Monitor 75, the latest edition of the Unit’s regular news update on constitutional issues, was published this morning. Since the last edition in March, what had once been the defining issue of this political generation — Brexit — has been almost entirely subsumed by an even larger crisis: COVID-19. A new and inexperienced government has found itself temporarily without its Prime Minister, announced the departure of the Cabinet Secretary, and encountered significant dissension from the backbenches on more than one occasion. Tensions within the Union have been thrown into stark relief by the increasingly different courses pursued by its constituent nations. As for the state of democracy, parliament has trialled numerous methods of operation, passing laws and changing how it regulates itself in multiple ways, whilst elections have been put on hold and organisations involved in deliberative democracy have struggled to continue their work. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick discuss the key events and themes of the past four months, and also reflect briefly on the Unit’s history as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.
As the last issue of Monitor went to press in early March the idea that COVID-19 might change everything was only just dawning. In the subsequent four months, its impact on politics as well as daily life has been transformational. Just as the UK hoped to exit one torrid period of politics dominated by a single issue, a new, still bigger challenge eclipsed it. Brexit has barely featured in the past few months’ political news. Instead, Boris Johnson rapidly shifted from the Prime Minister who would ‘get Brexit done’ to the one who needed to steer the nation through a health crisis, and perhaps in due course through an economic crisis as well.
COVID-19 has touched almost every aspect of how politics is done, and raised new questions about the functioning of some aspects of the UK constitution, as this issue of Monitor sets out. The Coronavirus Bill was rushed through both chambers of parliament – with consent from the devolved legislatures – in just six days in March, as the official ‘lockdown’ was just beginning. At the outset this barred most workplaces from opening and confined most people – except when undertaking limited activities – to their homes. The Prime Minister spoke to the nation in a televised address, and daily Downing Street press conferences involving ministers and (usually) government scientists became the norm, seven days per week. On 6 April Boris Johnson himself was hospitalised with the virus, leaving Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to deputise (see page 12). Other key ministers and officials – notably including Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings – also fell ill.
At the start of the crisis there was widespread support for the government’s position, within the governing party, across the parties and among the devolved administrations. Public approval for the government’s handling was high, in what political scientists would see was typical of the ‘rally round the flag’ effect often found in national crises. But since that time, tensions have gradually grown.
COVID-19 presented a particular challenge to parliament, which normally brings together hundreds of members from across the UK. After an early Easter recess there was cross-party consensus on bringing the Commons back in ‘hybrid’ form, with members able to participate remotely. But, while the Lords has continued such arrangements, virtual working in the Commons ended amid acrimony in early June, with serious concerns expressed not only by opposition parties, but also by numerous Conservative MPs (see page 4). Many of those same MPs had already been angered by Johnson’s refusal to sack Dominic Cummings when it emerged that he had broken the lockdown. That moment was also seen as a turning point in the public’s views of the government’s handling of the crisis.
In a similar way territorial relationships across the UK became more fractious as the crisis proceeded, with the devolved governments complaining of poor communication and consultation, and increasingly taking their own decisions independent of those in England (see page 14). The initial tolerance of last-minute decisions from Downing Street has waned on all sides. Of the more than 100 statutory instruments agreed to respond to the pandemic, very few have received parliamentary oversight ahead of implementation (see page 5), which not only frustrates parliamentarians but risks ill-thought-through policies reaching the statute book. (see page 5) The Downing Street press conferences, which ended on 23 June, have also caused frustrations that journalists were conducting questioning that should arguably have taken place in parliament instead. All of this risks building up resentments for the future.
In the meantime, COVID-19 has had profound effects in other spheres. The backlog of cases facing the courts has increased dramatically (see page 14). Labour unveiled its new leader, Keir Starmer, not at a conference but online, and some of the autumn party conferences will now also be held in that format (see page 16). The Brexit negotiations too, which continued with little public attention, have largely taken virtual form (see page 2).
Some achievements have been made, notwithstanding the crisis. The government’s Parliamentary Constituencies Bill, which legislates to retain the number of Commons seats at 650, and to revise the arrangements for boundary reviews, is working its way through the Commons. In May, Climate Assembly UK concluded its work, having shifted rapidly online in light of the pandemic (see page 11). In late June, the Commons agreed new arrangements for handling bullying allegations against MPs following the 2018 Cox report – though in part only by defeating the government’s initial proposals, with opponents even including former Prime Minister Theresa May (see page 8). In addition, several pieces of Brexit legislation have started to progress through their parliamentary stages (see page 3).
But some other developments have led to legitimate concerns. The UK government refused, despite the COVID-19 crisis, to seek an extension to the Brexit transition period before the 30 June deadline, raising concerns that the country could leave EU structures without a trade deal (see page 3). Meanwhile, the Prime Minister and his team appeared to take a significant further step towards greater political control over the civil service, following the resignation of Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, the fourth senior civil servant to leave government since the start of the year (see page 13).
Closer to home, the Constitution Unit is celebrating its own achievements. First set up by Robert Hazell in 1995, its 25th anniversary falls in 2020. We have initially marked this with a celebration of 25 key achievements – ranging from influencing the 1998 devolution referendums to promoting women’s representation in politics, informing the ‘Wright committee’ on reform of the House of Commons, spearheading citizens’ assemblies and making proposals for improving discourse in election and referendum campaigns. We are encouraging supporters to join our celebrations by donating to support our work. In the autumn we will turn to reflections on what has changed in the UK constitution over the past 25 years. It has been an eventful period, right up until the last.
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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’.
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?
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