Can Dominic Cummings defy the political laws of gravity?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgRecent news has been dominated by Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Durham. As a serial rule-breaker, he seems intent on flouting the maxim that ‘when the adviser becomes the story, the adviser must go’. But with MPs returning today, other fundamental political rules may not be so easily broken, writes Meg Russell. All Prime Ministers depend on their backbenchers for support and, with Conservative MPs in open revolt over Cummings, Johnson’s backing for him may yet become untenable. In the Westminster system MPs are ultimately in charge, and there are ways in which they could assert their position.

The Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings doesn’t like to follow the rules. That’s not necessarily a statement on his lockdown-breaking trip to Durham – disdain for established rules, and specifically for conventional wisdom that can’t be directly enforced, is what Cummings has long been known for. For some, it’s seen as part of his ‘genius’. From flying a giant inflatable white elephant over the north-east during a referendum that destroyed Labour’s plans for English regional devolution, to the audacious ‘£350 million a week’ for the NHS on the Vote Leave battlebus, to the long-planned ‘people versus parliament’ election of 2019, his boundary-stretching has often proved a winning formula, and delivered for Boris Johnson.

Cummings has long shown particular disdain for traditional political institutions, and their old ways of doing things. He’s well-known for wanting to pursue radical reform of the civil service. Conservative Brexiteer MP Steve Baker, who was among the first to call for him to quit, credits Cummings with Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament for five weeks, which was overturned in the Supreme Court. That move, like several others associated with Cummings, indicated his view that conventions, or the ‘accepted way of doing things’ count for nothing, while all that matters is the letter of the law. Other examples include suggestions to ‘pack’ the House of Lords with hundreds more Brexit-supporting peers, or to advise the Queen not to sign a rebel bill into law. Indeed ‘Downing Street sources’ went even further late last year, suggesting that Johnson might refuse to abide by a law passed by parliament. Continue reading

Coronavirus and the Commons: how the hybrid parliament has enabled MPs to operate remotely

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It has now been three weeks since the House of Commons agreed to operate on a hybrid basis, with many MPs contributing remotely and the Commons holding its first remote votes. Former Commons clerk David Natzler assesses how the virtual parliament has been operating, and asks if and when the Commons will return to its pre-hybrid state.

The three weeks since the return of parliament from the Easter break have seen the rapid emergence of a virtual parliament, but asymmetrically between the two houses. The Lords has followed a twin track: ordinary chamber proceedings whenever a decision of the House is required, and ‘Virtual Proceedings’ for questions, statements and debates where participation is restricted to those peers not in the chamber. In separate orders agreed on 21 and 22 April the Commons decided that both scrutiny (questioning) and substantive (decisive) proceedings would be ‘hybrid’, meaning that members could take part whether in the chamber or not, and that each group would be treated with strict equality. All categories of business can now at least in theory be dealt with. For example, the report stage of the Agriculture Bill is scheduled for 13 May. On 11 May two pieces of internal business were dealt with: a personal statement from Greg Hands was made remotely, and Conor Burns was suspended from the Commons for seven days, both following reports from the Committee on Standards: evidence that the House has still been able to exercise its powers during these unusual times.

Lists of questioners are compiled and published in advance, on the parliamentary website, indicating whether the member intends to attend in person or remotely. Virtual contributions are denoted in Hansard with a ‘V’ by the speaker’s name. That all is proceeding smoothly is due not only to the staff of the House but also to its political leadership, which has created a broad consensus in a way that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago. The Westminster parliament is now something of a market leader: the senior official overseeing the changes, Matthew Hamlyn, gave evidence on 30 April to the Canadian House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee, along with representatives of other parliaments, on the new arrangements.

Who still attends in the Commons – and why?

The lead minister responsible for the department answering questions,  making a statement or introducing legislation generally, but by no means always, attends. Indeed, the first minister to answer departmental questions, Simon Hart, the Secretary of State for Wales, participated remotely. Junior ministers often attend physically if they have more than one question to answer. The presence in the chamber of the answering minister does give general confidence that their replies will be audible whatever minor gremlins get into Zoom. Most but not all opposition frontbenchers attend in person, although Lisa Nandy and Ellie Reeves both made their frontbench debuts remotely

By now the overwhelming majority of backbenchers participate remotely. A handful of members choose to attend in person, some travelling from far away; but as the new temporary regime has developed the numbers seem to be dropping. In the short debate on a pension enrolment instrument on 4 May there were no participating members physically present. By contrast debates on some specific local or sensitive topics seem to have more physical participants. Mark Garnier said that he had made a 300-mile round trip by car ‘to speak here in person’ on a harrowing case of domestic abuse, during the second reading debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill. Some members may still feel that a 10-minute speech in an important debate carries more weight if delivered in the chamber, while a 30 second question can be posed remotely without loss of impact. That said, Sara Britcliffe made the first virtual maiden speech remotely from Lancashire. But there is no prospect of Lancashire’s proud son in the Speaker’s chair presiding from Chorley. Continue reading

Can analogue politics work in an era of digital scrutiny? The negative effect of COVID-19 on the informal politics of Westminster

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This week the House of Commons approved measures to conduct business in a semi-virtual form. These were necessary to ensure parliament can function during the coronavirus crisis, but as Greg Power explains, they will also involve the loss of some of the key elements of parliamentary life that enable effective scrutiny and party management. 

