Boris Johnson and parliament: an unhappy tale in 13 acts

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliament returns from its summer break today. During Boris Johnson’s 13 months in office as Prime Minister his relationship with parliament has often been rocky. In this post, Unit Director Meg Russell reviews 13 episodes during these 13 months which illustrate Johnson’s difficult relationship with parliament. His Number 10 has often resisted parliamentary oversight, and faced down significant parliamentary opposition – including from his own backbenchers. With growing indications of backbench discontent, she explores the dangers of this situation.

As the Commons reassembles today, it’s a good moment to reflect on the relationship between Boris Johnson’s government and parliament so far. Johnson has now held office for just over a year, and rumours are emerging of significant discontent on the Conservative backbenches. From the outset, Johnson’s relationship with parliament has been beset with controversy. As he enters his second parliamentary year, what have been the key flashpoints, and what do they add up to collectively?

This post looks back at 13 episodes in the past 13 months, before reflecting on what they teach us, and what the future may hold. It suggests that while existing flashpoints have resulted from Number 10’s bold assertions of executive power, there are risks for Johnson that the tables could soon start to be turned.

1. The first day: two hours of scrutiny before recess

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on the afternoon of 24 July 2019, following his victory in the Conservative leadership contest. On that day, Theresa May took her final Prime Minister’s Questions. Johnson thus had just one day to face parliament, which was about to break for its summer recess. The hot topic was Brexit; May had been forced out after failing to gain adequate support from her own MPs for her Brexit deal, which was defeated three times in the Commons between January and March. Johnson had been among those voting against it. The big question was how he could succeed where Theresa May had failed. On 25 July there was a brief potential window for MPs to quiz him on his Brexit strategy. But he chose instead to make a far more general statement on ‘priorities for government’. After two hours of questions ranging across all policy topics, the Commons moved to adjourn until September. An attempt by MPs to delay adjournment had failed, as did a later attempt to recall parliament over the summer to discuss progress on Brexit. Recall is impossible without the agreement of the government. 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

Democracy and the coronavirus: how might parliament adapt?

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgParliament is currently in recess but its work continues, with select committees moving to remote hearings, and the Speaker promising to move, if only temporarily, towards a ‘virtual parliament’. David Natzler, who spent almost 40 years working in the House of Commons, draws on his experience to suggest how issues relating to the remote conduct of oral questions, voting, committees, and other key matters, might be resolved before parliament returns in late April.

In my blog of 23 March, I suggested that parliament would be judged on how well it had dealt with COVID-19. Over the past fortnight parliament has passed the Coronavirus Act and Commons select committees have held several hearings (see below) in procedurally unique circumstances. Developments in other parliaments and institutions have given an indication of how Westminster might adapt in the coming months. And there have been growing calls for business – in  some radically different form – to be resumed well before 21 April, when parliament is due to reassemble following its standard, if slightly extended, Easter break. The proceedings in both Houses on 23-25 March are of course available to read in Hansard. They do not seem to have been widely reported in the press, save for the observation that there were no votes. 

Speaker’s letter of 27 March: Chamber proceedings 

On 27 March the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, wrote a letter to all members of the House of Commons. The letter confirmed that he would be considering several practical measures to enable the number of members present in the Commons chamber at any one time to be reduced. These measures included advance publication of the order of speaking in debate, which the Chair has hitherto not revealed, thus requiring members to attend the debate and wait until called. In the past it has been suggested that the draft list be published, as it is in many other parliaments; this already happens in the House of Lords. If this were introduced it could take some persuasion to return to the existing practice, which allows the Chair to show some flexibility in response to debate.

