The Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the snap election

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was supposed to have stopped Prime Ministers from calling snap general elections. But that is exactly what Theresa May seems to have done. Alan Renwick here explains what the rules say and why they have proved so weak.

We have become accustomed to a familiar choreography when general elections are called. Cabinet ministers gather to hear the Prime Minister’s decision. The Prime Minister drives to Buckingham Palace to request the dissolution of parliament from the Queen. Finally, the Prime Minister returns to Downing Street and announces the news to the world.

This time, the process is a little different. Cabinet ministers gathered. But Theresa May did not go to the Palace (we are told she spoke to the Queen by telephone yesterday, but there was no strict requirement for her to do so). Rather, following her announcement of what – interestingly – she described as the government’s intention to hold an election, Theresa May now has to seek parliamentary approval for the decision.

This is the consequence of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which was passed under the Conservative–Lib Dem coalition government in 2011. Previously, the Prime Minister could request an election whenever she wanted and the general expectation was that it would take exceptional circumstances for the Queen to refuse. Now, there are only two circumstances in which an early election can take place:

  • either two thirds of all MPs must vote for the election;
  • or the government must lose a vote of confidence and fourteen days must pass without the successful creation of a new government.

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PACAC’s report on the EU referendum opens important questions that deserve further attention

Yesterday, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report (summarised here) on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. Media headlines have focused on the committee’s concerns about possible interference during the referendum campaign by cyber hackers but, as Alan Renwick writes, the report also raised other important issues that deserve further attention.

The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) yesterday published a report on the conduct of last year’s EU referendum. The headlines in media reporting of this for the most part highlighted the committee’s concerns about possible interference during the referendum campaign by cyber hackers. But the MPs also draw out various other important lessons that might be learnt for any future referendums held in the UK. These deserve our careful attention.

Many of the proposals ought to be uncontroversial. The committee adds its weight to calls for extension of the so-called ‘purdah’ period – when state resources cannot be used in support of either side in the campaign – beyond the current 28 days. That would prevent any repeat of the pro-Remain leaflet that the government sent to all households last year at a cost of over £9 million to taxpayers. It would be a desirable step – though, as I suggest below, not the only necessary step – towards the creation of a level playing field in referendum campaigns.

The MPs also urge an updating of the purdah rules – written in 2000 – to reflect the realities of campaigning in the digital age. There was confusion last year as to whether those rules allowed a website promoting the government’s position that was created before the ‘purdah’ period to remain live during that period. The committee sensibly argues that his should be reviewed with a view to providing clarity.

Turning to the system for registering to vote, the committee – again very sensibly – argues for changes designed to minimise the danger of any repeat of last year’s website crash, which forced a last-minute extension of the registration deadline just days before the vote took place.

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The process of Brexit: what comes next?

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In a new report published jointly by the Constitution Unit and the UCL European Institute, Alan Renwick examines what the process of Brexit is likely to look like over the coming weeks, months, and years. Here he summarises five key lessons.

wp2_arenwick_front_coverThe phoney war around Brexit is almost over. For months, two immediate questions have dominated discussions: How can Article 50 be triggered? And what sort of deal will ministers seek? The Supreme Court’s ruling on 24 January answered the first question. We know much more now about the second through Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech and last Thursday’s white paper. The Article 50 bill is being debate in parliament. By the end of March – if the government gets its way – we will be entering a new phase in the process.

The question is: What comes next? Can the government deliver on its wish list? Can parliament provide effective scrutiny?  Will the courts intervene again? How is Brexit likely to play in the devolved nations? Is a second referendum at all likely?

In a new report, I offer answers to these and related questions. Here I summarise five key points.

1/ The UK government is very unlikely to get what it says it wants.

The government has set out highly ambitious goals. It wants not just a divorce agreement, but also a complex, deep, and bespoke deal on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, encompassing a comprehensive free trade agreement, a novel form of customs association, and ongoing cooperation in areas including policing, security, and research. Furthermore, it wants all of this to be both negotiated and ratified within two years.

