right-wing government gathered huge support for its politics (3.3 million votes, over 98 per cent of those who voted), but failed to secure the 50 per cent turnout required for a valid referendum. The latter is somewhat ironic because it was the present government that raised the threshold to 50 per cent. And it is all the more surprising too since the money they spent on this campaign is unprecedented in post-communist Hungarian history, the opposition was divided and the government made extensive use of state-controlled media and public administration resources in controversial (even illegal) ways to persuade the public to vote ‘No’. The immediate response of the government was telling in the sense that they said nothing about the invalidity of the referendum in legal terms, but declared a big political victory. The new catchword for this so-called historic victory was ‘New Unity’ (somewhat disconcerting if we are sensitive to its not very democratic connotations) and the government immediately drafted a more or less meaningless amendment to the constitution, banning the settlement of migrants without parliamentary approval. These reactions suggest that the government was not completely satisfied with the results.

To put these events into context, we have to look back to the past ten years or so in Hungarian politics. The quasi two-party system of the late 1990s and early 2000s started to erode after 2004. The chronic moral and leadership crisis of the left led to a series of defeats, and even though in 2006 socialists and liberals won a parliamentary election their last years in power become a nightmare for them full with corruption scandals, embarrassing leaks in the media, ever changing policies and the undoing of a decade-long co-operation of the socialist and the liberal parties. The free fall of the left and the emergence of the far-right Jobbik party radically restructured the political space and provided the opportunity for Fidesz to gain a constitutional majority in the parliament in 2010. The new government could change constitutional institutions without the consent of the opposition, and they were not reluctant to use their power to such purposes. They drafted a new Constitution, a very controversial media regulation, restrained the power of the Constitutional Court, extended citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in the neighboring countries and, among other things, put political appointees into the Constitutional Court, the national election office, the police, the new media authorities and a lot of other positions. The government also used its extensive political power to reorder the Hungarian economy.

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Sturgeon sets Scotland on collision course with May’s government


Yesterday, at the SNP autumn conference in Glasgow, Nicola Sturgeon addressed her party faithful for the first time since the UK voted to leave the European Union. Akash Paun argues that the speech sets the UK and Scottish governments on a collision course.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s opening address to the SNP conference in Glasgow emphasised both her continued opposition to Brexit, especially a withdrawal from the single market, and also her intention to keep Scottish independence high on the agenda. These two issues are very much intertwined in a single debate about Scotland’s right to determine its own constitutional future. Sturgeon has consistently argued that it would be ‘democratically unacceptable’ for Scotland to be taken out of the EU, given that 62 per cent of Scots voted Remain.

Another referendum on independence

Sturgeon announced that her government would publish a draft Independence Referendum Bill as early as next week, paving the way for a rerun of the 2014 referendum in which Scots voted by 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK.

Opponents will inevitably argue that this was a decisive victory for the unionist side, and that there is therefore no call for another referendum so soon, not least since that vote was described at the time as a ‘once-in-a-generation decision’. Anticipating this critique, Sturgeon argued yesterday that ‘a UK out of the single market will not be the same country that Scotland voted to stay part of in 2014.’

In 2014, the UK and Scottish administrations struck a deal on the referendum, and legislation was passed at Westminster to allow Scotland to hold a one-off vote on independence on specific agreed terms. Crucially, this power was not devolved permanently and it has now expired. This would imply that an agreement might be needed once more. If the UK government is unwilling to play ball and the Scottish Parliament presses ahead nonetheless with a second referendum, the prospect of a legal challenge by the UK government would loom.

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All you need to know about the Italian constitutional referendum

Vincenzo Scarpetta, Political Analyst

On 4 December Italians will vote in a referendum on a major constitutional reform. The referendum is highly significant both constitutionally and, given Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s pledge to resign if the reform is defeated, politically. In this post Vincenzo Scarpetta offers an overview of the proposed reform and the key objections to it that have been raised by opponents. Despite an apparent change of tack from Renzi in recent weeks he suggests that a ‘No’ vote would almost certainly result in his resignation.

On Sunday 4 December, Italians will head to the polls to either approve or reject what is, in fact, a major constitutional reform tabled by the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and adopted by the Italian parliament earlier this year. I say major because the reform, if confirmed by the referendum, would modify a third of the Italian Constitution – 47 articles out of a total 139. Most importantly, it would overhaul the country’s parliamentary system.

The Italian parliamentary system is unique in Europe

 Italy’s current parliamentary system, unique in Europe, finds its rationale in the historical context in which the Italian Constitution, which entered into force on 1 January 1948, was written. Italy had gone through two decades of fascist dictatorship and a civil war. Hence, the willingness to avoid future anti-democratic drifts explained the choice of a parliamentary system whereby the two chambers, both directly elected, have equal powers and can oversee one another. As a result, a government needs the backing of both chambers to enter office and must resign if it loses the confidence of one of them. Furthermore, no bill can become law unless it is adopted by both chambers – meaning that it can potentially go back and forth indefinitely.

Seventy years later, however, the context has changed significantly. Italy’s parliamentary system has increasingly been singled out as one of the reasons why the country has so far failed to undertake a number of wide-ranging reforms. Two chambers with equal powers, it has been argued, slow down the law-making process. Therefore, it came as no surprise that Renzi included this constitutional reform among his flagship pledges when he took over power in February 2014.