Oral and written questions and statements

The Speaker’s letter also envisages possible adaptations of the oral question regime, conceivably allowing for questions and supplementary questions to be posed remotely by absent members. Advance submission by MPs of their desire to be called to ask a supplementary question following a statement or urgent question is also canvassed as a possible change. And the Speaker gave a strong signal that he would expect the government to allow for answers to written questions to be given during any future extended period of adjournment, much as happened in the mid-2000s when September sittings were abandoned for several years (see Standing Order 22B and Erskine May 22.4, footnote 3). This was repeated in his letter to the Leader of the Commons on 2 April. Continue reading

The government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission: what, why and how?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgalan.jfif (1)The Conservative Party manifesto promised a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’, but as yet little is known about the government’s plans. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on what such a Commission might look at, and how it might go about its work. They conclude that a long-term perspective is important, so that the Commission is not just ‘fighting the last war’ over Brexit. Given the fundamental nature of the questions that may be asked, citizens should be fully involved.

Page 48 of the Conservative Party manifesto committed the government to establishing a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ within its first year. This could have a far-reaching remit, covering ‘the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people’, plus the operation of the Human Rights Act. Creation of such a body is clearly an ambitious enterprise, with potentially long-lasting effects – but, as yet, very little is known about the government’s plans for the Commission. This post first explores the ‘what and why’ of the Commission: which issues might it need to address, and what is the motivation behind it? Second, we consider the ‘how’: specifically, in terms of how the public could and should be involved.

What will the Commission review, and why?

The list of topics potentially ascribed to the new Commission is long, and covers some absolute fundamentals of the constitution. While the UK has seen much constitutional change in recent decades – most obviously Labour’s post-1997 programme, which included devolution and Lords reform, and the subsequent Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which established the Supreme Court – these developments involved no formal review of the core relationships between different constitutional branches. Indeed, Labour’s programme was often criticised as piecemeal, and for failing to go back to first principles. In some ways, a review of these fundamentals is therefore refreshing. But questions such as the proper balance of power between government, parliament and courts, and the role of the monarchy are also extremely big, complex and delicate.

So why are such challenging questions being asked now? This is where the Commission’s potential role gets more troubling. The UK has recently witnessed an exceptionally turbulent period in constitutional terms, with the referendum vote for Brexit followed by a significant struggle over its implementation. Particularly during 2019, tensions ran very high between government and parliament, with the Supreme Court becoming involved via the prorogation case. That these tensions helped motivate the proposed Commission seems clear from other words in this section of the manifesto, which suggest that ‘The failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit… has opened up a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people’. Leaving aside the question of which parliamentarians exactly were responsible for blocking Brexit, this statement highlights how concerns about the most recent period (including the Supreme Court’s role) have driven some on the Conservative side to seek reform.  Continue reading

Getting a new parliament up and running: what happens after the election?

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgbeamish.jpg (1)We may not yet know the result of the election, but we do know that we will have a new parliament. David Natzler and David Beamish explain what will happen when the new parliament commences next week. No matter the outcome of today’s vote, certain processes will need to be followed: parliament will need to be officially opened, MPs will need to be sworn in, and committees will need to be re-established — and their members and chairs must be elected.

The dates

The first days of a new parliament follow a well-trodden path, and the surest guide to what will happen is usually to look up what happened last time, in June 2017. However, much depends on the political context. And we will not know that context until the early hours of Friday 13 December at the earliest. All we know for sure is that the new parliament will meet on Tuesday 17 December, and that if the current Prime Minister returns, the State Opening – the start of the new session – will be only two days later, on Thursday 19 December. If there is a hung parliament, the State Opening could be delayed. Continue reading

Reducing the size of the House of Lords: two steps forward, two steps back

downloadThere has for some time been an apparent consensus in parliament and government that the House of Lords has too many members, yet recent efforts to effect reform have made little progress. David Beamish explains how an apparent change of government position and the parliamentary tactics of a determined minority have slowed the pace of change.

There has long been concern, both within parliament and outside it, about the number of members of the House of Lords – currently over 780. The prospect of major reform seems remote. However, there have been two strands of activity to try to reduce the numbers: the proposals of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House (the Burns committee), and a private member’s bill to end by-elections to replace hereditary peers (the Grocott bill).

