Monitor 81. Johnson falls; what’s next for the constitution?

Today, the Unit published the 81st edition of Monitor, which provides analysis of the key constitutional news of the past four months. In this post, which also serves as the issue’s lead article, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on the collapse of Boris Johnson’s government, increasing concerns about ministerial and parliamentary standards, and continuing doubts about the future of the Union.

The preoccupying question in UK politics over recent months increasingly became when – rather than whether – the Prime Minister would be forced from office. In April, Boris Johnson was fined for breaching restrictions on social gatherings during lockdown, and the Commons referred him to its Privileges Committee for allegedly misleading parliament. In May, the Conservatives suffered steep losses in the local elections, and Sue Gray’s official report into ‘partygate’ was finally published, concluding that the ‘senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility’ for the culture of disregard for the rules that had emerged. In June, Johnson survived a vote of no confidence among his MPs and the loss of two parliamentary by-elections, followed by the resignation of the Conservative Party Co-Chair, Oliver Dowden. But the resignation of Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher in early July, and Number 10’s bungled reaction to it, finally brought the Prime Minister down.

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The next Prime Minister must consider how they want the ministerial standards regime to function before deciding who should be the next Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests

Following the resignation of the second Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests in two years, it now seems likely that it will fall to Boris Johnson’s successor as Prime Minister to appoint Lord (Christopher) Geidt’s successor. Peter Riddell argues that the next Prime Minister cannot do so without first considering how the role should function and discusses John Major’s proposed arrangements for the Privy Council to offer a support role.

An urgent priority for the new Prime Minister – who we expect to be appointed in September – will be appointing an Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests and deciding the terms on which they will serve. This decision will be the first test of whether there will really be a fresh approach to rebuilding constitutional standards after the departure of Boris Johnson, as Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell urged on this blog on 8 July.

Many of the important constitutional questions their blogpost raised will only be answered over time but the Independent Adviser appointment has to be addressed as soon as possible since there has already been a vacancy for nearly six weeks. Some business, such as compiling the register of ministers’ interests, can be handled by officials and permanent secretaries can advise new ministers about conflicts of interest. The problem of asking civil servants to carry out investigations has been underlined by the ‘partygate’ affair; no matter how conscientious such officials are, they cannot, by definition, be independent.

There is no agreement about the Independent Adviser’s powers, as shown by the lukewarm response of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) to the government’s proposals in late May. The resignations within two years of Alex Allan and Lord (Christopher) Geidt have underlined differences about how the role works in practice. After these departures and related disputes over the Ministerial Code, it is unclear who of independent standing would take the post unless the terms are changed.

Subsequent comments by the outgoing Prime Minister and by senior officials have pointed to a ‘quick’ review of the requirements of the Adviser’s role and the method of recruitment and appointment. The position is more public than before and more exposed to the media and political worlds. There is also a question about whether the role can be fulfilled by one individual.

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Parliament’s watchdogs: independence and accountability of five constitutional regulators

The Unit today published a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators. Robert Hazell explains that public awareness of these regulators is low and the position of some of them in public life is precarious. He calls for several measures, including putting the CSPL on a statutory footing, protecting watchdogs from dismissal, and repealing the legislation allowing the government to produce a strategy statement for the Electoral Commission.

Origins of this study

The constitutional reforms of the last 25 years have seen an upsurge in the number of constitutional watchdogs. The Constitution Unit anticipated these developments from the start, with an early report on constitutional watchdogs in 1997 (Unit report no. 10). This interest was continued by Oonagh Gay and Barry Winetrobe, who wrote two major reports on watchdogs: Officers of Parliament: Transforming the Role (Unit report no. 100, 2003) and Parliament’s Watchdogs: At the Crossroads(Unit report no. 144, 2008).

