Monitor 82: achieving a new normal for the constitution?

Today the Unit published Monitor 82, containing reporting and analysis of recent constitutional events, covering the period from 1 August to the debates on the Counsellors of State Bill earlier this week. Even by the standard of recent years, the last four months has been a period of constitutional turbulence that has seen the ousting of two Prime Ministers and the death of a monarch who had sometimes seemed a constitutional constant. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick argue, in this piece, which is also the lead article for Monitor, that the new Prime Minister and monarch face significant challenges if they wish to rebuild stability and faith in the UK’s institutions.

Recent months have seen unprecedented turbulence in UK politics. This blogpost, like the current issue of Monitor, covers developments over just four months, yet reports on a change of monarch and two changes of Prime Minister, plus remarkable churn in ministerial positions, and much else.

As reported in the previous issue of Monitor, in early July Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to announce his departure following a wave of ministerial resignations. Concerns about propriety and integrity were central to his removal. Yet these topics played disappointingly little part in the leadership contest which unfolded over the summer, including in a series of hustings meetings for Conservative Party members between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. The primary focus of the contest was understandably the cost of living, with contention between the candidates over their economic approaches – Sunak warned against the dangers of Truss’s proposed unfunded tax cuts.

Truss won the contest, becoming Conservative Party leader on Monday 5 September, and she was appointed Prime Minister the following day by Queen Elizabeth. Cabinet positions began to be filled the day after that. But on 8 September, the day of the new government’s first major statement on the energy crisis, news emerged that the Queen was unwell. Her death was announced that evening. The end of a reign lasting over 70 years was a major moment for the United Kingdom’s national and constitutional self-understanding. The country entered a period of national mourning during which the funeral was held. Prince Charles immediately became King. Within days, he delivered a televised address, gave an oath at the Accession Council, addressed MPs and peers in Westminster Hall, and spoke at the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd, and Hillsborough Castle.

This delayed the new government’s activities, but a shock of a different kind occurred on 23 September, when Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng announced his so-called ‘mini budget’ to the House of Commons. Including ambitious tax cuts beyond those that Truss had pledged during the campaign, it resulted in grave instability for the financial markets. Ultimately Truss sacked Kwarteng on 14 October, but was forced to announce her own resignation just six days later. This triggered a further Conservative leadership contest, which saw Sunak appointed to the role of party leader and Prime Minister.

These events returned matters of constitutional propriety to the fore. Kwarteng’s sacking of the most senior Treasury civil servant and refusal to submit his plans to the Office for Budget Responsibility, illustrated vividly – and at great political and economic cost – the dangers of evading expert advice and independent scrutiny. Following Truss’s decision to resign, the prospect emerged of Boris Johnson returning as Prime Minister, reminding many Conservative MPs of the propriety problems that had dogged him in the role. The party’s leadership election rules raised the prospect that he could be imposed on unwilling MPs by the grassroots membership, with deeply destabilising effects. Ultimately Johnson, who apparently reached the nomination threshold, but withdrew, may himself have recognised these risks.

Sunak assumed the premiership on a promise to restore ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability’. After the widespread problems of recent years, there is a lot of work in this area to be done, and blueprints have been offered by members of the Unit, the Institute for Government, and others. Truss had refused to commit to appointing an Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests (often known as the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser), following the resignations of the previous two officeholders under Johnson. Sunak has pledged to fill the role, but this remained undone as Monitor went to press, almost a month after his appointment. He has already encountered problems of his own over ministerial ethics, with the resignation of Gavin Williamson, and allegations of misconduct against both Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and Home Secretary Suella Braverman. But the challenges go wider than this, including reversing ministers’ sidelining of parliament, dealing with potential resignation honours lists from both Johnson and Truss, restoring respectful relations with the devolved administrations, and deciding the future of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and Bill of Rights Bill – all of which have raised constitutional concerns. Generally, there will be rebuilding work to do with the civil service, regulators and the legal community, as well as parliamentarians. None of this will be easily achieved by Sunak given the now very visible divisions in his party.

Meanwhile, Labour has been riding high in the polls following the mini budget, at times achieving extraordinary leads over the Conservatives of over 30 points. Critical eyes will now turn to the opposition and its own plans in these areas, where there have been some public hints, but where much detail is still awaited.

Beyond Westminster Sunak also faces further significant challenges. He has made a point of engaging positively with foreign governments, and with the Scottish and Welsh administrations. But he will soon need to react to the outcome of the Supreme Court case on whether the Scottish government can unilaterally call a second independence referendum. Meanwhile, the continued refusal of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to facilitate creation of a Northern Ireland Executive brings additional instability, and the possibility of elections which may do little to improve the situation.

Not only the new Prime Minister, but to a lesser extent the new head of state, King Charles, must navigate these issues with deftness to rebuild stability and faith in the UK’s constitutional arrangements. Both appear enthusiastic to do so, but the road ahead may not be easy.

Monitor 82 is now available to download free of charge from the Unit website.

About the authors

Meg Russell FBA is Professor of British and Comparative Politics at UCL and Director of the Constitution Unit.

Alan Renwick is Professor of Democratic Politics at UCL and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.

Featured image: King Charles and Prime Ministers past and present (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by UK Government.

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