Sunak’s constitutional dilemmas

Today the Unit publishes Monitor 83, providing analysis of constitutional events over the last four months. In this post, which also serves as the issue’s lead article, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick argue that while Rishi Sunak’s premiership has seen a decline in constitutional turbulence compared to the recent past, various points of constitutional tension remain, creating dilemmas both for him and his party political opponents.

Successive issues of Monitor in recent years have told a story of constitutional unease. The premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss saw checks and balances eroded and the rule of law questioned. The last issue – published in November 2022 – reported Rishi Sunak’s promise on entering Downing Street to restore ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability’; but too little time had passed by then to assess his delivery. Four months on, the picture remains complex and mixed. Sunak clearly faces challenges on the constitutional front, particularly in keeping his restive party together.

On the positive side, the Prime Minister appointed a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests in December – his predecessor having denied that she needed one – and in January acted swiftly on the new Adviser’s conclusion that the actions of the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Nadhim Zahawi, ‘constitute[d] a serious failure to meet the standards set out in the Ministerial Code’ (see story: Standards in Government). In February, the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, whose conduct remains under investigation, said that he would resign if found guilty of bullying officials.

The government’s approach to relations with the European Union also moved from confrontation to trust-building. This shift helped Sunak to unlock a significantly improved deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol in February (see story: The Northern Ireland Protocol). In the wake of that agreement, the Johnson-era Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – through which the UK would have unilaterally arrogated to itself the right to deviate from the Protocol’s terms, almost certainly in violation of international law – was withdrawn.

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The public wants parliament to have a central role in legislation, so why does the Retained EU Law Bill enhance the legislative power of ministers?

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is controversial for many reasons – not least the sweeping powers it grants the executive to change a swathe of laws. Lisa James and Alan Renwick discuss recent Constitution Unit survey results, which suggest that members of the public instinctively favour a central role for parliament in law making.

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill – or REUL Bill – is a complex and controversial piece of legislation. Its focus is the law which arose from the UK’s membership of the European Union. This ‘retained EU law’ is significant in both scale and scope: the government currently lists over 3700 pieces of such legislation, much of it implementing regulatory regimes across a number of major policy domains. Areas such as environmental protection, consumer rights and employment law are particularly affected.

The REUL Bill would automatically repeal most retained EU law at the end of 2023, and make it much easier for ministers to amend or replace. This approach has proved controversial in a number of ways. Business groups have raised concerns that previously settled areas of law could be disrupted at short notice, creating legal uncertainty. Environmental groups and trade unions, among others, have raised concerns about rights protections being lost. And some have questioned whether Whitehall really has the capacity to conduct a thorough and careful review of such a huge body of law by the end of the year.

Alongside this, experts have warned that the bill as currently drafted would greatly empower the government at the expense of parliament, handing ministers sweeping powers to decide what law is repealed or preserved, and how it is amended. Such process-related concerns – regarding how legal change is enacted – are sometimes considered of interest only to experts. But recent Constitution Unit research shows that the public have clear instincts on how such processes should work – and express widespread support for parliament’s role in law-making.

The REUL Bill and parliamentary scrutiny

As currently drafted, the bill places significant powers and discretion in the hands of ministers. If passed in its current form, the clock would begin ticking on the sunset clause which would repeal most retained EU law at the end of 2023; from this point, parliament would have little say over what happens to retained EU law.

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Reforming the royal prerogative  

The Brexit process raised questions about how – and in what areas – the royal prerogative should operate. Following a lengthy project, which has resulted in a new book on the subject and a Unit report – published today – on options for reform, Robert Hazell explains why the prerogative matters, and how it might be reformed to strike a better balance between parliament and the executive.

The royal prerogative has long been a mystery to most observers. I have now produced a book Executive Power: The Prerogative, Past, Present and Future to help demystify it. It was written with my former researcher (now a barrister) Tim Foot, and covers the whole range of prerogative powers, from going to war and ratifying treaties, appointing and dismissing ministers, regulating the civil service and public appointments, to the grant of honours and pardons and the issue of passports. The book’s 19 chapters provide a comprehensive guide to the operation of the prerogative – past, present, and future – together with suggestions for reform.

