Must a caretaker government be a zombie government?

During the recently concluded Conservative leadership contest, the government appeared to be in a holding pattern, taking little or no action of substance until the election of Boris Johnson’s successor. But did the government, which had a substantial parliamentary majority and an electoral mandate, need to act as if it was merely a ‘caretaker’? Robert Hazell explains that the rules around a ‘lame duck’ PM remain fuzzy, and argues that steps must be taken to clarify the position as soon as possible.

Something very strange happened at Westminster over the summer: a government which enjoyed a comfortable working majority of 71 seats was declared to be a caretaker which could not take any major decisions. It was variously accused of being a ‘zombie government’ ‘asleep at the wheel’, and incapable of taking urgent decisions required by the energy crisis. In its defence the government might have responded that as a caretaker it was precluded from taking such decisions. But the Whitehall rules on this are far from clear. So, what are the Whitehall rules about caretaker governments, and the principles underlying them? And given the confusion this summer, do the rules need clarifying or updating?

‘Caretaker government’ is not a term to be found in any UK government guidance. The Cabinet Manual talks instead about ‘restrictions on government activity’. A leadership election in the governing party is not one of the circumstances when the Cabinet Manual says government activity must be restricted. It envisages just three such circumstances when governments are restricted:

…governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character in the period immediately preceding an election, immediately afterwards if the result is unclear, and following the loss of a vote of confidence.

Paragraph 2.27.
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Boris Johnson’s constitutional legacy

Boris Johnson’s premiership is expected to end on 6 September, when it is anticipated that he will offer his formal resignation to the Queen at Balmoral and make way for the winner of the Conservative Party leadership election. Lisa James demonstrates that his time in office has been marked by an impatience with constitutional checks and balances and a willingness to depart from convention. She argues that his legacy risks being the normalisation of such behaviour.

What have been the major issues and challenges during Johnson’s premiership? 

Constitutional controversy has been a consistent feature of Boris Johnson’s premiership. His first months in office, amid the turmoil and acrimony of the late-2019 Brexit deadlock, were marked by the unlawful prorogation of parliament, suggestions that he would defy the law, and briefings from allies that if the Commons withdrew its confidence he would ‘dare the Queen to sack him’.

Thankfully, the monarch was not dragged into Johnson’s resignation this summer. But the Prime Minister stepped down only after a tense standoff with his own party, as it forced him from office over a series of standards-related scandals. The most prominent of these, partygate, will outlast Johnson’s premiership – with the Privileges Committee’s investigation into whether the Prime Minister misled parliament ongoing.

Though the intervening years perhaps lacked such obvious constitutional fireworks, these topics were never off the agenda. The Johnson government’s reform programme, and behaviour, often provoked controversy; the COVID-19 pandemic raised questions about how the country should be governed in times of crisis; and the fallout from Brexit heightened tensions over the territorial constitution, as discussed elsewhere on this blog – particularly in Northern Ireland.

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Monitor 81. Johnson falls; what’s next for the constitution?

Today, the Unit published the 81st edition of Monitor, which provides analysis of the key constitutional news of the past four months. In this post, which also serves as the issue’s lead article, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on the collapse of Boris Johnson’s government, increasing concerns about ministerial and parliamentary standards, and continuing doubts about the future of the Union.

The preoccupying question in UK politics over recent months increasingly became when – rather than whether – the Prime Minister would be forced from office. In April, Boris Johnson was fined for breaching restrictions on social gatherings during lockdown, and the Commons referred him to its Privileges Committee for allegedly misleading parliament. In May, the Conservatives suffered steep losses in the local elections, and Sue Gray’s official report into ‘partygate’ was finally published, concluding that the ‘senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility’ for the culture of disregard for the rules that had emerged. In June, Johnson survived a vote of no confidence among his MPs and the loss of two parliamentary by-elections, followed by the resignation of the Conservative Party Co-Chair, Oliver Dowden. But the resignation of Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher in early July, and Number 10’s bungled reaction to it, finally brought the Prime Minister down.

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Northern Ireland: how can power-sharing be revived?

Alan Whysall was a panellist in the session on Northern Ireland at the Unit’s State of the Constitution conference on 23 June. This revision of his talk draws on his paper for the Unit on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, and its accompanying blogpost. He argues that stable power-sharing can only return through good faith inclusive negotiation – which is not a part of London’s current approach – and a reinforcement of the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

It is essential to bring all the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement institutions back as soon as possible: that unlocks the potential for political progress. Without the institutions, polarisation grows; the longer they are away, the harder ultimately the Agreement settlement is to sustain. And there is no alternative as a framework for the stable government of Northern Ireland.

Devolution still has wide popular support and the political class has a strong self-interest in restoring the institutions, if only because paying them not to undertake government is becoming unpopular. But there are big questions about how.

The government’s approach

Can the institutions be stably restored the government’s way? Setting aside for now judgements about the government’s approach, its integrity, or the extraordinary contents (breach of international obligations, vast delegation of powers to ministers) of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, this seems to me to be doubtful.

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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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