The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, was published today. Since the last issue, a new Prime Minister has been appointed, a new Speaker has been elected, a new Brexit deal has been negotiated, and a new parliament is imminent, as a general election campaign gets into gear this week. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick review the last four months of constitutional events in what is also the lead article from Monitor 73. The full edition can be found here.
With a general election scheduled for 12 December, the UK could be at a crucial turning point. Or, of course, not: with the polls uncertain, another hung parliament is a real possibility. The UK appeared closer to agreeing terms for leaving the EU in late October than previously, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson negotiated a revised deal and the House of Commons backed his Withdrawal Agreement Bill at second reading. But when MPs refused to accept Johnson’s demand that they rush the legislation through in three days, he refused to accord them more time, and demanded – as he had twice in September – a general election. A further extension of the Article 50 period – which Johnson had previously suggested he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than allow – was agreed on 28 October – just three days before the 31 October deadline. That being in place, Labour reluctantly agreed to an election, which it is fighting on a pledge to hold another Brexit referendum. The Liberal Democrats want to revoke Article 50 in the unlikely event that they secure a majority, or otherwise hold a referendum.
In recent months much in British politics has already felt close to breaking point. While Theresa May fared badly in navigating parliament as the leader of a minority government (only in the final stages seeking agreement with other parties), Johnson seems actively to have sought confrontation with parliament. This is, to say the least, an unorthodox strategy in a system where the government depends on the Commons’ confidence to survive. It is the very reverse of what would normally be expected under a minority government. Such an approach lasted, at least briefly, due to MPs’ fears of triggering a vote of no-confidence – which might have delivered Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn to Downing Street, or indeed allowed Johnson to ‘crash’ the UK out of the EU on a ‘no deal’ basis. There were even suggestions that he would refuse to resign, and ‘dare’ the Queen to sack him (see page 15), if parliament sought to put an alternative prime minister in his place.
In his short time in office, Johnson has faced very limited parliamentary scrutiny, including just three sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions. He made and cancelled no fewer than three arrangements to appear before the Commons Liaison Committee, much to the frustration of its chair. Most controversially, of course, he sought to prorogue parliament for five weeks – an action ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court (see page 14). Despite the ruling, scrutiny was curtailed by the summer recess, the time lost due to this ‘prorogation that wasn’t’, plus a further short prorogation to facilitate a Queen’s Speech (described as a ‘sham’ by the Unit’s Robert Hazell, given Johnson’s evident desire for an election). The attempted prorogation, and loose talk about refusing to resign, have left many people alarmed that a constitution heavily dependent on convention has suddenly appeared fragile, when faced with players who show little regard for unwritten rules.
Parliamentary conventions have also come under pressure. A repeat of MPs ‘seizing the agenda’ resulted in the so-called ‘Benn Act’, which forced Johnson to seek the Article 50 extension. Facilitating this was one of the last actions of Speaker Bercow, who retired on 31 October, and whose legacy will be contested. The future of the Union looks uncertain too, with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon telling October’s SNP conference that an independence referendum ‘must happen’ in 2020. The chances of a so-called ‘border poll’ in Northern Ireland in the coming years are also rising, and the Unit has launched a Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland to examine what might be involved.
Conflict over Brexit has continued to exacerbate tensions within the political parties – particularly in the Conservatives under Johnson. Several quit the Cabinet on his election as leader, unwilling to serve in his administration. Some of these were among the 21 MPs he stripped of the whip over votes on the Benn Bill. By the time parliament was dissolved, five former Conservative MPs (including former leadership contender Sam Gyimah), and three from Labour, had defected to the Liberal Democrats. Five MPs were sitting for the Independent Group for Change and 24 others as independents (of whom 12 were elected in 2017 for the Conservatives and 10 for Labour). Most of the former Conservatives, including Oliver Letwin and former Chancellor Phliip Hammond, have decided not to contest the coming election.
Key Brexit protagonist Dominic Grieve has taken a different path; both he and Anne Milton (and most recently former Cabinet minister David Gauke) have chosen to stand as independent candidates. Meanwhile former leadership candidate and Cabinet member Rory Stewart intends to run as an independent for London mayor. Numerous other Conservative moderates are standing down, including Theresa May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington. Some Brexit-supporting Labour MPs are also departing, as is – to the surprise of some – Deputy Leader Tom Watson. This means that the new House of Commons may look and feel very different from its predecessor. A serious concern has been the number of MPs stepping down in response to the abuse that they have received – particularly women.
This last point connects to the tone of the campaign. It has been a deeply regrettable characteristic of the Johnson administration that a ‘parliament versus people’ rhetoric has been allowed to flourish. This narrative has been propagated by the Prime Minister himself, and other senior ministers, as well as by the now notorious ‘Downing Street source’, commonly assumed to be former Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings (who, prior to being appointed by Johnson, had been ruled in contempt of parliament for refusing to appear before a select committee). Not only is this ironic, as some key figures have pointed out, since Johnson was among those who delayed Brexit by voting against Theresa May’s deal, it is also potentially corrosive to public trust in democracy. Parliament sits at the heart of the UK system, and cannot properly function without public support.
There are other reasons to be concerned about the conduct of the election. Numerous detailed reports – including, over recent months, from the Electoral Commission, Association of Electoral Administrators, and Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – have argued that our electoral laws are no longer fit for purpose and urgently need updating, particularly in regard to digital campaigning. But government, despite warm words, is yet to act. Tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter have introduced policies that partially fill the void, but acknowledge themselves that legislative solutions are needed. Journalists and fact-checkers will have a vital role in identifying and exposing mischief during the campaign. Once the election is over, a thorough overhaul of the electoral rules may be just one of the key steps needed to rebuild trust in our democracy.
You can read the full contents of Monitor 73 here.
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About the authors
Professor Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit, and a Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe studying ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’. She is also the co-author of Legislation at Westminster: Parliamentary Actors and Influence in the Making of British Law.
Dr 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?