Sunak’s constitutional dilemmas

Today the Unit publishes Monitor 83, providing analysis of constitutional events over the last four months. In this post, which also serves as the issue’s lead article, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick argue that while Rishi Sunak’s premiership has seen a decline in constitutional turbulence compared to the recent past, various points of constitutional tension remain, creating dilemmas both for him and his party political opponents.

Successive issues of Monitor in recent years have told a story of constitutional unease. The premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss saw checks and balances eroded and the rule of law questioned. The last issue – published in November 2022 – reported Rishi Sunak’s promise on entering Downing Street to restore ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability’; but too little time had passed by then to assess his delivery. Four months on, the picture remains complex and mixed. Sunak clearly faces challenges on the constitutional front, particularly in keeping his restive party together.

On the positive side, the Prime Minister appointed a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests in December – his predecessor having denied that she needed one – and in January acted swiftly on the new Adviser’s conclusion that the actions of the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Nadhim Zahawi, ‘constitute[d] a serious failure to meet the standards set out in the Ministerial Code’ (see story: Standards in Government). In February, the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, whose conduct remains under investigation, said that he would resign if found guilty of bullying officials.

The government’s approach to relations with the European Union also moved from confrontation to trust-building. This shift helped Sunak to unlock a significantly improved deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol in February (see story: The Northern Ireland Protocol). In the wake of that agreement, the Johnson-era Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – through which the UK would have unilaterally arrogated to itself the right to deviate from the Protocol’s terms, almost certainly in violation of international law – was withdrawn.

Yet at the same time, causes for concern remain. Contrary to recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others, Sunak did not empower the new Independent Adviser to initiate their own investigations – a change that new Constitution Unit research (see story: New report on public attitudes to democracy) suggested would have accorded with the instincts of most members of the public.

More broadly, the Prime Minister remains subject to significant pressures from some in his party, including his recent predecessors, leaving him seeking to appease those most concerned by the developments above. There is little sign of a revival in parliamentary scrutiny, as demonstrated particularly by the Retained EU Law Bill, which would give ministers enormous new powers to sweep away regulations in areas such as environmental and employment rights (see story: The Retained EU Law Bill). The bill completed its passage through the House of Commons without trouble in January, but multiple Lords committees have rung alarm bells, and peers can be expected to seek significant changes. Legislation was introduced in March to tackle the ‘small boats crisis’, which may please some backbenchers and aims to shore up electoral support. But the bill risks opening up new controversies about the government’s attitude to international law.

Meanwhile, ministers have pressed on with implementing voter ID requirements for English local elections in May, despite advice from the Electoral Commission and others that the timetable was dangerously tight (see story: Voter ID). And further constitutional challenges lie ahead for Sunak – not least Boris Johnson’s long-awaited resignation honours list, including proposed appointments to the House of Lords. The Prime Minister could block these – or at least significantly prune the list – but whether he has sufficient political capital to do so is unclear.

Labour’s leadership team increasingly views itself as a government in waiting. Yet one manifestation of that – the decision to appoint Sue Gray as Keir Starmer’s Chief of Staff – caused ructions. The move by such a senior and high-profile civil servant risks harming perceptions of civil service impartiality and propriety – boosted by distinctly Trumpian claims from the Johnson circle that it invalidated Gray’s report into Downing Street lockdown parties. Legitimate questions about whether all rules were followed will need to be answered.

Labour is developing its own programme of significant constitutional reforms, not least to the standards system and the territorial distribution of power. A commission chaired by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown reported in December, setting out ambitious proposals to devolve power within England, strengthen the principles of the Union, protect core constitutional standards, and improve the system for upholding integrity. These proposals, and the report’s plans for reform of the House of Lords, (see story: House of Lords reform proposals) will however require significant further work on their detail before being ready for implementation.

Meanwhile, Scottish politics was plunged into uncertainty in February by Nicola Sturgeon’s surprise announcement that she was stepping down as First Minister. The ensuing contest to succeed her – which remained ongoing at the time of writing – exposed deep disagreements within the independence movement over how to advance its constitutional goals, as well as over matters of economic and social policy (see story: Scotland). The Labour Party, and unionists in general, may hope this represents a turning point in the SNP’s fortunes, but it remains far too early for such predictions to be made with confidence.

The deal with the EU on the Protocol has increased the chances that devolved government may be restored in Northern Ireland (see story: The Northern Ireland Protocol). At the time of writing, however, it remained unclear whether the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) would endorse – or at least tolerate – its terms. Some suspect that the party might prefer to wait until after the local elections in May before taking a clear position, while the prospect of entering government with Sinn Féin may remain an obstacle. The 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is just weeks away, and there is a widespread sense that some form of renewal is needed. In March, the Unit’s Alan Renwick and Alan Whysall gave evidence to the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the effectiveness of the Agreement institutions.

The Unit itself has been a busy place, with four reports published. Robert Hazell and Charlotte Sayers-Carter wrote Reforming the Prerogative, published in December, which summarises parts of Robert’s recent book with Tim Foot on the prerogative. Two reports were published jointly with the Institute for Government and Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge: by Robert Hazell on the monarchy and by Meg Russell on the House of Lords. And in March, the Unit’s Democracy in the UK after Brexit project produced its third report, on the findings of a second major survey of UK public opinion. We now eagerly await the imminent publication of Meg Russell’s new book with Lisa James, The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit; tickets for two launch events can be booked online.

In summary, the constitutional picture remains mixed: there are green shoots of recovery from the troubles of the Johnson–Truss years; but there are also many causes of ongoing concern. Amidst all of this, an occasion of great constitutional symbolism – the coronation of a new monarch – will take place in May. This will seek to balance expressions of both continuity and change. Whether it will enable the monarchy to renew itself for a new era remains to be seen.

Monitor 83 is now available free of charge on the Unit website, in both HTML and PDF form.

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: Rishi Sunak meets European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen (CC BY 2.0) by UK Prime Minister.

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