Whether such a deal will emerge is impossible to say; but achieving it within two years certainly looks very unlikely. First, EU leaders (so far at least) have said they will not negotiate on these terms. Rather, they initially want a divorce deal only; once that has been negotiated, they propose a transitional period that preserves many features of EU membership while detailed negotiations on future relations are conducted. Thus, the first round of the negotiations will be a discussion of what the negotiations are actually about.

Second, even if the UK government gets its way in this opening round, the negotiations thereafter will be immensely complex and difficult. They will range across most policy areas. Not only will the UK be negotiating with the EU: in addition, there will be intense negotiations among the twenty-seven remaining member states and between the European Council, European Commission, and European Parliament. Whitehall’s resources for all of this are very tight, and experienced negotiators with relevant expertise are thin on the ground.

Third, a deal such as the Prime Minister proposes will have to be agreed by the European Parliament and ratified by every member state. As the troubles faced in the Walloon parliament by the Canadian free trade agreement show, there is no guarantee that ratification will be smooth. Indeed, in some countries ratification could be subject to a citizen-initiated referendum, as occurred in the Netherlands last April for the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement.

If no deal has been done and ratified within two years, the UK government will have three main options: press for an extension to the negotiation window (which would require unanimous agreement of the member states); accept the EU’s proposed transition phase; or decide that the UK is leaving without any deal. Ardent Brexiteers dislike the first two options. But most observers think the hard and disorderly Brexit implied by the third entirely unpalatable. A government that pursued it could well be forced from office, triggering deep political turmoil.

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Following the Supreme Court ruling, what happens next?

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Following today’s Supreme Court judgement, the focus of attention shifts back to parliament.  How long will it take for parliament to pass the necessary legislation? How likely is it that the legislation will be amended? Robert Hazell and Alan Renwick assess the implications for the Brexit timetable, and the government’s negotiating strategy.

What will happen to the government’s timetable?

The government have confirmed that they will introduce a short bill, probably just one or two clauses, which it will seek to pass as a matter of urgency. Bills have occasionally been passed through parliament in a few days, or even a few hours. But that can only happen if both chambers recognise the urgency, and support the bill. Crucially, the government would need to get majority support for a timetabling motion in the House of Commons to expedite the process. That might not be forthcoming in a House where three quarters of MPs voted for Remain. (In 2012 Nick Clegg had to abandon his Lords Reform bill after the government lost the timetabling motion following a big Conservative rebellion).

In the House of Lords, the government has no majority, and no control over time. The Lords Constitution Committee and the Lords EU Committee will both want to scrutinise the bill and its implications. The Lords will not block or wreck the bill, but they will want to give it proper scrutiny; especially if they think the scrutiny in the Commons has been inadequate.

Can the bill be amended?

In November government sources suggested the bill would be ‘bombproof’. Parliamentary officials say that is a fantasy. All sorts of ingenious amendments can be tabled, on process as well as substance: requiring a white paper to be published setting out the government’s negotiating position; seeking a second referendum on the negotiated terms; requiring the government to acknowledge that Article 50 notification is revocable, etc. Debate risks exposing continuing splits within both the Conservative and the Labour parties. Because the referendum specified nothing about what Brexit means, the battle continues between Brexiteers, who mostly support a hard Brexit, and Remainers hoping for a soft Brexit. Meanwhile Labour remains split on how to respond to the referendum outcome – to respect the will of the 52 per cent (who make up a majority in constituencies such as Stoke-on-Trent Central, where the forthcoming by-election will be hard fought), or speak up for the majority of Labour voters, who backed Remain. Speaking in parliament after the judgement, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, indicated that Labour would seek to amend the Article 50 legislation to require a white paper on the government’s plans, stipulate mechanisms for parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiations, and hold a ‘meaningful’ vote on the final deal. Legislation gives all groups in parliament multiple opportunities to table amendments or extract promises or impose conditions on the government during its passage.