Working with us was another researcher, Charlotte Sayers-Carter, and Charlotte and I have distilled the key findings of our book into a much shorter report, Reforming the Prerogative. It selects just five powers, to illustrate the scope for reform through codification in statute, soft law, or by clearer and stronger conventions. This blog offers edited highlights from the book and the report, to explain why the prerogative matters; to illustrate this with a few prerogative powers; and to suggest ways in which it might be reformed.

What is the prerogative?

The prerogative derives from the original executive powers of the Crown. Over the years these have been overlain and superseded by statute, and most powers have transferred to ministers. The monarch retains the power to summon, dissolve and prorogue parliament; to grant royal assent to bills passed by parliament; to appoint and dismiss ministers. The main prerogative powers in the hands of ministers are the power to make war and deploy the armed forces; to make and ratify treaties; to conduct diplomacy and foreign relations; to grant peerages and honours; to grant pardons; to issue and revoke passports.

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How far did parliament influence Brexit legislation?

Parliament’s role in the Brexit process has been the subject of widespread controversy among politicians, commentators, and experts. This makes it important to understand exactly what kind of influence parliament wielded in that period. Tom Fleming and Lisa James shed new light on this question by summarising their recent article, Parliamentary Influence on Brexit Legislation, 2017-2019, as published in ‘Parliamentary Affairs’.

Parliament’s role in the Brexit process was – and remains – highly controversial. But despite this controversy, there is widespread agreement that parliament was unusually influential during this period, and particularly during the hung parliament that lasted from 2017 to 2019.

This verdict is largely based on parliament’s high-profile impact on the Brexit negotiations, where MPs famously torpedoed Theresa May’s exit deal, and delayed the UK’s eventual departure from the EU on multiple occasions. But parliament also considered a raft of important Brexit-related legislation, which aimed to unravel the UK’s membership of the EU and create new domestic regulatory frameworks. This legislation has been less studied, but is crucial to our understanding of the relationship between parliament and government in this period.

Our recent article therefore explored the extent and nature of parliament’s influence on this Brexit-related legislation. We did so by analysing the parliamentary passage of the 13 Brexit-related bills introduced in the 2017-19 parliament, including the fate of over 3000 proposed amendments.

More specifically, we explored three different mechanisms by which parliament can influence government legislation: passing non-government amendments; forcing government concessions; and influencing the government’s approach through ‘anticipated reactions’. For each mechanism, we investigated its prominence between 2017 and 2019, and compared this to evidence from earlier periods.

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The constitutional causes and consequences of the Truss-Kwarteng budget crisis

Within weeks, Liz Truss’s premiership was plunged into economic and political turmoil due to Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. But this crisis, suggests Meg Russell, has distinctly constitutional roots. Building on Boris Johnson’s legacy, Truss chose to sideline expert officials and regulators, and shut out her own MPs. The consequences that have since befallen her are a compelling advertisement for respecting – and rebuilding – appropriate constitutional checks and balances.

The Conservative Party conference, indeed the entirety of Liz Truss’s new premiership, has been severely destabilised by the market reaction to Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. Far from securing Truss her desired reputation for acting on the energy crisis and boosting the economy, and a positive bounce in the polls, Kwarteng’s 23 September ‘fiscal event’ saw the pound plunge, lenders withdraw mortgage products, and Labour achieve record poll leads. Faced with a mass rebellion by Conservative MPs, Kwarteng performed a U-turn on abolition of the top rate of income tax, while other parts of the package may face further such trouble ahead.

Fiscal policy is well beyond the usual scope of the Constitution Unit blog, or of this author. But the extent to which the unforced economic and political crisis built on foundations of poor constitutional and governance practice is striking. Boris Johnson played fast and loose with many constitutional norms, and Liz Truss seems quickly to have followed suit. But her now catastrophic position – with some Conservative MPs calling for the Prime Minister’s removal after less than a month in the job – demonstrates just how shortsighted and dangerous such behaviour can be.

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