The Constitution Unit blog in 2022: a guide to the last 12 months of constitutional news

The four years preceding 2022 were a fascinating time to be writing about the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in working within them. It had got to a point where it didn’t seem life could get any more interesting. And then 2022 gave us two prime ministerial resignations and an end to the longest monarchical reign in British history. As the year comes to an end, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the 12 months just gone, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics. 

2022 included a seven-week period in which we transitioned from one monarch to another and had three Prime Ministers. Two of those Prime Ministers – Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak – were fined for breaking COVID-19 lockdown regulations earlier this year and the third, Liz Truss, now has the dubious distinction of being the Prime Minister to have held office for the shortest time in modern history. In addition, we lost the longest-reigning monarch in British history and welcomed the first monarch to have the benefit of a seven-decade apprenticeship and a new Prince and Princess of Wales. The state of the Union also appears less stable, with Scotland found to be unable to legislate for an independence referendum and May’s elections in Northern Ireland leading to political deadlock that has no immediate end in sight. Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, preceded by a personal selection by me, at the end of my fifth year as blog editor.

Editor’s pick

How far did parliament influence Brexit legislation? by Tom Fleming and Lisa James.

As good as this blog is, the real meat is in the excellent journal article that it summarises. In this post, my colleagues Tom and Lisa analyse to what extent parliament and its members influenced the outcome of the Brexit process. The answer might surprise you.

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What do people in Northern Ireland think of unification referendums?

A new article published in Irish Political Studies this week presents the findings of a consultation on public attitudes towards referendums on Irish unification. In this post, the article’s authors, Alan Renwick, Nadia Dobrianska, Conor J. Kelly, and Charlotte Kincaid, summarise the findings and explore their implications for when the processes around such referendums would best be designed.

Through the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, the Constitution Unit has recently examined how any possible future referendums on Irish unification might best be designed and conducted. The Unit is neither for nor against holding such referendums; nor does it have a view on the constitutional question itself. But such votes might happen in the future (they are legally required in certain circumstances) and, if they happen, it will be better if their design has been thought through in advance. That was the task taken on by the Working Group. One part of the research undertaken for the group was a consultation exploring public views on such referendums. The full results of the consultation have now been published in Irish Political Studies.

The design of the consultation

Opinion polls in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland often ask how respondents would vote in a referendum on the unification question. Some also enquire about whether people support holding a referendum. Qualitative research has yielded insights too. But less work has dug into people’s thoughts on how any such vote should be conducted. Yet public views on these issues matter. Choices about the design of a referendum need to be viewed as legitimate. They are less likely to achieve that if they cut across existing expectations. Hence the Working Group’s desire to find out what people thought.

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What does the new Prime Minister mean for the constitution?

The Constitution Unit held an event in November at which three expert panellists discussed the potential constitutional impact of newly appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, discussing the problems posed by concerns about ministerial standards, the government’s decision to proceed with several bills that pose worrying constitutional questions, and the future of the devolution settlement. Alice Hart and Hashmath Hassan summarise the contributions.

On the day that the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot legally hold another independence referendum without Westminster’s approval, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the potential constitutional impact of the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, and brought together three expert panellists: Jill Rutter (a Senior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government); Dr Ruth Fox (Director of the Hansard Society); and Professor Colm O’Cinneide (Professor of Constitutional and Human Rights Law at University College London). The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions. 

Jill Rutter 

Jill Rutter discussed the need to repair the damage done to the perception of standards in public life during Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister. Johnson suffered the resignation of two Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests in as many years, tolerated misbehaviour from his MPs and was ‘fast and loose with the facts’ in parliament. Sunak’s commitment to the integrity agenda is unclear, Rutter stated. He has made assurances that he will appoint an Independent Adviser (unlike his predecessor, Liz Truss, who indicated that she did not need one) and has appointed a barrister to lead an independent inquiry into bullying allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. However, questions remain about Sunak’s approach to his new Independent Adviser, such as whether he will provide the postholder with sufficient resources (as promised by Johnson to former Independent Adviser Lord (Christopher) Geidt) and whether he will make any effort to ensure their independence in terms of both the publication of reports and initiation of investigations without the approval of the Prime Minister.  

Other than these immediate actions, little is known about Sunak’s plans to restore integrity and trust in government. Clamping down on lobbying may be a good place to start, Rutter suggested: she noted that the Gordon Brown review of the constitution commissioned by the Labour Party is planning to propose limitations on MPs’ second jobs. She provided some examples of big ideas that Sunak could adopt, such as Labour’s proposal to establish an Integrity and Ethics Commission and the Australian government’s introduction of an anti-corruption commission. A key challenge for Sunak, Rutter suggested, is dealing with Johnson’s and Truss’ lists of nominations to the House of Lords – especially with regard to how they may affect trust in politics.  

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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.

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Northern Ireland: dangers and opportunities for London

Northern Ireland is again governed by civil servants. Alan Whysall argues that London’s self-interest requires it to give Northern Ireland serious attention in coming months. But success may require more effort and time than is currently envisaged, and a return to the approach that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Not making this commitment could have grave consequences for the entire Union, not just Northern Ireland.

This blog draws on the Unit’s report on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, published in May (hereafter referred to as the Report).

No government again

Northern Ireland has had no functioning Executive since the DUP’s withdrawal of its First Minister, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, in February. The party declined to appoint a deputy First Minister following Assembly elections in May – when, for the first time, Sinn Féin emerged the largest party, entitled to the First Minister post (the DUP deny their refusal to appoint has anything to do with this, but Sinn Féin and others are sceptical). Government was carried on by ministers on a caretaker basis, unable to make controversial or crosscutting decisions, amid social and economic challenges often (as in the NHS) worse than in England. There is no budget and a £660 million overspend (exacerbated by the absence of an Executive). The DUP also blocked meetings of the Assembly.

On 28 October, with no Executive formed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, came under a duty to hold further Assembly elections, before mid-January. By law, the caretaker ministers have now lost office, and civil servants are in charge.

Few wanted the elections, however, and either by his own decision or the Prime Minister’s, the Secretary of State announced emergency legislation on 9 November to put them off for 6, potentially 12 weeks. They could be avoided by the DUP agreeing to appoint an Executive by 8 December (19 January if extended). The legislation would also underpin civil servants’ powers, set a budget and enable the Secretary of State to reduce the pay of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs).

Political prospects

The issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol remains intractable. The DUP refuses to return to devolution until it changes fundamentally; it appeared unimpressed by the threat to reduce MLA pay. The EU is willing to discuss implementing the Protocol more flexibly, but not to rewriting it.

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