Brexit and parliament: where did it all go wrong?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary arguments over Brexit may now feel far behind us, but the bitterness of those arguments has left scars on our politics. Meg Russell examines four factors which contributed to the parliamentary ‘perfect storm’ over Brexit, concluding that ‘parliament’ largely got the blame for divisions inside the Conservative Party. This was fuelled by the referendum, minority government and the inability of parliamentary rules to accommodate a minority situation. The populist anti-parliamentary rhetoric which resulted was potentially damaging, with implications for the current Covid-19 crisis, when public trust in political decision-making is essential.

Amidst the current Covid-19 crisis, last year’s Brexit clashes already feel a long time ago. But at the time, they pushed Britain’s politics and constitution to their limits. Parliament was frequently at the heart of these conflicts – with angry headlines suggesting that parliamentarians were seeking to ‘block Brexit’, and branding them ‘wreckers’ or ‘saboteurs’. Twice questions of parliament’s proper role in relation to government ended up in the Supreme Court. Boris Johnson sought a lengthy prorogation of parliament, after which the Attorney General told MPs that they had ‘no moral right to sit’. How on earth did the UK, traditionally the most parliamentary of all democracies, get into such a mess? I dissect this question in a newly-published paper, ‘Brexit and Parliament: The Anatomy of a Perfect Storm’, in the journal Parliamentary Affairs. This post summarises the article’s key arguments. The full version is freely available to read online.

I suggest that four key political and constitutional features, all unusual in the UK context, contributed to this ‘perfect storm’. It was accompanied by a rise in populist and anti-parliamentary rhetoric – of a kind which would be destabilising and dangerous in any democracy, but particularly one based on a core principle of parliamentary sovereignty – as returned to at the end of this post. The four factors were as follows:

The referendum

As charted by the Independent Commission on Referendums, referendum use has grown in UK politics, but can sit awkwardly with traditional parliamentary sovereignty. Arguments for referendums on matters concerning EU powers were made over a long period (somewhat ironically) on the basis of protecting that very sovereignty. The 2016 EU referendum – eventually conceded by David Cameron, under pressure from Conservative Eurosceptics and UKIP – was very unusual, in two important ways. First, it was what the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (chaired by senior Brexit supporter Bernard Jenkin) criticised as a ‘bluff-call’ referendum: where the government’s purpose was not to seek approval for a change that it supported, but to shut down its opponents’ demands. Second, the referendum was held on a broad proposition (to leave the EU), rather than a detailed prospectus. Hence when the result came in, and was not the one the Prime Minister or most MPs (even on the Conservative benches at that time) wanted, parliament was left to decide how to put it into effect. Such circumstances generated clear tensions between parliamentary and popular sovereignty. Continue reading

Parliament, politics and anti-politics

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThis week, the Constitution Unit and UK in a Changing Europe publish a new report, Parliament and Brexit, which contains expert analysis how parliament has handled Brexit in the near four-year period since the 2016 referendum victory for the Leave campaign. It also includes discussion of parliament’s future scrutiny functions, as Brexit continues to take shape in increasingly difficult political times. In this, the first excerpt from the report to appear on our blog, Unit Director Meg Russell outlines how the tussle between parliament and government over Brexit harmed the former’s reputation, to the detriment of our parliamentary democracy.

Parliament sits at the heart of the UK’s democracy, with core functions of holding the government to account, scrutinising and legitimising its actions. Through local representation and the representation of political parties, it links citizens to the key political decisions that are taken in their name.

In all democracies parliaments are central – it’s impossible to be a democracy without a parliament. But this centrality is particularly so in the UK, for two fundamental reasons. First, as a ‘parliamentary’ (rather than presidential) democracy the government ultimately depends on the confidence of the House of Commons for its survival. Second, the UK puts the principle of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ at the core of its constitution (as discussed in Barnard and Young’s contribution to the report). Challenges to the authority of parliament are thus challenges to UK democracy, and potentially to our constitution itself. Yet such challenges occurred, increasingly, during the Brexit process.

