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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Six constitutional questions raised by the election of the new Conservative leader

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgIn less than one month, Conservative Party members will elect a new leader from a two-man shortlist. Under normal circumstances, what happens next would be obvious – Theresa May would resign and the winner would be called on by the Queen to form a government and take office as Prime Minister. However, with the Conservatives lacking a parliamentary majority and normal party loyalties skewed by Brexit, the current scenario is far from normal. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell identify six key constitutional questions that the Conservative leadership election raises for the winner, his party, the Palace and parliament.

With the Conservative Party leadership contest in full swing, the expectation is that Britain will soon have a new Prime Minister. But the process has opened up some significant constitutional controversies. This is the first time that party members will potentially directly elect a new Prime Minister, and this innovation is happening at a time not only of minority government, but with the governing party severely divided. Some senior Conservatives have signalled that they might go so far as to vote no confidence in a new leader who sought to deliver a ‘no deal’ Brexit, while some candidates in the race suggested a possibility of proroguing parliament to avoid MPs blocking a ‘no deal’. In this post we address six of the most burning constitutional questions raised by these controversies.

1. Will the new leader of the Conservative Party be appointed Prime Minister?

Not necessarily. The key test is whether the Conservatives’ new leader is able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. This is how it is expressed in the key paragraphs of the Cabinet Manual:

2.8    If the Prime Minister resigns on behalf of the Government, the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government.

2.9    … In modern times the convention has been that the Sovereign should not be drawn into party politics, and if there is doubt it is the responsibility of those involved in the political process, and in particular the parties represented in Parliament, to seek to determine and communicate clearly to the Sovereign who is best placed to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. As the Crown’s principal adviser this responsibility falls especially on the incumbent Prime Minister …

2.18    Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor.

Clearly none of these paragraphs quite covers the present unusual circumstances: Prime Minister Theresa May is on course to resign as an individual (2.18), rather than on behalf of the government (2.8), but the governing party does not have an overall Commons majority. Two things however are clear in either case. First, that the new Prime Minister must be the person most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons, and second, that it is the responsibility of the politicians to determine who that person is, in order to protect the Queen from the political fray.

Whether the new Conservative Party leader can command parliamentary confidence is clearly in some doubt given comments from Conservative MPs that they may not be able to support the new government. The government only has a majority of three (including the DUP), so only a very few rebels is enough for it to lose its majority. The parliamentary arithmetic is not necessarily that simple, because some pro-Brexit Labour rebels could conceivably decide to support the government. But the number of Conservative rebels is potentially large enough. Continue reading

Comparing European monarchies: a conference first

sketch.1541418351959com-google-chrome-j5urj9IMG_1120.jpgIn early March the Constitution Unit convened a conference of 25 leading experts on the monarchies in Europe. It had been two years in preparation, and was the first of its kind: monarchy is not a fashionable subject in academia. The conference was organised by Robert Hazell and Dr Bob Morris, the Unit’s longstanding expert on Church and State, together with their research volunteer Olivia Hepsworth. Here they explain the background, and some of the main findings from the conference.

Monarchy as an institution does not get much academic attention. This is surprising when one considers that one third of the population of the EU live in states which are monarchies. These include some of the most advanced democracies in the world, countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. And far from being regarded as an anachronism, monarchy in these countries enjoys popularity ratings which politicians would die for. So there is a conundrum worth exploring: is the survival of monarchy in northern Europe the product of historical accident or constitutional inertia, or does it add something to the institutions of representative democracy? And if so, what is its added value? Continue reading

What are coronations for?

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When the next monarch accedes to the throne, there will likely be a coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Yet the UK is unique in western Europe in having a coronation. What purpose does such an event serve? Bob Morris looks back at past coronations to provide an answer to that question. 

Last summer the Constitution Unit published two reports: one on updating the Accession and Coronation oaths, and a second on Planning the next Coronation. In the course of our work we learned that the UK is alone amongst European monarchies in retaining a coronation. Belgium and the Netherlands have never held them; nor from the end of the medieval period has Spain. There have not been coronations in Denmark, Sweden and Norway since 1849, 1873 and 1906 respectively.

That prompted the question, what is the coronation for? It is a question also put to us by journalists when we launched our reports. This blog post attempts to address the question. At the outset, however, one point needs to be emphasised. In law the coronation does not ‘make’ the sovereign. The monarch succeeds to the throne automatically immediately on the decease of their predecessor. The courts affirmed this position as long ago as 1608 concerning King James I’s succession to Elizabeth I:

‘..the title is by descent; by Queen Elizabeth’s death the Crown and kingdom of England descended to His Majesty, and he was fully and absolutely King, without any essential ceremony or act to be done ex post facto, and that coronation was but a Royal ornament, and outward solemnization of the descent.’

The nature of the rite

The Westminster Abbey coronation is an Anglican religious service centred on the communion. At the same time, it is a great national pageant of costly display and celebration controlled by the government of the day. It is a political as well as a religious event. Not surprisingly, it has been imbued with different meanings by different participants and observers. Continue reading

The Constitution Unit blog in 2018: a year in review

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2018 has been an interesting year for the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in studying or working within them. As the year draws to a close, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the most popular blogs of the year, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics. 

Obviously, Brexit has made this a very interesting time to work in political science, and the blog has benefited both in terms of increased general interest as a result, but also because there are niche topics being discussed in public now that would have generated little interest in other years. Few, for example, would have predicted in May 2016 that whether or not a motion in the House of Commons was amendable would become a hot political topic.

Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, as well as two personal selections from me, at the end of my first twelve months as blog editor.

Editor’s pick

Gendered Vulnerability’ and representation in United States politics by Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt.

This was obviously a tough decision, but if you were to ask me for my favourite post of the year, this would be my instinctive choice. Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt discuss their new book, Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office, which argues that women’s perception of a more difficult electoral landscape leads them to adopt distinct, and more constituent-oriented, legislative strategies than their male counterparts. It is a fascinating insight into the challenges faced by women in running for, securing and retaining office. A similar blog on the UK experience, entitled Strategies for Success, was written by Leah Culhane in November. Continue reading

Reflecting on HRH The Prince of Wales’s Role as Heir to the Throne

sketch.1541418351959To mark the Prince of Wales’s 70th Birthday, Robert Hazell reflects on the difficult role of Heir to the Throne, with reference to the roles of heirs apparent in other Western European monarchies. This comparative material has been assembled as part of our preparation for a forthcoming conference on monarchies in western Europe, to be held next March.

The Prince of Wales is 70 years old today. At an age when most people are comfortably enjoying their retirement, Prince Charles is still preparing to assume the role for which he has been waiting almost all his life. He became heir to the throne in 1952, and so far his apprenticeship has lasted 67 years. In 2011 he became the longest serving heir apparent in British history, overtaking King Edward VII, who spent 59 years in the role.

That is one of the difficulties of being heir apparent: a very long and uncertain period of waiting. Another is that the role is unspecified. The constitution is silent about the role; so it is left to each heir apparent to make of it what they can. Some, like Edward VII, have pursued wine, women and song (and gambling, shooting and racing); others like Prince Charles have a more serious bent, and want to make a contribution to the public good. The difficulty is to find a way of contributing to public life without becoming embroiled in political controversy. Continue reading