Monitor 74, the latest edition of the Unit’s regular news update on constitutional issues, was published this morning. Since the last edition in November, we have had a general election, a government reshuffle, a new parliament with new committee chairs, and the UK has left the European Union. The future does not look dull, either. The negotiations about the future relationship with the EU have only just begun, a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission has been promised, and both Labour and the Lib Dems face leadership elections that could alter the future course of both parties. Here, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick, the Unit’s Director and Deputy Director respectively, offer their take on the past four months – and what the future might hold for a majority government in uncertain times with as yet undefined opponents.
The result of December’s election was decisive – Boris Johnson’s Conservative government returned to power with a House of Commons working majority of 87. His election slogan of ‘get Brexit done’ helped cut through, including in many former Labour heartlands (although at the aggregate level more votes were cast for parties supporting a referendum than for those pledged to immediately deliver Brexit). The party’s renewed parliamentary strength has now allowed Johnson to deliver on that promise. His post-election European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill passed unamended, and the UK formally left the EU on 31 January.
In some respects the election result seemed to indicate a return to normality – the classic UK expectation of stable single-party majority government was fulfilled. After periods of coalition government between 2010 and 2015, a narrow and brittle Conservative majority between 2015 and 2017, and minority government from 2017 to 2019, ‘normal service’ could resume. There are 365 Conservative MPs to Labour’s 202, with the smaller parties that take their seats collectively on 75 (see page 5). Not only is Johnson’s parliamentary party larger than that in the previous parliament, it also seems likely to be more united – at least on the key issue of Brexit. The Conservative MPs that he stripped of the whip in September almost all either retired or were defeated. Former Conservatives running as independents or for other parties, including Dominic Grieve, David Gauke, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston were all swept away.
There is hence some scope for politics to settle down, and the high-profile clashes of the last three years have probably been left behind. The government will be keen to shift the focus from Brexit to its domestic agenda. Indeed, guidance has apparently been issued in Whitehall to discourage use of the term ‘Brexit’ at all. Furthermore, changes to the final implementing legislation (see page 4) mean that the new parliament will have little formal control over the shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The transition period seems unlikely to be extended beyond the end of the year.
Yet it would be an overstatement to suggest that parliament will now become boring. The UK–EU negotiations (see page 3) will certainly raise controversies. And discontent on the Conservative benches is already showing on matters such as the HS2 railway line, the role of Chinese tech giant Huawei in the UK’s 5G network, and levels of taxation and spending. A desire to retain the party’s expanded working class electorate may raise multiple tensions with its more traditional supporters.
At the same time, there are many big questions about the future of British politics and the constitution. The government was elected on a manifesto hinting at wide-ranging constitutional reforms. The now famous page 48 suggested a need to review ‘the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people’, and promised a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to do so. It also made various more specific commitments, including scrapping the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (the topic of the Unit’s next public seminar), and changes to electoral rules (see page 9).
Whether and how fundamental questions of balance in the constitution will be addressed remains unknown. As Monitor went to press, there had still been no formal announcement about the Commission, though rumours had emerged. Possibly, as hinted at by then Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, it might in practice limit itself to a relatively narrow agenda of judicial reform (see page 12) – which may prove to be the government’s key priority. Addressing the broader balance among the three branches of government – executive, legislature, and judiciary – could now look like ‘fighting the last war’, given the government’s comfortable Commons majority. As argued on the Unit’s blog by its Director and Deputy Director, wide-ranging questions such as these about the shape of our democracy cannot now plausibly be addressed without significant public input and deliberation.
Other constitutional controversies – planned and unplanned – are already hitting the headlines. The Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has long had ambitions to radically reform the civil service. In the end, despite rumours to the contrary, the post-Brexit Cabinet reshuffle (see page 11) was relatively modest, and machinery of government changes were restricted to the abolition of the Department for Exiting the European Union. But there are signs of significant unhappiness in Whitehall. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, dramatically resigned over plans to shake up arrangements for special advisers (see page 11). Subsequently, and just as spectacularly, the top Home Office civil servant, Philip Rutnam, resigned and looks set to commence a constructive unfair dismissal claim – alleging a ‘vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign’ against him.
Meanwhile, recent events have brought the future of the Union into ever greater question. Brexit, combined with the election result, have encouraged Nicola Sturgeon to step up her demands for a second referendum on Scottish independence (see page 15). Johnson has robustly rejected them – potentially playing into the hands of the Scottish National Party (now strengthened at Westminster on 48 seats, and gearing up for the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2021). The nature of the Brexit deal, combined with the results of the Irish general election (see page 16), have also seen increasing attention focus on the possibility of a Northern Ireland border poll (see page 14).
The nature of the election campaign itself has reinforced concerns about key aspects of campaign regulation. Despite universal agreement that regulations on digital campaigning are inadequate (see page 9), no steps had been taken to change them before the election was called. The government has signalled its intention to act, but the extent of the reforms it will introduce remains unclear. It is meanwhile pushing ahead with requiring voters to show photographic ID – a change that appears much less urgent. And there are concerns – including among Conservative backbenchers – that government hostility towards the BBC and Channel 4 may harm pluralistic political discourse.
How these various dynamics play out remains to be seen. With the election behind us, the government reshuffled, and the first crucial stage of Brexit ‘done’, parliamentary committees have only just been re-established (see page 6), and changes on the opposition benches are yet to come. The outcome of the Labour leadership contest (see page 13) is due in early April, and the seeming front runner – Keir Starmer – is a lawyer with a keen grasp of both constitutional affairs and Brexit. As Monitor went to press, it appeared increasingly likely that the spread of the Covid-19 virus could substantially alter the political environment, at least in the short term. While the new Johnson government is adjusting to office, the environment in which it will operate in coming years is also yet to make itself clear.
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About the authors
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?