That process saw unprecedented levels of conflict between government and parliament, and perceived conflicts between ‘parliament and people’, precipitated by a unique chain of events. The 2016 referendum handed voters the in-principle decision over the UK’s membership of the EU, at a time when most MPs supported Remain (see contributions in the report from Philip Lynch and Richard Whitaker). This already promised tensions, given that parliament and government were left to navigate the more detailed questions about the form that Brexit should take. The Conservatives were highly divided on Brexit, while most Labour MPs instinctively opposed it. Delivering such a controversial policy with the narrow parliamentary majority that Theresa May inherited from David Cameron looked risky, so she gambled on a general election in 2017 to improve matters; but this resulted in an even weaker minority government. Her authority was undermined, and parliament more divided than before. Continue reading

Why the new Speaker may not always be able to play a straight bat

NGQojaZG_400x400 (1)On 4 November, the House of Commons elected Lindsay Hoyle to serve as Speaker, following the resignation of John Bercow. It has been treated as accepted wisdom that a different approach to the Speakership is called for. However, Bercow has taken decisions about the Commons’ handling of Brexit in circumstances where several – or all – of the available choices were potentially controversial. Jack Simson Caird argues that his successor might therefore find that trying to ‘play a straight bat’ is not as easy or appropriate as it might appear.

Lindsay Hoyle is the new Speaker of the House of Commons. Hoyle, like many of his fellow candidates for the role, sought to emphasise that he would be very different from John Bercow. One of the main narratives around the election was that the Speaker should be, in the words of Chris Bryant, ‘an umpire and not a player’. All the candidates, including Hoyle, pledged to follow Bercow in standing up for backbenchers, but at the same time suggested that he had made procedural decisions in the 2017 parliament that were problematic. It is in that context that this post seeks to revisit some of the major decisions taken by Bercow during the last parliament. In the narrative established by the media and several of the candidates during the election for his successor, Bercow’s major Brexit decisions were portrayed as the product of his personality, and a desire to be the focal point of political debate. However, when the Speaker’s key decisions are examined in context, that narrative seems rather simplistic. If, after the general election, Lindsay Hoyle is faced with a minority government that is seeking to push through constitutional reforms in the face of opposition from large numbers of MPs, then he may find himself in the political spotlight. The analysis below suggests that in that context, balancing a commitment to be a champion of backbench MPs and the desire to play procedural decisions with a ‘straight bat’ may prove to be difficult in practice.  Continue reading

Which MPs are responsible for failing to ‘get Brexit done’?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgToday Boris Johnson will give his leader’s speech at Conservative Party conference, doubtless with a central argument about the need to ‘get Brexit done’. MPs have been blamed for the failure to achieve this. But which MPs precisely are responsible? Meg Russell argues that opposition parties cannot normally be expected to deliver government policy. Instead, government backbenchers usually have that role. It is resistance from Conservative backbenchers – including Johnson himself and others promoted to his Cabinet – to supporting Theresa May’s deal that provides the most obvious reason for Brexit not having been agreed.

The slogan for this year’s Conservative Party conference, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is to ‘get Brexit done’. Immediately following the Supreme Court ruling against the government last week, ill-tempered exchanges in the House of Commons saw the Prime Minister repeatedly blaming parliamentarians for failing to deliver Brexit. For example, Boris Johnson commented thatPoliticians of all parties promised the public that they would honour the result. Sadly, many have since done all they can to abandon those promises and to overturn that democratic vote’. In contrast he pledged thatWe will not betray the people who sent us here; we will not’, adding that ‘That is what the Opposition want to do’. Far stronger words, characteristically, have been ascribed to his chief adviser Dominic Cummings in blaming parliament for the Brexit impasse. Several papers have reported Cummings as suggesting that it was ‘not surprising’ that people are angry with MPs, as they have failed in their duty to get Brexit done. Given the risks that such comments further stoke such public anger against our democratic institutions, it seems important to consider exactly which MPs primarily bear responsibility for the failure to agree a Brexit plan.

