Examining last session’s record-breaking number of government defeats in the House of Lords

In the 2021-22 session of parliament, government defeats in the House of Lords reached record levels. Sam Anderson argues that two key factors combined to drive this phenomenon. First, the Johnson government pursued a controversial legislative agenda. Second, it seemed in some cases unwilling to compromise where evidence suggests that previous governments would have done so.

There were numerous examples throughout Boris Johnson’s premiership of his government’s rocky relationship with parliament. One recent manifestation – noted elsewhere – was that there were an unprecedented 128 government defeats in the House of Lords in the 2021-22 parliamentary session. This led some government supporters to suggest that the Lords has become a ‘House of opposition’ that ‘views themselves as there to obstruct’ the government. But is this assessment fair?

The Constitution Unit’s tracking of when and on what topics governments are defeated in the House of Lords offers key insights. With data stretching back to 1999, we can compare such defeats between different governments over time. This blog uses such data to dig deeper into the 128 defeats, seeking to understand what might have caused them. First, I argue that a large number of bills covering topics that have long animated the Lords was a factor. Second, I suggest that pressures which have in the past increased the chances that the government would make some sort of concession to the Lords had less effect under Johnson.

Lords defeats over time

The Constitution Unit’s Meg Russell – who now serves as its Director – began recording defeats in 1999, when the House of Lords Act removed most hereditary peers, breaking the Conservative dominance of the chamber. Since then, no single party has had a majority in the Lords, making governments of all parties more vulnerable to defeats there than in the Commons. Votes are of course just one form of parliamentary influence, but the Lords’ ability to defeat the government has been an important source of institutional power.

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Prime Minister Liz Truss and the short, unhappy fate of the ‘takeover leader’

Following her appointment as Prime Minister yesterday, Liz Truss has become the third Prime Minister in a row to take office directly as a result of a party leadership election. Ben Worthy explains that taking office in the middle of a parliament has historically not gone well for the incoming Prime Minister, with none of the last three ‘takeover Prime Ministers’ able to complete a full parliamentary term in office.

There are two routes to becoming Prime Minister in the UK. You can either win a general election or triumph in a party leadership election to become head of the largest parliamentary party when a predecessor leaves. As section 2.18 of the Cabinet Manual puts it:

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.

Prime Minister Liz Truss is a ‘takeover’ leader, securing the post via the second route rather than the first. Remarkably, she will be the fifteenth takeover since 1916 and the second woman appointed mid-term since 2016.

There are some downsides to being a takeover. As the table below shows, takeovers’ time in office tends to be relatively brief. UK prime ministers in the last 100 years have lasted an average of just over five years, equivalent to the maximum length of one parliamentary term. Takeover tenure was considerably shorter at just over 3.6 years, compared with an average of 6.6 years for those who came to office following a general election. The longest takeover premiership was that of John Major, which lasted seven years, and the shortest was Andrew Bonar Law’s seven months (due to ill health).

The most recent takeovers are bywords for difficult, if not failed, premierships. Major (1990–1997), Gordon Brown (2007–2010) and the successive takeovers of Theresa May (2016–2019) and Boris Johnson (2019–2022) stand out as dysfunctional and struggling leaders. All led deeply divided parties and their names are linked to deep crises, whether economic (the Winter of Discontent or Black Wednesday), political (Maastricht or Brexit) or global (COVID-19).

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Boris Johnson and the myth of ‘getting Brexit done’

In departing the premiership, Boris Johnson and his supporters will present a key part of his legacy as ‘getting Brexit done’. But, Meg Russell argues, this claim is distinctly dubious. Johnson helped secure the Leave victory in 2016, but was subsequently central to blocking Theresa May’s efforts to implement the result. Meanwhile his own Brexit deal was agreed despite his own team recognising its flaws, and leaves major ongoing problems regarding Northern Ireland.