In November 2017 I wrote a blog post describing the publication of the report of the Burns committee as ‘a real opportunity for progress on reform’. In July 2018 I wrote another blog post on the continuing hereditary peer by-elections in the House, ending with the comment that, although other issues currently dominate the political and parliamentary agenda, ‘there may nevertheless be some prospect of real progress in relation to both the size of the House of Lords and the ending of the hereditary peer by-elections’. Subsequently there was heartening progress on both fronts, but last month saw two reverses. Continue reading

Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings

robert-hazell-350x350In September the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published their report into Pre-Appointment Scrutiny Hearings. Robert Hazell gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry on the subject; here he discusses the report’s conclusions, and describes the events that led to its being undertaken, including two Constitution Unit studies that evaluated the effectiveness of such scrutiny.  

The recently published report of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) was the product of an inquiry undertaken at the request of the Commons Liaison Committee, because of growing concerns amongst Select Committee chairs that pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were a charade, especially when the government ignored committee recommendations.  The Liaison Committee and PACAC both heard evidence from the former Constitution Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell, who explained that pre-appointment hearings were more effective than MPs recognised, and suggested ways in which they could be made more effective still.

Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were introduced by Gordon Brown, when he became Prime Minister in July 2007.  In his Green Paper The Governance of Britain he proposed:

… that the Government nominee for key positions … should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing with the relevant select committee. The hearing would be non-binding, but in the light of the report from the committee, Ministers would decide whether to proceed.  The hearings would cover issues such as the candidate’s suitability for the role, his or her key priorities, and the process used in the selection.

The Cabinet Office and the Liaison Committee subsequently agreed a list of just over 50 key positions which would be subject to the new procedure. Ten years later, by the end of the 2015-17 Parliament, there had been almost 100 scrutiny hearings, involving almost every single departmental Select Committee. The Constitution Unit conducted an early evaluation of the first 20 hearings in 2009-10, and a second study in 2016-17, looking at a further 70 hearings. Continue reading

Intergovernmental relations and the English question: options for reform

downloadA week after the state of intergovernmental relations (IGR) in the UK was highlighted by the UK government’s law officers standing in opposition to their devolved counterparts in the UK Supreme Court, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published a report on improving IGR after Brexit. Jack Sheldon discusses the methods by which England could gain distinct representation — something it currently lacks — in a new IGR system.

At the end of July the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published Devolution and Exiting the EU: reconciling differences and building strong relationships. This is an impressive report, containing original recommendations on a range of aspects of the UK’s territorial arrangements.

It is particularly notable that the MPs chose to devote substantial sections of the report to the English question. These focus, in particular, on the often overlooked issue of England’s representation in intergovernmental relations (IGR) forums such as the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC). PACAC’s attention to this reflects a growing appreciation, including in official circles, of the salience of questions about how England is recognised and represented within the UK’s changing systems of governance. It is also timely, with a JMC-commissioned review of IGR machinery currently in progress ahead of the proposed negotiation of post-Brexit frameworks in areas such as agriculture, fisheries and environmental protection.

The issue

Since the JMC was established in 1999, it – and its sub-committees – have been composed of ministers from the UK government and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. PACAC highlights the fact that this leaves the UK government wearing ‘two hats’, as representative of both England and the UK as a whole.

This dual role has caused multiple concerns. Many in the devolved governments fear that the UK government will favour England. In evidence to PACAC Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister, suggested he could not have confidence that fishing quotas would be allocated fairly if DEFRA was the English representative in negotiations, whilst also being ultimately responsible for making the allocation. Meanwhile, regional and local interests in England feel overlooked. Andy Street, the West Midlands ‘metro mayor’, was among those who told the committee that the English regions’ voices were not heard as loudly in Whitehall as those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Finally, some have argued that under current arrangements England is denied a national voice, resulting in the devolved areas securing preferential treatment – especially in relation to finance. Continue reading