First, a quick recap on what happened in the months before Johnson took office. His predecessor, Theresa May, pursued a lengthy negotiation with the EU27 – resulting in a withdrawal agreement that was signed off on 25 November 2018. Under the terms of Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, this deal was then put to an initial ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons on 15 January 2019. However, it was defeated by MPs by a whopping 432 to 202 votes. The Prime Minister subsequently brought the deal back for a second such attempt on 12 March. By this point various MPs had been brought round to supporting the deal; but it was nonetheless still heavily defeated, by 391 votes to 242. A third and final attempt at getting the House of Commons to agree the deal then occurred on the originally-planned Brexit day, of 29 March 2019. This was not a ‘meaningful vote’ under the terms of the Act, as Speaker John Bercow had hinted that such a move could be ruled out of order – on the basis that MPs cannot just repeatedly be asked to vote upon the same proposition – but it was again an in-principle vote on the deal. Again the gap between supporters and opponents narrowed, but the government was defeated by 344 votes to 286 – a margin of 58. Hence a further 30 MPs would have needed to switch from opposing to supporting the deal in order for it to be clearly approved. Continue reading

Why do government MPs rebel more? Strategic party disloyalty in the House of Commons

Despite high overall levels of party cohesion, rebellions occur relatively frequently in the House of Commons. In a new paper Jonathan Slapin, Justin Kirkland, Joseph Lazarro, Patrick Leslie and Tom O’Grady examine rebellions in the period from 1992 to 2015. They find that rebellion is much more common among government than opposition MPs and suggest that this is because disobeying the party whip is a strategic act, used by MPs to differentiate themselves from their party when this is most electorally useful. Tom O’Grady summarises here.

The history of the Westminster parliament is full of colourful rogues whose independence from party leaders seems to endear them to the public. MPs like Dennis Skinner, who have often rebelled against their party leaders – and use parliamentary speeches to emphasise their independence – seem to have a special place in British voters’ hearts. This is increasingly backed up by academic evidence. When survey respondents are asked to pick between potential MPs, they tend to opt for candidates who won’t just slavishly toe the party line. The public seems to likes independence in it MPs, and wants to see more of it. This begs the question of why MPs choose to rebel, and how constitutional features encourage or discourage MPs from going alone. Our new paper sheds new light on this question by examining rebellions and speeches in the House of Commons from 1992 to 2015, encompassing Conservative, Labour and coalition governments. The key pattern that we highlight is that opposition parties experience far fewer rebellions than governing parties.

This isn’t driven by what might seem, at first glance, like the most obvious explanation: perhaps governments experience rebellion simply because governing parties are larger and more ideologically diverse. Instead, we compare rebellious behaviour amongst individual MPs when they are in government to rebellions by the very same MP when they are in opposition. In fact, the same MPs rebel much more often when in government. We measure MPs’ ideological positions, too, and demonstrate that these patterns are driven by the most ideologically extreme MPs, whose behaviour changes the most from government to opposition (the recent period under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party is an important exception – which I return to below). Moreover, when rebellious MPs dissent, they do it loudly and publicly when in government, but quietly and privately when in opposition. We find that the most rebellious MPs devote nearly three times as many parliamentary speeches to explaining their rebellious votes in government than they do when in opposition.

Take Phillip Hollobone, the Conservative MP for Kettering. During the 2010-15 coalition government, he was the most rebellious MP in the House of Commons, rebelling on 19.9% of total votes, a remarkable figure in Westminster where party cohesion is typically very high. He rebelled despite the fact that the vast majority of the government’s agenda moved policies in his preferred ideological direction. He was even willing to rebel against his party on votes containing core conservative principles, saying that they did not go far enough. In 2013, he went so far as to vote against the Queen’s speech. It was the first rebellion by government MPs against their own agenda since 1946. Hollobone, along with three other Conservative MPs, instead put forward an ‘alternative Queen’s speech’ outlining policies such as bringing back the death penalty, privatising the BBC, and banning the Burqa. But when the Conservatives were in opposition facing a Labour government, he rebelled against his own party leadership almost five times less, just 4.3% of the time. Why is this the case?

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Legislation at Westminster – and how parliament matters more than many people think

The Westminster parliament is famous throughout the world, but often presented as relatively non-influential when it comes to making the law. Meg Russell and Daniel Gover‘s new book Legislation at Westminster is the most detailed study of the British legislative process for over 40 years, and challenges these assumptions. Here the authors summarise their findings on how different groups of actors at Westminster exercise subtle and interconnected influence, contributing to what they dub ‘six faces of parliamentary power’.

