Protecting constitutional principles: what are they and why do they matter?

Recent debates about the health of the UK political system have raised questions about the core principles underlying constitutional democracy. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James set out some of these principles, and argue that MPs have a particular responsibility for upholding them.

Recent years have seen much discussion of the health of UK democracy, and some concerns about the risk of ‘democratic backsliding’. But this raises the question ‘backsliding from what’?

Widely shared assumptions exist about the principles which underlie constitutional (or ‘liberal’) democracies – the features that distinguish them from autocracies and so-called ‘illiberal democracies’. Although the UK famously lacks a codified constitution, such values are deeply embedded in its constitutional traditions and arrangements.

This briefing identifies and explains five such core principles:

  1. Institutional checks and balances
  2. Representative government, and free and fair elections
  3. Rule of law
  4. Fundamental rights
  5. Integrity and standards
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What Happens if Boris Johnson loses the confidence of his Cabinet, or his MPs?

Boris Johnson’s time in Downing Street appears to be in its final days, but how it will end remains unclear. Robert Hazell examines the possibilities. How long will a leadership election take? Could there be a caretaker Prime Minister? What happens if Johnson tries to call a snap general election?

If Boris Johnson loses a confidence vote among Conservative MPs, he is not able to stand again. Any other Conservative MP can then stand for the party leadership. How long it will take for the party to elect a new leader will depend on the number of candidates standing, and whether the vote goes to a second stage ballot of all party members.  Party rules prescribe that Conservative MPs vote initially in a series of ballots to select two candidates, who then go forward to a postal ballot of all party members for the final decision. In 2005 it took two months for David Cameron to be elected leader, defeating David Davis in the postal ballot. In 2019 it took six and a half weeks for Boris Johnson to be elected, defeating Jeremy Hunt. It therefore seems unlikely that we will know who is the new Conservative leader (and Prime Minister) until September. But when Cameron announced his resignation in June 2016, it took just 17 days for Theresa May to emerge as the new leader, because Andrea Leadsom stood down as the second candidate in the postal ballot.

Time is being finally called on Boris Johnson’s premiership.  The initial trickle of ministerial resignations has become a steady stream; a delegation of Cabinet ministers has reportedly called on him to resign; if he doesn’t take the hint, the 1922 Committee seems likely to hold an early second confidence vote in his leadership.   But what will happen if he does resign, or if he loses the confidence of a majority of Conservative MPs?  How long might it take for the Conservative party to elect a new leader, and how will the country be governed in the meantime?

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Can Boris Johnson ignore parliament and force a no deal Brexit?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgprofessor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgControversy is swirling over the extent to which Boris Johnson’s government must be bound by parliament, particularly regarding a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Some have even suggested that Johnson could flout a Commons vote of no confidence and pursue this outcome contrary to parliamentary support. Meg Russell and Robert Hazell explore such questions, concluding that both convention and parliamentary logic mean Johnson cannot ultimately force a ‘no deal’. But to prevent this MPs must be organised and determined.

There has been much recent controversy about whether Boris Johnson’s new government can press ahead with a ‘no deal’ Brexit against the express wishes of the House of Commons. This was kicked off in part by a front-page story in Tuesday’s Times headed ‘Johnson to defy any vote of no confidence’ – suggesting that even if MPs went so far as to withdraw their support from the government, the Prime Minister could stay on and force a ‘no deal’ Brexit, perhaps in the middle of a general election campaign. Various commentators have subsequently expressed their views. Many questions raised are close to those that we addressed in an earlier post on this blog reflecting on constitutional questions surrounding the (then still awaited) appointment of the new Prime Minister. Here we return to some of these questions, and our conclusions are twofold. First, despite disparate commentators’ voices, there is a high degree of agreement on the key issues. Second, the essential answer to the question posed in our title is ‘no’. But this depends on strong political will and organisation by the forces in parliament opposed to ‘no deal’.

