The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, was published today. Since the previous issue was published in March, we have had two Brexit extensions, two — the first two — recalled MPs, multiple inquiries into the functioning of parliament and its members, and two party leadership resignations, one of which means that we will almost certainly have a new Prime Minister before the end of July. If the constitution was ‘in flux’ when Monitor 68 was published the previous March, then it must now be acknowledged that the ordinary logic of British politics has been changed — perhaps permanently — by the events that have flowed from the 2016 Brexit referendum. Here, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick review the last four months of constitutional events in what is also the lead article from Monitor 72. The full edition can be found here.
The Brexit tumult goes on, and is increasingly challenging some central tenets of British politics.
Having been due to leave the European Union on 29 March, the UK will now remain until at least 31 October. Right up to the original deadline, the government was making frenetic efforts to negotiate addenda to the Withdrawal Agreement (see page 2), but it could not gain concessions adequate to persuade MPs to accept the deal (see page 4). Extensions were agreed, first just for two weeks, then for seven months. A key obstacle is fragmentation on the government side, with Conservative MPs (mostly those who are pro-Brexit) refusing to compromise. With great reluctance, the Prime Minister ultimately turned to seeking a pact with the Labour Party – a distinctly un-British approach whose necessity her European partners had apparently seen long before she did. But, with the pressure of an immediate deadline gone, and with looming European Parliament elections that she had never wanted to hold, the perilous politics of a cross-party deal proved unnavigable. Following her promise that a proposed Withdrawal Agreement Bill would include a referendum clause, Theresa May’s cross-party flirtations sufficiently infuriated sections of her party that she was eventually forced to acknowledge defeat. On 24 May she announced her intention to step down, triggering a contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party and (very likely) for the country.
Throughout these months of tumult the role of parliament has been central, and hotly contested. The 2016 referendum initiated such tension, by pitting popular sovereignty against the conventional logic of parliamentary sovereignty. Most recently there has been a long battle of wills between government and parliament. A key argument (see page 4) has concerned parliament’s ability to control its own agenda, with initiatives from backbenchers firmly backed up by the Commons Speaker. While these had mixed success, many MPs are clearly now willing to use all the powers they possess to prevent an outcome they believe would be deeply damaging to the country. Continue reading