The Westminster parliament inhabits one of the most famous buildings in the world – emblematic both of Britain and of stable democracy. Yet when it comes to policy-making, and particularly to making the law, many see Westminster as relatively non-influential. In the popular media, parliament is frequently portrayed as a mere ‘rubber stamp’, where a docile Commons majority approves what government puts before it. Among academic authors views are generally more nuanced, but a mainstream public policy textbook nonetheless claims that ‘parliament plays only a limited role in decision-making in the British Westminster model’, while a recent British politics textbook suggests that ‘the House of Commons is misunderstood if viewed as a legislator’. Even scholars who celebrate parliament present the early stages of initiating and formulating legislation as ‘overwhelmingly a government-centred activity’. Despite the ostensibly central role of the ‘legislature’ in the legislative process, these specialists instead emphasise parliament’s other crucial functions, such as representation, scrutiny and legitimation.

Perhaps because it is thought likely to be fruitless, but also due to the painstaking work involved, until recently no large-scale study had been conducted on influence in the Westminster legislative process since Griffith’s classic 1974 Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government Bills. Griffith’s key finding was that many government amendments proposed to bills in parliament in fact responded to earlier proposals from non-government parliamentarians – showing that influence was more complex than it seemed. A major Constitution Unit project, funded by the Nuffield foundation, sought to explore how these dynamics may have changed, and specifically whether the ‘rubber stamp’ claim is correct. Our early quantitative results, based on study of over 4000 amendments to 12 case study bills passing through parliament during the period 2005-12, showed that it was not. The majority of government amendments with substance were traceable to parliamentary pressure, while the ‘failure’ of non-government amendments could not be taken at face value. Our newly-published book, Legislation at Westminster: Parliamentary Actors and Influence in the Making of British Law, tells a fuller story, drawing not only on amendment analysis, but also wider documentary analysis, and over 100 interviews with those closely involved in the passage of the 12 bills.

Part of the difficulty in assessing parliamentary influence is common perceptions of power. Looking for on-the-record changes wrought by parliament provides only a very narrow view. But it is often acknowledged in the politics and international relations literature that power takes many forms. One classic account suggests that it has three distinct faces, others that it has four or more; there are notions of hard and soft power, persuasive versus coercive power, and the ability to exercise power both positively and negatively. Such alternative conceptions have rarely been teased apart when discussing the power of parliaments.

Our study is organised by the various ‘actors’ in the policy process at Westminster, each of whom has a dedicated chapter. After introducing the basics of the legislative process and the case study bills, we go on to describe, using numerous quotations and examples, the diverse contributions that these actors make. This post provides a very short summary of our findings.

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The policy power of the Westminster parliament: The empirical evidence

Meg-Russell

The UK parliament continues to be dismissed as powerless in many academic and popular accounts. Drawing on a large body of quantitative and qualitative research conducted over more than 15 years, a recent article by Meg Russell and Philip Cowley argued that the Westminster parliament is in fact an institution with significant policy influence. Meg Russell summarises here.

In the study of public policy, legislatures tend to be portrayed as relatively weak institutions. This applies to the UK parliament in particular. The classic comparative view associates the Westminster model, of which the UK is seen as the emblematic case, with centralised executive power and an acquiescent legislature. Assumptions of Westminster’s weakness are not, however, confined to comparative scholars or to the recent past. In a 2011 article Matthew Flinders and Alexandra Kelso traced gloom-laden statements of British parliamentary powerlessness back over a century and more. Meanwhile, a public policy textbook published in 2012 reflected the view of many scholars in the field when stating that ‘Despite the name “parliamentary democracy”, the parliament plays only a limited role in decision-making in the British Westminster model’ (p. 139).

Yet in recent years scholars specialising in the study of the UK parliament have found evidence of significant parliamentary influence on the policy process. This may in part be due to changes in parliamentary structures and behaviour, but also simply result from more exhaustive research approaches. I have contributed to this literature through my work on the House of Lords, and the policy impact of the Westminster parliament. Professor Philip Cowley has also contributed greatly, particularly through his work on the Commons. In a recent article in the journal Governance we drew these various strands together – using four large quantitative data sets, complemented by more than 500 interviews with key parliamentary and government actors – to demonstrate that Westminster’s influence is both substantial and probably rising. We conclude that parliament’s critics make two key mistakes – by concentrating largely on the decision-making stage of the policy process, and focusing almost exclusively on visible parliamentary impact (e.g. government defeats on legislation). We broaden the focus to take into account both visible and less visible impact, with a particular interest in anticipated reactions. Our arguments are summarised in this post.

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