Boris Johnson’s constitutional legacy

Boris Johnson’s premiership is expected to end on 6 September, when it is anticipated that he will offer his formal resignation to the Queen at Balmoral and make way for the winner of the Conservative Party leadership election. Lisa James demonstrates that his time in office has been marked by an impatience with constitutional checks and balances and a willingness to depart from convention. She argues that his legacy risks being the normalisation of such behaviour.

What have been the major issues and challenges during Johnson’s premiership? 

Constitutional controversy has been a consistent feature of Boris Johnson’s premiership. His first months in office, amid the turmoil and acrimony of the late-2019 Brexit deadlock, were marked by the unlawful prorogation of parliament, suggestions that he would defy the law, and briefings from allies that if the Commons withdrew its confidence he would ‘dare the Queen to sack him’.

Thankfully, the monarch was not dragged into Johnson’s resignation this summer. But the Prime Minister stepped down only after a tense standoff with his own party, as it forced him from office over a series of standards-related scandals. The most prominent of these, partygate, will outlast Johnson’s premiership – with the Privileges Committee’s investigation into whether the Prime Minister misled parliament ongoing.

Though the intervening years perhaps lacked such obvious constitutional fireworks, these topics were never off the agenda. The Johnson government’s reform programme, and behaviour, often provoked controversy; the COVID-19 pandemic raised questions about how the country should be governed in times of crisis; and the fallout from Brexit heightened tensions over the territorial constitution, as discussed elsewhere on this blog – particularly in Northern Ireland.

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As the House of Commons begins to look at a new employment model for MPs’ staff, we should look to other legislatures to see what we can learn from them

A Speaker’s Conference has been established to determine if changes need to be made to the employment arrangements for MPs’ staff. How the UK’s other legislatures manage and recruit their staff can help inform that process. As part of a long-term project on MPs’ staff, Rebecca McKee analyses how three of the UK’s legislatures recruit, employ and pay members’ staff.   

While their precise roles vary, legislators almost everywhere require support staff in order to do their job effectively. In the UK, these staff and their employment arrangements have become the focus both of public attention and internal scrutiny, through a series of reviews in Westminster and the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales. Later this year, in the House of Commons, the Speaker’s Conference on the employment of Members’ staff will consider other options for staffing arrangements as those currently in place in are only one of a range of possibilities.

This post outlines the current staffing arrangements in three of the UK’s parliaments – the House of Commons, Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru – and the key similarities and differences in their employment arrangements. The post covers the key areas of governance, division of roles and salaries and recruitment in each area. It also briefly highlights other possible options from legislatures elsewhere.

Devolved parliaments

Referendums in 1997 paved the way for the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, the latter being renamed the Senedd Cyrmu in 2020 following the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020. 

Both of these bodies adopted staffing arrangements similar to those of Westminster, whereby each member employs their own staff within a statutory regulatory framework covering some, but not all, terms and conditions. Each has a designated body responsible for determining the structure and rules on staffing and administering payrolls. The material they produce is a combination of guidance to members – as office holders who employ their staff, there is a balance to be struck between setting rules for best practice and encroaching on the autonomy of the member as the employer – and mandatory policies, such as the rules to be followed when members claim money for staff salaries.

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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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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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Northern Ireland: how can power-sharing be revived?

Alan Whysall was a panellist in the session on Northern Ireland at the Unit’s State of the Constitution conference on 23 June. This revision of his talk draws on his paper for the Unit on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, and its accompanying blogpost. He argues that stable power-sharing can only return through good faith inclusive negotiation – which is not a part of London’s current approach – and a reinforcement of the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

It is essential to bring all the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement institutions back as soon as possible: that unlocks the potential for political progress. Without the institutions, polarisation grows; the longer they are away, the harder ultimately the Agreement settlement is to sustain. And there is no alternative as a framework for the stable government of Northern Ireland.

Devolution still has wide popular support and the political class has a strong self-interest in restoring the institutions, if only because paying them not to undertake government is becoming unpopular. But there are big questions about how.

The government’s approach

Can the institutions be stably restored the government’s way? Setting aside for now judgements about the government’s approach, its integrity, or the extraordinary contents (breach of international obligations, vast delegation of powers to ministers) of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, this seems to me to be doubtful.

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