The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past five months, a period that has included the unexpected general election result, the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and DUP that followed, Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement of plans for a second referendum (later ‘reset’) and the beginning of Brexit negotiations, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link.
Current British politics is rarely dull. Added to the unexpected result in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the subsequent Miller case regarding parliament’s role in the process (not to mention the Conservatives’ unexpected outright majority in 2015), we now have our second hung parliament in seven years, a resurgent Corbyn-led Labour Party, and a previously popular Prime Minister who appears to be on the ropes. All this following a general election that few expected, and that some even thought pretty much impossible under the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
Following the successful passage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act, authorising the trigger of Article 50 (see page 4), Theresa May surprised almost everybody on 18 April by proposing a general election for 8 June. Having started with what looked like an unassailable lead in the polls, in an election where she sought to strengthen her hand in parliament during the Brexit negotiations, she managed instead to lose her slender Commons majority and was forced into a confidence and supply arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) (see page 6). Her authority within her own government is much diminished, and ministers have openly squabbled with each other over Brexit priorities. Meanwhile, Labour’s unexpected gains leave its previously fractious parliamentary party appearing suddenly united behind Jeremy Corbyn.
The results were also a blow to Nicola Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party (SNP) lost twelve seats to the Conservatives, six to Labour and three to the Liberal Democrats. Conservative leader Ruth Davidson (who spoke at a packed Constitution Unit event during the campaign) in contrast made a strong case for the Union and gained further stature and negotiating power. Sturgeon acknowledged on 27 June that she would have to put the campaign for a second Scottish independence referendum on hold for the time being (see page 11).
The campaign itself was unusually eventful and was marred by distressing terrorist attacks in Manchester and London (see page 7). The parties pulled together manifestos very quickly. As was analysed in a piece on the Constitution Unit blog, these included many and varied constitutional reform proposals. The Conservatives promised significant electoral reforms (see page 8), and repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (see pages 3–4). But, of course, their biggest constitutional challenge is Brexit.
The slightly delayed Queen’s speech, on 21 June, set out plans for an opening two-year parliamentary session – the first such extended session since the beginning of the coalition period in 2010–12 and only the second since World War II. The event saw reduced ceremonial (allowing some mischievous commentators to claim that the Queen had replaced her crown with a ‘giant EU hat’). Given the difficult parliamentary arithmetic (see page 2), it also saw some reduction in legislative ambition, with the speech being largely confined to Brexit-related matters and a few other fairly low-profile bills (see pages 4–5).
It remains to be seen just how difficult the new government’s relationship with parliament will be. The result seems to have boosted those who favour a so-called ‘soft’ Brexit, and the new and returning Conservative MPs are less likely to be unquestioningly loyal to or trusting of their leader. The Northern Ireland border, if it wasn’t already central enough to discussions over Brexit, has taken on added importance given the reliance on the DUP (see page 12). There has been some nervousness in the Brexit-supporting newspapers about the likely stance of the House of Lords, and even whether the Salisbury-Addison convention will apply in a minority government situation. This is something of a red herring, as the Lords rarely seeks to block the second reading of any government bill, whether manifesto-related or not, but almost always feels entitled to raise questions on the detail. In this respect, the position that Labour chooses to adopt on Brexit is key.
Various positives and potential negatives came out of the election campaign. The House of Commons is more representative than ever in gender and ethnic terms, though still far short of a mirror of the population (see page 10). New and more intense questions were raised about the regulation of online campaigning (see page 9). The pollsters, few of whom predicted a hung parliament, were once again under scrutiny. Some of these key issues were explored in the Constitution Unit’s well-attended post-election events, on 10 June and 21 June.
The Unit will continue to explore other issues of intense interest in British constitutional politics. During the campaign we launched a report exploring the options for a constitutional convention of citizens, as proposed in several parties’ manifestos (though not that of the Conservatives). In the autumn we will apply similar deliberative methods to run a citizens’ assembly on the form that Brexit should take (see page 16), which we hope will inform parliamentary and government decision-making. We are also in the process of establishing an Independent Commission on Referendums to address big questions about how and when such direct democracy instruments can best be used, and how good quality debate can be encouraged.
Contributors to Monitor 66
Andrew Cook, Roberta Damiani, Jim Gallagher, Daniel Gover, Jennifer Hudson, Michael Kenny, Kasim Khorasanee, Jac Larner, Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Nicola McEwen, David Owen, Alan Renwick, Meg Russell, Mark Sandford, Brian Walker and Nick Wright.
The issue was edited by Jack Sheldon.