The Constitution Unit blog in 2021: the year in review

2021 has been a fascinating time to be writing about the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in working within them. The government, despite the pandemic, has proposed a raft of policies with constitutional implications, including a restriction of judicial review, changes to the right to protest, human rights reform and an online safety bill shorn of a previous commitment to safeguard democracy from online harms. As the year comes to an end, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the year just gone, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics. 

2019 was a year of constitutional flux and tension, with a new Prime Minister, a new Brexit deal and a new parliament. In 2020, COVID-19 upset the political calculus and posed challenges aplenty for the constitution and its watchdogs. 2021 saw the country seeking to find its way as COVID-19 conditions became the new normal, within a context of a government that has persistently broken rules and violated norms (and not always to its advantage). Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, preceded by a personal selection by me, at the end of my fourth year as blog editor.

Editor’s picks

A woman’s place is in the House: reclaiming civility, tolerance and respect in political life, by Dame Laura Cox.

If I have a constitutional niche, it is parliamentary standards of conduct and the slow evolution of the standards regime at Westminster. Outside of the Unit, I provide free employment law advice to members of the public, with an emphasis on discrimination. This post was therefore always going to be included on this list.

Dame Laura, who produced a seminal report on the bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff, argues with eloquence and passion that the behaviour of too many parliamentarians is misogynistic and a cause of capable women leaving parliament, or having to accept behaviour that would not be permitted in any other workplace. She says that this is in part an institutional problem, and calls for a more open, tolerant, respectful and conciliatory politics.

‘Our travel difficulties haven’t been well-understood by the Government’: life as an MP from the smaller opposition parties during the pandemic, by Louise Thompson and Alexandra Meakin.

One of the country’s foremost experts on small parties and (in my opinion), the go-to source for analysis of Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, team up here to fantastic effect. They outline how smaller parties have been disproportionately affected by government choices about how parliament should operate during the pandemic. They offer a warning that this might have long-term and unintended consequences: failure to enable the voices of MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to be heard may lead to constituents in these nations feeling voiceless in an institution that no longer represents them.

The post is one of a long-running series on the impact of COVID-19 on our constitution and its institutions.

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The last Prime Minister of the Union?

Last week, Boris Johnson was elected leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, but concerns have been voiced about the potential consequences of his premiership for the Union. Michael Kenny assesses the validity of those concerns and how they might be alleviated.  

‘The last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’. This damning, but also hopeful, judgement of the implications of a Boris Johnson premiership from the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford, expresses a sentiment that is widely held in UK politics, and is not confined to Scottish nationalist circles.

In fact, this particular outcome is very unlikely given how long – as we are currently learning – it takes countries to leave unions of which they are members. But it is undoubtedly true that his tenure in office will have a very significant impact upon the increasingly strained internal politics of the union, and could well ignite major political crises about the constitutional positions of Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is highly unlikely that Johnson will be the PM who oversees the break-up of Britain; but he may well go down in history as the catalyst for its dissolution.

So what does Johnson have to do to make sure that he does not become the leader who sends the UK to the brink?

In his election campaign he joined some of the other contenders in signalling his awareness of the need for the Union to be given a much higher priority in the thinking and policies emanating from Whitehall and Westminster. And this is certainly not a bad place from which to start. But there is a real risk that the kind of ‘hyper-unionism’ which, as our research shows, has emerged in official and political circles as an assertive response to heightened anxieties about the prospects of the UK, could well — if done without strategy or sensitivity — rebound on its author, deepening an ingrained scepticism about UK politicians and the central state in the outer parts of the UK. Continue reading

The next PM’s territorial challenges

jack_sheldon.1The next stages of Brexit are now set to happen under a new Prime Minister. The chosen candidate will have to work with governments in Wales and Scotland that are openly critical. Northern Ireland may be without a government and the English regions may lack a unified voice, but neither can be taken for granted, especially as the new PM will rely on the DUP for confidence and supply. Leaving the European Union therefore cannot be separated from the challenges of maintaining the domestic union, as Jack Sheldon explains.

Following the announcement of Theresa May’s imminent resignation, the long-anticipated contest within the Conservative Party to succeed her has begun.

