The latest edition of Monitor, the Unit’s regular news update on constitutional issues, was published today. In this lead article from Monitor 76, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick discuss the key events and themes of the past four months. They include tensions between devolved and central govermnent related to Brexit and COVID-19; concern about parliamentary scrutiny of the pandemic; criticism of the government’s commitment to the rule of law (called into question by the UK Internal Market Bill, the Faulks review and criticism of the legal profession); the Russia report and other concerns about the country’s electoral framework; and the reshaping of government and civil service operations by Number 10.
England entered a new COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ just before Monitor went to press. The pandemic continues to dominate politics in the UK and globally, with a return to politics-as-usual appearing distant. Both the handling of the crisis and the government’s latest actions on Brexit have been key factors driving serious concerns about the maintenance of constitutional norms in the UK. But as this latest Monitor catalogues, the roots of those concerns – about declining respect for conventions and deliberate or accidental erosion of ‘checks and balances’ – are now spread across many fields.
There was tolerance in the early stages of the pandemic for quick decision-making, and partial bypassing of parliament. But that has increasingly grown thin. The UK is one of many countries where concerns have been expressed about COVID facilitating an executive ‘power grab’. Worldwide, experts have warned that ‘democracy, human rights and the rule of law cannot be allowed to become the collateral damage of the pandemic’. Most key decisions at UK level have come via secondary legislation, often published at short notice with little or no opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny. Increasing protests from MPs, parliamentary committees and the Commons Speaker (see page 5) extracted concessions from ministers that parliamentary oversight would increase – hence the difficult vote on the new lockdown arrangements on 4 November. A total of 34 Conservative MPs voted against the new regulations – which represents almost half of the government’s working majority – and others abstained; though the measure passed comfortably with Labour support. A concerted cross-party approach from the start might have been sensible, but can be uncomfortable for ministers, particularly when accompanied by internal party dissent.Continue reading