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The role of referendums in the UK: the question of balance

blog-photoOn 22 November the Constitution Unit and the Committee on Standards in Public Life hosted a joint seminar on ‘The Role of Referendums in the UK’. Bringing together eminent speakers from across academia, the media, government, and elsewhere, the seminar examined possible problems with the conduct of referendums in the UK, focusing particularly on two issues: how to ensure high-quality information; and how to maintain balance during the campaign. In this, the second of two posts on the event, Alex Quirk outlines the discussions on the second of these areas.

The discussion of balance during the seminar can be broadly divided into two areas: how to improve balance in the media, both traditional and online; and how to address imbalances created by the legislative framework for holding referendums.

Media balance

Bob Posner of the Electoral Commission began the day by reporting on polling conducted after the referendum, which showed that over half (52 per cent) of respondents thought that the conduct of the campaign was not ‘fair and balanced’. Various perspectives emerged over the course of the day on how well the media did in ensuring that they reported the campaign in a ‘balanced’ way. Although the print and online media have no duty to report the arguments with any sort of balance, all broadcasters have a statutory duty to act with ‘due impartiality’. The BBC, in common with other broadcasters, considers the appropriate interpretation of ‘due impartiality’ for each referendum and election campaign, and produces guidelines for programme-makers. Sue Inglish, former head of political programmes at the BBC, and Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, argued that the BBC interpreted ‘due impartiality’ in the context of the referendum correctly. In their view, the BBC did not create a false balance between experts on each side, but simply reported the arguments of the campaigners in a balanced way. Inglish stressed that broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky did not simply report misleading statements without question, but did their best to point out that they may be misleading.

This perspective was challenged by Professor Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster, who argued that broadcasters like the BBC had failed ‘catastrophically’ during the EU referendum campaign. He contended that they followed too slavishly the press agenda, which was especially problematic given the amount of misleading information in national newspapers. He also argued that the BBC’s interpretation of ‘due impartiality’ was incorrect, as it involved balancing the coverage given to arguments from both sides too mathematically, rather than interpreting the arguments in a more interrogative fashion. Further criticism of the ‘due impartiality’ interpretation came from Dr Oliver Daddow of the University of Nottingham. He argued that, despite notional ‘balance’ in the BBC’s coverage, there remained in-built structural biases in the media as a whole, which are more difficult to counteract. Symptoms of these biases included the preponderance in coverage of Conservative party figures and a lack of time dedicated to challenging statistics used by campaigners. However, Sue Inglish and Ric Bailey disagreed with these criticisms, suggesting that broadcasters also influenced the agendas of newspapers, and that they took great care not to produce artificial balance.

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The role of referendums in the UK: the question of information

blog-photoOn 22 November the Constitution Unit and the Committee on Standards in Public Life hosted a joint seminar on ‘The Role of Referendums in the UK’. Bringing together eminent speakers from across academia, the media, government, and elsewhere, the seminar examined possible problems with the conduct of referendums in the UK, focusing particularly on two issues: how to ensure high-quality information; and how to maintain balance during the campaign. In this, the first of two posts on the event, Alex Quirk outlines the discussions on the first of these areas.

It is widely accepted that both the Remain and the Leave camps were guilty during the EU referendum campaign of seeking to manipulate voters’ opinions through the use of misleading statistics – such as the Leave campaign’s assertion that we send the EU £350 million a week’ and the Remain side’s claim that ‘families would be £4,300 worse offif Britain left the EU. None of the participants in the seminar questioned this viewpoint. There was lively and illuminating discussion, however, around what – if anything – should be done about it.