As Boris Johnson steps down, how will his time in office be remembered? His premiership collapsed in July under a weight of allegations about honesty and integrity, which had dogged his record and were cited by a flood of ministers resigning from his government. His constitutional legacy was a troubled one, and his attitude to upholding important norms was lamented by many key figures. But these qualities were often seen as the Achilles heel of a Conservative leader otherwise imbued with winning qualities. In particular, many would cite his most important legacy as ‘getting Brexit done’, and using that pledge to win his party a sizeable majority in the general election of December 2019. During the first Sky debate of the recent Conservative Party leadership contest, while none of the five candidates raised their hand to say that they would be happy for Johnson to serve in their Cabinet, Penny Mordaunt nonetheless interrupted to insist that ‘he got Brexit done’. In his own valedictory tweet following the election of Liz Truss, Johnson celebrated ‘winning the biggest majority for decades, [and] getting Brexit done’.

But actually, what was Johnson’s Brexit record? A closer inspection shows good reason to question this epitaph, as the leader who succeeded where others had failed, delivered Brexit and discovered a winning election formula. Certainly, Britain’s membership of the EU ended on his watch; and yes, the election victory was resounding. But to a significant extent, these achievements rested on the selfsame qualities that came to dog him later. Ultimately, Johnson’s hastily-agreed deal generated major tensions over the status of Northern Ireland which remain highly problematic today.

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What is democratic backsliding and is the UK at risk?

Concerns about the health of UK democracy and the risk of democratic backsliding are rising. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James warn that MPs, who are the ultimate democratic safeguard, cannot afford to be complacent if we wish to prevent backsliding and safeguard our democracy.

Commentators, civil society groups, think tanks and academics are increasingly warning about the health of UK democracy. Such warnings often draw on the concept of ‘democratic backsliding’.

But what is democratic backsliding? And is there good reason to worry about a risk of it in the UK?

What is democratic backsliding?

Democratic backsliding is, in its simplest form, the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic over time. Scholars emphasise that no cataclysmic state collapse or overthrow is required for backsliding to take place; instead, it is a gradual process, coming about through actions of democratically elected leaders.

Democratic backsliding has been observed internationally, and extensively catalogued by scholars including Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, 2021) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die, 2019). Such accounts generally define backsliding as involving the reduction of checks and balances on the executive. This might include:

  1. breakdown in the norms of political behaviour and standards;
  2. disempowerment of the legislature, the courts, and independent regulators;
  3. the reduction of civil liberties and press freedoms; and/or
  4. harm to the integrity of the electoral system.

Backsliding has been identified in multiple countries, with frequently cited cases including Poland, Hungary and the United States. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has significantly reduced judicial independence, and put pressure on the independent media. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has repeatedly assumed emergency powers allowing him effectively to bypass the legislature, undermined press freedom, and – as in Poland – curbed judicial independence. Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the 2020 presidential election, as well as longer-term patterns of voter suppression, have shown how backsliding can affect even very well-established democracies.

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The Queen’s speech, the Johnson government, and the constitution – lessons from the 2021-22 session

As a new session of parliament commences, Lisa James discusses what constitutional lessons can be learned from its predecessor. She argues that the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms are fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership.

A new parliamentary session began last week, with a Queen’s speech that laid out a highly ambitious volume of new bills. Many of these are likely to prove controversial – including planned constitutional measures.

To assess how the government might proceed, and how this might play out in parliament, it is useful to look back at the 2021-22 session. This was the first of Boris Johnson’s premiership not wholly dominated by Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic – offering insight into both the government’s constitutional agenda, and its broader legislative approach. Since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has been accused of a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms. In earlier sessions, his supporters could blame the exigencies of Brexit and the pandemic – citing the need for rapid action in the face of fast-moving situations. But the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that these are more fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership. And whilst Johnson has thus far been successful in passing his constitutional legislation, his rocky relationships with both MPs and peers mean that he may face greater difficulties in the future.

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