The campaign will inevitably be dominated by Brexit. But events over the past three years have shown that the future of relations with the EU cannot easily be separated from the future of the domestic Union. The candidates will thus need to give careful thought to how they will approach the major statecraft challenges presented by territorial politics across the UK if they become Prime Minister.

Renegotiating the Northern Ireland backstop will be popular with Conservative MPs – but a new Prime Minister might soon face the same dilemma as Theresa May

The Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ has been the main driver of opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement within the parliamentary Conservative Party and their confidence-and-supply partners the DUP. Consequently, there are strong short-term incentives for leadership contenders to commit to renegotiating it, in the hope that it might yet be possible to get a deal that doesn’t cut across Brexiteer red lines on the Single Market and customs union through the House of Commons. Pledges to this effect have already been made by Jeremy HuntBoris JohnsonEsther McVey and Dominic Raab.

In reality, substantive changes to the backstop will be extremely difficult to deliver. It remains the position of the EU27 and the Irish government that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.  Keeping an open Irish border has become highly salient in Ireland and the EU, and the new Prime Minister will need to appreciate that this means there is next to no chance that they will be open to trading the guarantees provided by the backstop for the loosely-defined ‘alternative arrangements’ envisaged by many Conservative MPs. The same dilemma Theresa May faced might thus soon confront her successor – whether, as an avowed unionist, to recoil from a no-deal scenario that would undoubtedly have disruptive effects at the Irish border and strengthen the case for an Irish border poll, or whether the delivery of Brexit trumps everything else.

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Taking stock: what have we learned from the European elections?

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Last week, voters across the UK (and indeed, across the European Union) took part in the European Parliament elections. Now that we know the outcome, Alan Renwick examines the impact on the results of both the rules that governed the election and the strategies of the parties.

The European elections raised important questions about how the voting system – and parties’ and voters’ reactions to it – might influence the results. Would the imperfect proportionality of the system harm the smaller parties? Should those parties – particularly the three Britain-wide anti-Brexit parties – have formed an alliance? Could voters maximise the impact of their ballots through tactical voting? Now that the results are in, it is time to take stock.

The impact of the rules

As I set out in an earlier post, European Parliament elections in Great Britain use a list-based system of proportional representation (while those in Northern Ireland use Single Transferable vote, or STV). This system is proportional, but not very. The D’Hondt formula for allocating seats favours larger parties. So does the fact that the number of seats available in each region (ranging from three in the North East of England to ten in the South East) is fairly low.

The results would certainly have been different had the elections been held using First Past the Post, as was the case for European elections in Great Britain before 1999. This system, still used for Westminster elections, awards a seat to the largest party in each constituency. Had voters cast the same votes as they did on Thursday, the Brexit Party would under First Past the Post have won almost every seat in England and Wales outside London and the Home Counties; the Liberal Democrats and Labour would have dominated in London and parts of its environs; the SNP would have captured every seat in Scotland; and the Conservatives would have been wiped out. In fact, many voters would not have cast the same votes as they did. For example, the anti-Brexit parties could probably have agreed joint candidates much more easily than under the actual system, helping them to secure some extra seats. But the Brexit Party would very likely still have scooped up most seats on less than a third of the vote. Continue reading

If there’s a second referendum on Brexit, what question should be put to voters?

jess_sargent.000alan_renwick.000download.001In the fourth in a series of posts on the mechanics of a possible second referendum on Brexit, Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell consider what question should be asked. This would be crucial for any vote to command legitimacy. Various models have been proposed, but some are far more credible than others in the current context.

 

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the possible mechanics of a second referendum on Brexit. Having previously discussed the timetable, and the circumstances in which suca referendum might be called, this post considers what kind of question should be put to voters.

Which options might voters be asked to choose between?

Three main options could be considered for inclusion in any further referendum on Brexit:

  • leave the EU on the terms the government has negotiated
  • leave the EU without a deal
  • remain in the EU

Some might add a fourth option: to reopen negotiations. But any option put to a referendum must satisfy two criteria: it must be feasible, and it must be clear. An option to reopen negotiations would fail on both counts: the EU might well refuse to reopen negotiations; and there would be no certainty as to what the UK might secure from such negotiations. A referendum of this kind could not ‘settle’ the issue of the UK’s relationship with the EU.

What form might the question take?

With three options in play, decisions would need to be taken about which of them should appear on the ballot paper, in what form, and in what combination. Continue reading