Parliament finally returned in semi-virtual form this week. While initial coverage has inevitably focused on the novel use of digital technology in the most analogue of institutions, underlying this are more important questions about whether parliament will be able to exert the same political pressure on government when its members are not physically present. 

Westminster is not alone in this task. Every other legislature around the world is looking for ways to meet and decide things when MPs cannot be in the same room, most of which seem destined to further increase the share price of Zoom. Yet, as most parliaments are finding, whilst adapting the formal procedures is a relatively easy task, the politics is more complex.

For example, Brazil moved swiftly to change its rules to allow fully virtual plenary sessions, South Africa has introduced new systems for electronic submission of questions to ministers and many parliamentary committees have quickly moved to remote meetings. Other countries, like France, Ireland, Norway and Germany have reduced both the amount of business, and the number of people allowed in the plenary at any one time, along with other provisions for remote deliberations and questions. 

The UK has ended up with a similar combination of measures, but spats have already emerged in other countries about the politics of such changes. Reducing the number of MPs in the chamber at any one time for questions seems appropriate, provided those numbers reflect the party balance. But who decides which MPs get to turn up? And if parliamentary business is being reduced, what takes priority? This is the traditional territory of the party whips, who will relish the ability to further influence the tone and contents of such public debates. Continue reading

Building a ‘virtual parliament’: how our democratic institutions can function during the coronavirus

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgSince David Natzler last wrote for this blog on the options available to parliament when it returns this week, the Commons and Lords have been making their arrangements for a ‘virtual parliament’. In this post, David discusses the plans put forward so far and the obstacles to their implementation. He argues that the most difficult question, if a virtual parliament is approved, is how MPs and peers will vote.

In the first part of this blog I want to record three particular aspects of the way in which proposals for virtual parliamentary sittings have developed since my blog of Sunday 5 April. In the second part, I look ahead at likely and desirable outcomes. I conclude with some further thoughts on voting.  

The expanded role of the House of Commons Commission

The House of Commons Commission held virtual meetings on Monday 6 and Thursday 16 April. At its 6 April meeting it warned that any special arrangements for the House’s return on 21 April would need to start in the preceding week. At its 16 April meeting the Commission endorsed plans for the use of Zoom to allow up to 120 members to take part in interrogatory virtual proceedings, and for up to 50 members to take part in the Chamber. This hybrid arrangement will need the approval of the House on 21 April.

The Commission is a statutory body which employs the staff of the House and oversees its expenditure. Its assent is required for new services, including digital services and equipment, such as new screens for the Commons chamber or new software. It has no authority to determine how the proceedings of the House should be conducted. But it fills a vacuum in the House of Commons, bringing together for formal decision making the Speaker, who chairs the Commission, the Leader of the House, the Shadow Leader of the House and a senior SNP member, Pete Wishart. These members can be expected to represent their parties, so if the Commission is willing to fund and support the preparatory work for a scheme of virtual participation, and set out in considerable detail how it should work in practice, then it must be assumed that the party leaders support it, at least in outline. As the Clerk of the House and the Director General are also members of the Commission, its proposals can be expected to be capable of implementation. To that extent the Commission has been acting as a substitute for what is missing at Westminster, a House Business Committee or Bureau, as is common in many parliaments and was recommended by the Wright Committee in 2009. Continue reading

Proposals for a ‘virtual parliament’: how should parliamentary procedure and practices adapt during the coronavirus pandemic?

RuthFox.084_square.1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary scrutiny is essential to checking and legitimising government decisions. But the coronavirus crisis, during which government has been granted unprecedented powers, creates obvious challenges for parliament. Ruth Fox and Meg Russell argue that parliamentary change during the crisis must follow three core principles: first, parliament should go virtual insofar as possible; second, it should adapt its procedures accordingly, prioritising the most critical business; third, decisions about these changes should be open and consultative — to avoid the risk of a government power grab — should be strictly time-limited, and be kept under regular review.

Parliament has an essential role as the guardian of our democracy. But the coronavirus pandemic poses a huge and unprecedented challenge: how can parliamentarians conduct their core constitutional duties of holding the government to account, assenting to finance, passing legislation, and representing their constituents, when we are all required to adopt rigorous social distancing and, wherever possible, work from home? 