Controlling the truthfulness of campaign claims

The most direct method for seeking to control misleading claims would be to establish a process for identifying and challenging them. Since the referendum, a petition and an early day parliamentary motion have called for the creation of an official body that would ‘verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns’ and ‘issue fines and factual clarifications’ where there were breaches. Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit pointed out that systems of this kind exist (though with limited reach) in South Australia and some American states. Among seminar participants, Professor Sarah Birch (King’s College London) gave the strongest support for this approach, proposing an electoral offence for referendums, analogous to the defamation and libel laws that apply during elections. Under the Representation of the People Act 1983 it is a criminal offence to make a false statement about the character of an election candidate, and to make a false statement that a candidate has withdrawn from an election. If these offences were to be adapted so as to apply to referendums, they could deal with at least a proportion of misleading campaign statements. Professor Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit argued that the debate on the regulation of statements during political campaigns should be seen as akin to any other debate on free markets versus regulated markets. In a goods market, we don’t trust either the consumers or the producers to regulate themselves. Why, therefore, do we trust politicians to regulate their own statements during political campaigns, when the stakes are exponentially higher?

Many participants, however, were skeptical. Professor Stuart White (University of Oxford) voiced concerns about the ‘chilling effect’ such an offence could have in discouraging political speech. This sentiment was echoed by Bernard Jenkin MP, a prominent Leave campaigner, who argued that those calling for regulation of truthfulness underestimate the ‘wisdom of the crowd’. Sir Peter Housden (formerly Scotland’s most senior civil servant) and Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky also expressed the view that such interventions would be undemocratic.

There was, however, interest in less stringent versions of the same approach. Will Moy (Director of Full Fact) highlighted the importance of independent fact-checking. Another option discussed was an official fact-checking body with advisory power, which could initiate investigations into the truthfulness of claims and quickly issue statements calling on campaigners not to make them. As highlighted by, respectively, CSPL Chair Lord Bew and Alan Renwick, Ireland’s referendum commissions and the New Zealand Electoral Commission already perform this function, and the evidence is that their work has produced positive results. Ed Humpherson of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) discussed this body’s role during the referendum campaign. He pointed to its important work in highlighting misleading statistical claims, but also said that the organisation will be keen to learn lessons and develop its practice further for future cases. In particular, he mentioned the need to react to concerns more quickly. Speed, he emphasised, is especially important during a referendum campaign, because the vote provides a final cut-off, and the campaign groups do not have future reputations to defend in the same way as political parties do during elections.

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We need to talk about our democracy

me 2015 (large)Meg-RussellRecent days have seen ferocious attacks against the roles of both judges and parliamentarians in our democratic system. Alan Renwick and Meg Russell write that this assault is just the latest in a series of signs that the quality of our democracy is under threat. In light of this they argue for concerted efforts to defend that democracy: by pushing back hard against immediate challenges to the rule of law, resisting the lures of populism, and listening to those tempted by populist and anti-political rhetoric.

Thursday’s High Court ruling on Article 50 (assuming it is confirmed by the Supreme Court), means no more than that the government cannot legally begin formal Brexit negotiations without parliament’s consent. The judges did not question the validity of the referendum result or try to block the UK’s withdrawal from the EU – they just clarified the law. Parliament – as demonstrated by many MPs’ reactions – will almost certainly feel politically bound to respect the referendum outcome and authorise the Article 50 trigger.

Yet, as is now well known, the judgement has unleashed a wave of vitriol from parts of the press, from some politicians, and even from certain government ministers. The Daily Mail labelled the judges who delivered the ruling as ‘enemies of the people’. The Telegraph presented the issue as one of ‘judges vs the people’. Nigel Farage talks of a ‘great Brexit betrayal’. The Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, referred to the case as ‘a clear attempt to frustrate the will of the British people’. Hearing such reactions, many ordinary citizens are understandably outraged by what they perceive as the scheming duplicity of an arrogant governing elite.

This gross overreaction is deeply worrying and potentially dangerous. We tend to presume that the democratic system in the UK is rock solid. Yet the democracy indices produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Freedom House have charted declining democratic quality in recent years in many long-standing democratic countries, including Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In the United States, commentators and senior political scientists are greatly troubled by how Donald Trump’s behaviour and rhetoric of rigged elections could weaken the foundations of the democratic system. Democracy faces similar challenges here in the UK too. In light of this, we need to cool the passions and encourage a national conversation about what democracy is and what sustains it.

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