Today sees the launch of a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators, (Unit report 195), by Marcial Boo, Zach Pullar and myself. Marcial Boo, former Chief Executive of IPSA, joined the Constitution Unit in late 2020 as an honorary research fellow. We asked him to do a study of those watchdogs which are directly sponsored by parliament, working with Zach Pullar, a young law graduate who has since become a Judicial Assistant in the Court of Appeal. There is an obvious tension with watchdogs whose role is to scrutinise the executive (like the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests), being themselves appointed and sponsored by the government. Less obvious, but just as fundamental, is the tension for watchdogs whose role is to regulate the behaviour of parliamentarians, being themselves appointed and sponsored by parliament.

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Parliamentary scrutiny of international agreements should not be limited to legally binding treaties

Last week, the Constitution Unit published a blogpost which posed five key questions for the Conservative leadership contenders, one of which focused on rebuilding parliament’s scrutiny role. In this post, David Natzler and Charlotte Sayers-Carter argue that such scrutiny should include telling parliament about politically significant international agreements it has made and allowing for oversight and the expression of dissent.

On 11 May Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed bilateral security agreements with Sweden and Finland. At that time both countries were actively considering applying for membership of NATO, which they did together a week later, on 18 May. Once objections by Turkey to their membership had been dealt with, NATO agreed to these applications at its June meeting in Madrid. Now they have been admitted, the necessary amending Protocols to the North Atlantic Treaty will be laid before parliament. Under the terms of Part 2 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRaG), it is usual practice that the government can ratify a Protocol unless there has been a parliamentary objection within 21 sitting days. NATO expanded to include the Baltic states in 2004, Montenegro in 2016 and North Macedonia in 2019. On none of these occasions was positive assent given by parliament; in the absence of dissent within 21 days of their laying, the Protocols were duly ratified. However, viewing the current circumstances as an ‘exceptional case’ to which the 21 day requirement can be disapplied under section 22 of CRaG, the government intends to proceed with ratification before parliament breaks for summer recess.

The 11 May agreements may have looked like stopgap measures, an interim bilateral version of the regime of multilateral mutual protection offered under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, but the Prime Minister explicitly said that they were not, and the leaders of both countries went out of their way to assert that the agreements would make their countries more secure. Although appended to both agreements were confirmations that they did not give rise to legally binding commitments under international law, they have been described as ‘solemn declarations’. While the UK might very well have been expected in any event to have come to the assistance of either country in an emergency if a request had been made, the situation following the signing of these agreements was different, in that there was a real prospect that British armed forces could have been actively engaged in coming to the assistance of these hitherto neutral countries as a fulfilment of these agreements.

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Arrests, constitutional tensions and the UK government’s relations with Overseas Territories

Overseas Territories flags (CC BY 2.0) by Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

The arrest of the Premier of the British Virgin Islands in April and a Commission of Inquiry’s finding of ‘parlous failings in governance’ have raised questions about the British government’s relations with and stewardship of its Overseas Territories. These issues are raised in moments of crisis, following natural disasters, acute periods in the several sovereignty disputes linked to the Territories, or headline-grabbing scandals. George Fergusson argues that they merit more regular review.

The decision on 8 June of a British official to reject the principal and firm recommendation of a Commission of Inquiry by a former Court of Appeal judge has produced little political or media stir. This is largely explained by the decision being one concerning a British Overseas Territory, in this case, the British Virgin Islands (BVI).

The recommendation was that a period of direct rule was needed to implement a series of urgent and radical reforms identified by Gary Hickinbottom’s damning report on corruption and ‘parlous failings in governance.’ As Hickinbottom wrote: ‘Such a suspension is not only warranted but essential, if the abuses which I have identified are to be tackled and brought to an end.’

The report’s publication was accelerated by several weeks after the dramatic arrest on 28 April of Andrew Fahie, the BVI’s premier, at Miami International Airport, together with the managing director of the BVI Port Authority, with all the classic movie trappings of a sting by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency.

Fahie’s arrest, unlike the decision on direct rule, was sensationally published across the British media. While the decision was formally made by the BVI’s Governor, John Rankin, this will have been in close consultation with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Amanda Milling, the minister responsible for Overseas Territories within the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).

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