The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, was published today. Since the previous issue was published in March, we have had two Brexit extensions, two — the first two — recalled MPs, multiple inquiries into the functioning of parliament and its members, and two party leadership resignations, one of which means that we will almost certainly have a new Prime Minister before the end of July. If the constitution was ‘in flux’ when Monitor 68 was published the previous March, then it must now be acknowledged that the ordinary logic of British politics has been changed — perhaps permanently — by the events that have flowed from the 2016 Brexit referendum. Here, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick review the last four months of constitutional events in what is also the lead article from Monitor 72. The full edition can be found here.
The Brexit tumult goes on, and is increasingly challenging some central tenets of British politics.
Having been due to leave the European Union on 29 March, the UK will now remain until at least 31 October. Right up to the original deadline, the government was making frenetic efforts to negotiate addenda to the Withdrawal Agreement (see page 2), but it could not gain concessions adequate to persuade MPs to accept the deal (see page 4). Extensions were agreed, first just for two weeks, then for seven months. A key obstacle is fragmentation on the government side, with Conservative MPs (mostly those who are pro-Brexit) refusing to compromise. With great reluctance, the Prime Minister ultimately turned to seeking a pact with the Labour Party – a distinctly un-British approach whose necessity her European partners had apparently seen long before she did. But, with the pressure of an immediate deadline gone, and with looming European Parliament elections that she had never wanted to hold, the perilous politics of a cross-party deal proved unnavigable. Following her promise that a proposed Withdrawal Agreement Bill would include a referendum clause, Theresa May’s cross-party flirtations sufficiently infuriated sections of her party that she was eventually forced to acknowledge defeat. On 24 May she announced her intention to step down, triggering a contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party and (very likely) for the country.
Throughout these months of tumult the role of parliament has been central, and hotly contested. The 2016 referendum initiated such tension, by pitting popular sovereignty against the conventional logic of parliamentary sovereignty. Most recently there has been a long battle of wills between government and parliament. A key argument (see page 4) has concerned parliament’s ability to control its own agenda, with initiatives from backbenchers firmly backed up by the Commons Speaker. While these had mixed success, many MPs are clearly now willing to use all the powers they possess to prevent an outcome they believe would be deeply damaging to the country.
At the heart of these arguments is a question about whether the correct interpretation of Westminster convention is to privilege the parliamentary majority or the government. For most of our recent history these two have reliably coincided. But, with fragmented parties and a minority government, the cracks have really begun to show. Pushing back against MPs’ newfound confidence, some extraordinary suggestions have been made about use of prerogative powers. One was that ministers might advise the Queen not to sign parliament’s Brexit extension bill (the ‘Cooper bill’) into law. More recently, some Conservative leadership contenders have refused to rule out asking the monarch to prorogue parliament in order to prevent it blocking a ‘no deal’ Brexit. This would amount to little short of the suspension of democracy. It points to the urgent need to further limit prerogative powers by statute if the monarch is to avoid getting dragged into political disputes.
Amidst these developments, the future of the Union remains in question. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon signalled her intention to move towards another independence referendum by introducing legislation on referendum conduct and announcing a citizens’ assembly on Scotland’s future (see page 12). Ongoing political tensions in Northern Ireland were highlighted by the tragic murder of the journalist Lyra McKee (see page 15). While the powerful words spoken at her funeral rekindled pressure to restore devolved government, actual progress remains limited.
On the partisan front, meanwhile, the logic of the British party system has also been thrown into doubt and the seeds of a potential transformation have been growing. The two main parties at Westminster are increasingly riven by Brexit, while this same divide dominated the European elections in May. Nigel Farage’s newly-established Brexit Party topped the poll. Although the other new party – Change UK, formed by the Independent Group MPs who had defected from Labour and the Conservatives – floundered and later split, anti-Brexit voters found their voice through putting the Liberal Democrats in second place, and the Greens above the Conservatives. Meanwhile the vote shares for the two conventional ‘main’ parties collapsed (see page 9).
At the time of writing, two parties were amidst leadership elections (see page 13), with some 150,000 Conservative Party members (almost two-thirds of whom are estimated to have voted for the Brexit Party in May) set to choose the next Prime Minister. The grip of grassroots member power meanwhile explains why Labour’s leader, even after the party lost half its MEPs, remains unchallenged. Whether voters can be coaxed back to the old parties or not will profoundly shape the future of British politics.
The Conservatives will hope that their new leader can offer a path towards recovery. Notwithstanding the promises made during the campaign, however, he will face harsh realities on entering office. One immediate prospect could be the challenge of a no confidence vote, which some prominent Conservatives (e.g. here and here) have indicated they might support, particularly if there are threats to prorogue. This could leave Theresa May in a very difficult position regarding how to advise the Queen on the appointment of her successor. Even if these threats melt away, there is little sign that EU leaders will reopen the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. Should they prove more flexible, legislating for an orderly Brexit by 31 October would anyway be all but impossible. A fraught period of high-stakes brinksmanship in the lead-up to the October deadline looks certain.
Having been told by the EU27 not to waste time during the extension period, it seems hard to believe that parliament will soon break for 6–8 weeks over the summer – and demands for a summer recall may well soon be heard. Given the stalemate, and the unpredictable current climate, a further Brexit delay to facilitate a general election cannot be ruled out.
About the authors
Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit and was recently awarded a Senior Fellowship by the UK in a Changing Europe to provide research and commentary on the topic of ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’
Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit and the co-author of Doing Democracy Better: How Can Information and Discourse in Election and Referendum Campaigns in the UK Be Improved?.