The options available to MPs

Much energy has been spent in recent months, including prior to the Johnson premiership, reflecting on what MPs’ options are if they want to block a ‘no deal’ Brexit. The general view – for example from the Institute for Government, and from Jack Simson Caird on this blog – is that such options are limited, but do exist. MPs’ continued determination to prevent a ‘no deal’ outcome was demonstrated by the heavy defeat inflicted on Theresa May’s government over the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill – which in effect blocked the threat of an autumn prorogation. On a previous occasion, ‘no deal’ was defeated by 400 votes to 160. Now, following the departure of many ministers from the government, the forces against ‘no deal’ on the Conservative backbenches are even stronger.

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How long an extension to Article 50 does the UK need?

download.001alan.jfif (1) Despite last-minute additions, Theresa May’s Brexit deal has again been heavily defeated in the Commons. Hence, MPs will need to consider an extension of Article 50. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick argue that for any practical purposes – including renegotiating a deal, or holding a referendum or citizens’ assembly to break the Brexit impasse – the extension previously proposed by the Prime Minister is too short. MPs may now want to press a longer extension on the government.

This week is crunch Brexit decision time for parliament. With the official exit day of 29 March just over a fortnight away, the Prime Minister has been defeated for the second time on her deal, despite some last-minute concessions. She has previously promised MPs further votes on two things: the immediate prospect of a ‘no deal’ exit, or requesting an extension to the Article 50 period. Following tonight’s defeat, MPs will be asked tomorrow whether they wish to exit without a deal on 29 March. If that is defeated, as looks very likely, they will be asked on Thursday whether the Prime Minister should return to Brussels requesting a delay to exit day. Such a decision is at the discretion of the EU27, who must unanimously agree.

The Prime Minister originally proposed that if the Commons supported extending Article 50 she would ask for a ‘short, limited extension’, which should go ‘not beyond the end of June’. But while this might buy the UK time, and avoid the immediate risk of a ‘no deal’ exit, would it really be adequate to resolve the situation? When MPs face this question, there are many reasons to believe that they should demand a longer extension, given how little could be achieved within three months.

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The power to just say no: Corbyn, Freedom of Information and the Ministerial Veto

image_previewJeremy Corbyn recently used a speech on what a Labour government would seek to change in the media sector to confirm that the party will seek to abolish the ministerial power to veto decisions to release government papers under the Freedom of Information Act. Ben Worthy argues that the idea is neither new, or the best means of increasing transparency.

Vetoes are there in the hope they will not be needed, but their mere existence reassures. In no case is this truer than section 53 of the UK FOI Act,  which allows the government the ultimate power to block requests. Amongst a number of radical proposals in his recent speech on the media, Jeremy Corbyn suggested that he would ‘look at ending the ministerial veto to prevent the Information Commissioner being overruled’, thereby abolishing the government’s FOI veto.

Some sort of veto, or ultimate backstop, is common across many FOI regimes. The US stands as an exception due to the separation of powers (though this didn’t stop President Johnson trying to insert a thoroughly unconstitutional one into the original bill). In some senses, the veto is symbolic for supporters and critics alike, offering a final reassurance or a last line of ultimate secrecy, depending on your point of view.  The idea to abolish it has been around for some time, and the Liberal Democrats promised to do so in their 2017 election manifesto.

In the UK, whether the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) had a veto in it or not was a key sticking point, and an indicator of the shifting radicalism of the policy as it made its turbulent way onto the statute book. The terrifying lack of a veto in the original White Paper sent a shiver through Whitehall (a veto would, it argued, ‘erode public confidence in the Act’). The later draft bill, which emerged after much retreating and agony, had a veto so wide it could be used not only by government ministers but also potentially local councillors. In this form, it was a veto that could be seen, as it were, from Huddersfield. Removed from the White Paper and re-inserted into the draft Bill, the final FOIA gave government a veto to prevent the release of information, even if the appeal system ruled in favour, in situations where the public interest had been weighed and ‘exceptional circumstances’ existed. So far so clear. But there are some complexities that only, perhaps, Corbyn’s proposal would resolve. Continue reading