At a time when the government has been granted emergency powers of a kind unparalleled in peacetime, and ministers are taking rapid decisions that could shape our economy and society for a generation, democratic oversight is vital. Adversarial party politics take a back seat in a time of national crisis, but parliament’s collective responsibility to hold the executive to account remains. Hence the many calls – from both within and without parliament – for a ‘virtual’ legislature to ensure adequate scrutiny of the government’s decisions, and to maintain other essential time-sensitive work, while complying with public health requirements. 

As yet, however, there has been little detailed debate about how a ‘virtual parliament’ should operate. Parliament cannot work as normal, so what broad issues must it address in deciding how to work differently? 

This post identifies and argues for three core principles:

  • In the interests of safety, and to set a national example, parliament should operate as far as possible virtually, rather than accommodating continued physical presence at Westminster.
  • Parliament should not pursue ‘business as usual’ but should make more radical changes, identifying and prioritising essential business. 
  • Parliament’s crisis arrangements should be based on wide and transparent consultation with members to maximise support. ‘Sunsetting’ should be used to make clear that they are temporary and create no automatic precedent for the post-crisis era. 

In the UK, the government already has much greater control of the way parliament – particularly the House of Commons – operates than in many other countries. Any crisis arrangements must ensure fair representation for all members and parties; and the crisis and parliament’s response to it should not become a pretext to shift power further towards the executive and party managers.   Continue reading

Brexit and parliament: treaties beyond the EU

In the latest extract from our joint report on Parliament and Brexit, Jill Barrett argues that the need for effective scrutiny of post-Brexit trade deals is high, and that parliament needs to develop mechanisms to better scrutinise the deals made by the government.

Leaving the EU means the UK is not only leaving the EU trading bloc and negotiating a new future relationship with the EU, but also leaving its global network of trade treaties – which consists of 41 trade agreements covering 72 countries. All of these will cease to apply to the UK at the end of the transition period (31 December 2020, unless extended by agreement). The UK’s trade with other World Trade Organization (WTO) member countries will then take place on WTO terms, except where there is a new trade agreement in place.

The UK government is seeking to ‘roll over’ the 41 existing EU agreements, by negotiating similar new agreements with the third states concerned. So far, only 19 replacement agreements have been signed and a further 16 are ‘still in discussion’. In some cases, notably Japan, the other state is not willing simply to replicate the terms that it has with the EU, but is seeking further concessions from the UK. Achieving a deal in all cases by the end of 2020 will be extremely challenging, and some may well take considerably longer.

Now the UK has an independent trade policy it can also seek new trade relationships with states that are outside of the EU’s treaty network. The government has announced that its priority is to negotiate bilateral trade treaties with the USA, Australia and New Zealand, and one may expect the next phase to include negotiations with major emerging economies such as China and India. All of these will raise matters of intense interest to parliament and the public.

What is parliament’s role in relation to the making of treaties? Treaties are negotiated, adopted, signed and ratified by the government using royal prerogative (executive) powers. In legal terms, parliament has two distinct roles. First, the government is obliged to lay a new treaty before parliament for 21 sitting days prior to ratification, under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAG). In theory, this gives parliament the opportunity to scrutinise the treaty and object to ratification, by passing a resolution. An objection by the House of Commons (but not by the Lords) would block ratification. Secondly, if implementation of the treaty requires new legislation, parliament has the power to pass or defeat that legislation (or amend it, if it is a statute). If essential implementing legislation is blocked, this would normally stop the government ratifying the treaty. 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

Has parliament just got boring? Five conclusions from the passage of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Act

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The 2019 parliament has passed its first statute: the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. Unusually for a major constitutional bill it was approved unamended. Does this demonstrate the shape of things to come, with an enfeebled parliament under Johnson’s majority government? Lisa James and Meg Russell argue that the WAB was not a typical bill, and the circumstances were far from normal. Even under majority government parliament is far from powerless, and the full dynamics of the new situation may take some time to play out.

1. The Act passed easily – but the circumstances were unusual

The EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 (the WAA or – before it gained Royal Assent – the WAB) passed with remarkable ease and speed. A 100-page bill implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, it was packed with detailed provisions on everything from citizens’ rights to the operation of the Joint Committee. Nonetheless, following just 11 days’ scrutiny, it passed wholly unamended: five government defeats in the Lords were swiftly overturned when the Bill returned to the Commons.

Comparison with a key previous piece of Brexit legislation – illustrated in the table below – shows how uneventful the WAB’s passage was in relative terms. The EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was similar in scope and complexity, but had a far rockier passage. During 36 days’ scrutiny the government was defeated 16 times, including a rare defeat in the Commons. By the time it passed, it had been so heavily amended – by backbenchers, opposition parliamentarians and ministers themselves – that it was 63% longer than when first introduced.

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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