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Judges keep out: off-the-bench influence on the UK’s anti-terror regime


The UK’s anti-terror regime has evolved rapidly over the past 15 years with the Investigatory Powers Bill the latest landmark. Much has been written about how the judiciary’s court decisions have influenced the anti-terror regime, but less attention has been paid to judges’ potential influence beyond their decisions in court. In a new report Anisa Kassamali examines off-the-bench judicial influence on the UK’s anti-terror regime, concluding that fears of judicial over-reach are unfounded. The report’s findings are summarised here.

anisa-report-coverTheresa May first published the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill as Home Secretary in November 2015, citing concerns around terrorism as one of its key drivers. State surveillance is a major feature of the UK’s anti-terror activities, and amongst other changes, the bill reconstructs the framework for the oversight of this system. As the bill now begins its report stage in the House of Lords, it is therefore apt to consider the role of the different branches of the state in tackling terrorism.

The Constitution Unit’s latest report focuses on the role of the judiciary. It is entitled Judges Keep Out: Off-the-bench Influence on the UK’s Anti-terror Regime and examines the state’s approach to terrorist threats from a constitutional angle. Have judges been overstepping their constitutional boundaries?

This question has previously been addressed only in relation to the judiciary’s court decisions. Kate Malleson is one of a number who argue that whilst ‘judges are not politicians in wigs’, the advent of procedures such as judicial review means that they ‘are increasingly required to reach decisions … which cannot be resolved without reference to policy questions’.

There has been much less focus on the judiciary’s activities outside of the courtroom – this report is the first systematic review of judicial impact on the UK’s anti-terrorism policies off-the-bench. Its findings are less controversial – it concludes that fears of judicial overreach, at least in this arena, are unfounded. It examines the question from two distinct angles – the impact of extra-judicial comments on anti-terrorism policies, and judicial involvement in the administration of the anti-terror regime.

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Brexit presents an opportunity to move towards a confederal UK


On the face of it Brexit appears likely to pull Scotland in a direction that it does not want to go. But could Brexit actually create the conditions for a solution that leaves most people happy enough, and does not leave the other side resentful? Jim Gallagher suggests that this is a possibility. The return of powers from Brussels not only to Whitehall, but also the devolved governments, presents an opportunity to move towards a confederal constitution that could satisfy the demands of people in all parts of the Union.

The absence of a coherent strategy for getting the UK out of Europe is becoming increasingly clear. Brexit is construed ever more narrowly as simply a bid for independence, a search for sovereignty (not parliamentary sovereignty, it seems, as parliament will have no say in triggering the negotiations leading to the UK’s departure). This tells us something about referendums as a decision-making device, and points to what a bad idea Brexit as a pretext for another Scottish independence referendum is. But, paradoxically, the government’s post-Brexit destination might just offer the chance of a more constructive resolution for Scottish-UK relations.

It is increasingly clear that Brexit was a nationalist referendum. Both sides would be insulted by the comparison, but Messrs Johnson and Gove spent the campaign singing the same tune as Alex Salmond. Both claimed to be positive, but were essentially negative. They were telling people to vote against a union – European or British. But voting against something is writing a blank cheque for something else. And if you write a blank cheque, somebody else fills it in.

In Whitehall today, the three Brexit ministers can’t agree how to fill that cheque in. That’s hardly surprising, since their pre-referendum promises were inconsistent: we are not going to get the single market without free movement of labour. This shows the first big problem with the referendum as a device. If people vote against something, there is no saying what they will get instead, and when the campaigners aren’t in a position to deliver their promises, the outcome will probably be something the population don’t actually want. Chances are, had it been offered them in terms, a majority of voters would have rejected the Brexit deal we are about to get.

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Reducing the size of the House of Lords: here’s how to do it


The House of Lords has faced increasing criticisms over its size – now well over 800 members – and David Cameron was criticised for his excessive peerage appointments. We now not only have a new Prime Minister, but a new Lord Speaker who has spoken out clearly about the need to reduce the size chamber to below that of the House of Commons. But what are the right mechanisms to achieve this, and to ensure that similar problems do not simply recur? Meg Russell analyses the options.

The growing size of the House of Lords has become increasingly controversial. Under David Cameron’s premiership, membership rose from just over 700 members to well beyond 800 in just six years, and he appointed to the chamber at a faster rate than any other prime minister since life peerages began (see page 13 here for figures to 2015). Both the Lords’ size and rate of appointments have frequently attracted fierce press criticism. Public figures expressing concern in recent months have included the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Bew, and the outgoing Lord Speaker, Baroness D’Souza.

Just in case Prime Minister Theresa May was in doubt about the strength of feeling on this issue, the incoming Lord Speaker Lord (Norman) Fowler began his term by strongly speaking out for change. Fowler was formerly a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, and party chairman under John Major, so has significant gravitas in Conservative circles. In a BBC interview on 16 September he suggested ‘that by the next election, [the Lords] should be at a number that is just less than the House of Commons’, emphasising how the current situation is damaging to parliament’s reputation. A particularly sensitive contextual issue is that the Commons is itself due to shrink in 2020, from 650 MPs to 600, under the government’s proposed boundary changes. In an interview for the House Magazine (reproduced on Politics Home) Fowler commented that ‘I don’t think that we can justify a situation where you have over 800 peers at the same time as you’re bringing down the Commons to 600 MPs’. Conservative chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee Charles Walker has gone further, suggesting that getting the Lords below 600 should be made a condition for voting the boundary changes through. A cross-party group of peers is pressing for the Lords to vote on the principle of being no larger than the Commons in the near future (notably the UK is the only bicameral country in the world where the second chamber is larger than the first). Conservative chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Bernard Jenkin, has meanwhile asked his committee to launch an inquiry into Lords numbers and appointments.

So this appears to be a reform whose time has come. But the key question is how best to reduce from 800+ members to 600. To succeed, any such reduction must be both sustainable and seen to be fair. Here I argue that this requires four interconnected things: a large number of departures before 2020, a long-term cap on the size of the House, limitations on future appointments, and an agreed principle of balance between the parties (and other groups). Without all four, any attempted reform is doomed to fail.

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