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 four months, a period that has seen several rounds of Brexit talks, the introduction and second reading of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the publication of the Burns review on the size of the House of Lords, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link.
The previous issue of Monitor was published just after the surprise result of the snap general election. The Prime Minister was back at the helm, but with a reduced number of MPs, and dependent on a confidence and supply arrangement with the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). We noted that the road ahead looked rocky.
So it has proved to be – though Theresa May remains in post, and the real parliamentary showdowns seem still to come. The Prime Minister has been dealt an exceptionally difficult hand – managing legislation on Brexit of unprecedented constitutional complexity, alongside the fractious negotiations with the EU, while leading a divided party in a House of Commons in which she has no partisan majority. Over the summer, and particularly during the party conference season, her leadership was regularly questioned, but must gain some stability from the fact that few would really want to be in her shoes. Meanwhile, rumours suggest that she has used the threat of a Boris Johnson premiership to coax other EU leaders to the negotiating table.
As discussed on pages 2–3, the official Brexit negotiations have made slow progress. Despite Theresa May’s attempted injection of momentum through her Florence speech in September, EU partners have not yet agreed to move on to ‘Phase II’ (i.e. post-Brexit trade arrangements), and a serious sticking point remains the so-called ‘divorce bill’. Partly as a consequence, the prospect of a ‘no deal’ outcome has increasingly been talked up. This is presented by some in the Conservative Party as a necessary negotiating strategy to get the EU-27 to give the UK what it wants, but others seem to view it with a degree of relish. Meanwhile, business groups appear to be increasingly concerned.
One thing that remains little-known is the state of public opinion, and how that may develop. While the June 2016 referendum came up with a Leave result, today’s question of what Leave should mean is a good deal more complex. As such, it is not readily suited to opinion polling. Here the results of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, run by a team led from the Constitution Unit and funded by the ESRC (see page 15), can shed some useful light. Assembly members, who included more Leave than Remain supporters, expressed a preference for the kind of bespoke trade deal that the government says it is seeking. But members were very clear that if this cannot be achieved, a ‘no deal’ outcome was undesirable. They preferred that the UK remained a member of the Single Market and Customs Union to this. Politicians should reflect on such findings carefully, because boxing themselves in to no deal could prove electorally dangerous.
A key place for some of the tensions to be played out is during discussions on the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill (see pages 3–4). The bill implements the legal changes needed to make Brexit a reality, and is a particularly harsh first test of the minority Conservative government’s parliamentary prowess. In such delicate circumstances, a government would be well advised to steer clear of controversial legislation, but this one has no choice. Faced with hundreds of amendments, many of them signed by Conservative backbenchers, the government has repeatedly delayed the start of committee stage for this otherwise urgent measure. In line with the findings in Meg Russell and Daniel Gover’s new book, Legislation at Westminster (see page 16), governments often trim their ambitions to ensure that bills are ‘parliament ready’ – but they normally have more wiggle room than this.
In recent years the risk of parliamentary defeat has been highest in the Lords, and remains so on this bill; but the prospect of Commons defeat is also now very real. On 22 October Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer pledged to work with Tory rebels to change the bill, and set down six key tests. These went far beyond reining back ‘Henry VIII powers’ (which the government seems likely to do), and included protecting workers’ rights and environmental standards, as well as giving parliament a vote on the final deal. Although some of these demands will anger Conservative hardliners, present conditions mean that the government may have little choice but to take a bipartisan approach. During the coming months, attention may shift increasingly to what form a parliamentary vote at the end of the process might take, and what its effect would be. Experts point out that this is far from clear. Meanwhile, the process is exacerbating territorial tensions over devolution arrangements, in ways which will be hard to resolve (see page 4).
Brexit is the toughest constitutional issue facing the new government, but not the only one. Action on the size of the House of Lords is back on the agenda, following the publication of the Burns report (see pages 6–7). The decision on parliamentary boundaries (see pages 9–10) must soon be returned to. A solution to the collapse of government in Northern Ireland is ever more needed, and efforts to find one have resumed, but few hold out much hope (see pages 11–12). On the Unit’s agenda, a new Independent Commission (see pages 15–16) is contemplating the prospects for referendums, and how the UK might do them better.
Contributors to Monitor 67
Roberta Damiani, Jim Gallagher, Daniel Gover, Robert Hazell, Michael Kenny, Jac Larner, Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Patrick O’Brien, Alan Renwick, Meg Russell, Mark Sandford, Jess Sargeant, Alan Whysall and Nick Wright.
The issue was edited by Jack Sheldon.