Riding the populist wave: the UK Conservatives and the constitution

At a recent Constitution Unit event (available in video and podcast form), Tim Bale discussed the challenges posed to mainstream conservatism by the recent rise in successful populist politicians. Here, he sets out those challenges, how conservatives have traditionally faced them, and concludes that the UK Conservative Party is so determined to ‘unite the right’ and supress support for a challenger party that it risks transmogrifying into a populist radical right party.

A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with costochondritis – a minor and surprisingly common condition involving the cartilage that joins your ribs to your sternum but which produces chest pains that make some people suffering from it worry they’re having a heart attack.

The standard treatment is to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. For me this presented a bit of a dilemma. Like many other people, I don’t tolerate ibuprofen: it irritates my gastrointestinal tract – something I’m wise to avoid doing because I also suffer from something called Barrett’s oesophagus, which, if you’re unlucky, can turn cancerous. So, on the assumption that the costochondritis would eventually resolve itself, and given the fact that the discomfort involved was irritating but far from overwhelming, I decided just to put up with it.

I’m sharing this bit of my recent medical history not because I particularly enjoy talking about it but because it produces a useful analogy for a question that I want to ask – namely, are politicians on the mainstream right so concerned about countering the rise of populist radical right parties that they end up proposing things that risk doing more harm to society and to the polity than if they were simply to admit that those parties are now a normal rather than a pathological feature of contemporary politics?

The background to this is the book I’ve recently co-edited with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, called Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis. We look at how mainstream right parties – which aren’t written about anywhere near as much as their counterparts on the left or, indeed, on the far right – have handled (or in some cases failed to handle) some of the challenges that they’ve been facing for the last three or four decades. Over that time, they’ve suffered significant electoral decline, although, as we show in the book, the extent of that decline varies not just between countries but between party families, with Christian democratic parties suffering more than conservative parties, which, in turn, have suffered more than (market) liberal parties, which have actually managed to hold pretty steady.

We argue that the difficulties they’ve faced are partly down to their having to cope with something of a double whammy.

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The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill – a return to constitutional normality?

Alison Young argues that the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill transfers power from parliament to the government, and not to the people, and that it is wrong to place the blame for the extraordinary events of 2019 on the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) has not had a good press. So much so, that a promise to repeal the Act was included in the 2019 manifestos of both the Labour Party and the current Conservative government. However, as the second reading of its replacement, the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill demonstrates, the apparent consensus ends there. There appeared to be two strong themes to the debate. First, how far does the FTPA’s replacement transfer power from parliament back to the government, or from parliament back to the people? Second, to what extent did the FTPA cause the difficulties – however defined – for the then Conservative minority government in 2019?

Turning back the clock

The FTPA placed the prerogative power of the dissolution of parliament on a statutory basis. It fixed the terms of the Westminster parliament to five years, setting the dates for general elections. It provided two ways in which parliament could be dissolved earlier. First, it was possible for two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons to vote in favour of an early parliamentary general election. Second, dissolution could occur following a vote of no confidence, if, within a two week period, it proved impossible to form a government which had received the backing of a vote of confidence from the House of Commons.

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill aims to return the Westminster parliament to the position prior to 2011. It repeals the FTPA (section 1) and ‘revives’ the prerogative power to dissolve parliament and to call a new parliament (section 2). However this is interpreted, it is clear that the bill’s intention is to ensure that parliament can be dissolved and recalled ‘as if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had never been enacted’ (section 2). Fixed terms of five years are now replaced with a maximum five-year term (section 4). Moreover, the bill seeks to make the dissolution and calling of parliament non-justiciable (section 3) – arguably making the prerogative powers even less subject to judicial review than was the case prior to 2011.

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FTPA Joint Committee lays down marker for the future

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 placed a legal obligation on the Prime Minister to make arrangements for a committee to review the legislation before the end of 2020. That committee was duly created, and published its report last month. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell offer a summary of the committee’s report, which was rightly critical of the government’s draft repeal bill, but argue that the committee ‘ignored’ the weight of the evidence in some key areas.

On 24 March the parliamentary Joint Committee to review the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) published its report. The committee was established last November under section 7 of the FTPA, which required the Prime Minister in 2020 to make arrangements for a committee to review the operation of the Act, and if appropriate to make recommendations for its amendment or repeal. The review was carried out by a Joint Committee composed of 14 MPs and six members of the House of Lords, and chaired by former Conservative Chief Whip Lord (Patrick) McLoughlin.

The government pre-empted the review by publishing a draft FTPA (Repeal) Bill a week after the committee was established. The Conservative and Labour manifestos in 2019 had both contained a commitment to get rid of the FTPA. As a result the committee focused a lot of attention on the government’s draft repeal bill. But the report devotes almost equal space to the FTPA and how it might be amended, in case parliament prefers to go down that route, now or in the future.

There was clear interest in the committee for retaining but improving the FTPA. The government had a bare partisan majority (11 out of 20 members), and not all Conservative members supported the government line. But the committee managed to avoid any formal votes, instead referring in parts of the report to the majority or minority view. On some key issues the majority view went against the weight of evidence received.

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The Backbench Business Committee: an unfinished revolution?

2020 marked the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the House of Commons’ Backbench Business Committee – an event that marked the first major reversal of a century-long trend of the government taking increasing control of the agenda of the House. But the anniversary went largely unnoticed. Paul Evans, a former Clerk of the committee, asks whether this is because it has been outmanoeuvred by the usual channels, has lost its cutting edge, or because relative obscurity is what backbenchers really want.

The birth of the Backbench Business Committee

The background to how the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (commonly known, after its chair Dr Tony Wright, as the ‘Wright Committee’) was established can be found, for those interested, in the introduction to its first report. Amongst the matters the House instructed it to consider, when it was set up on 20 July 2009, was the ‘scheduling of business by the House’. It recommended the creation of a new category of ‘backbench business’, to be managed by a new committee of backbenchers, a new ‘House Business Committee’ to bring transparency to the way in which the House’s wider agenda was determined, and a system by which the House as a whole would be given the final say on its agenda. Many of these ideas had been foreshadowed in a Constitution Unit report published in 2007.

After an inconclusive debate on the proposals of the Wright Committee on 22 February 2010, on 4 March, amongst other reforms arising from the committee’s recommendations (most significantly on the election of chairs and members of select committees) the House agreed that a proposal for the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee should be brought to it by the government (emphasis very deliberately added) before the start of the next parliament, and that a House Business Committee should be established during the course of that new parliament. In fact, as everyone knew at the time, the timetable for doing so was well-nigh impossible. The parliament was dissolved on 12 April, just 20 sitting days after the 4 March debate. That could have been the last we heard of the recommendations on new ways to schedule the House’s business.

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The Fixed-term Parliaments Act: should it be amended or repealed?

A parliamentary committee has been established to review the effectiveness of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Rather than wait for its conclusions, the government has published a draft bill designed to return control of the timing of general elections to the executive. Robert Hazell examines the issues the committee will have to consider, and proffers some possible improvements to the status quo.

On 1 December the government published its draft bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). This would implement the commitment in the Conservative 2019 manifesto, which pledged: ‘We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – it has led to paralysis when the country needed decisive action’. The bill would revert to the previous system, and restore the prerogative power of dissolution. As the government’s Foreword explains:

The Bill makes express provision to revive the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament. This means once more Parliament will be dissolved by the Sovereign, on the advice of the Prime Minister. This will enable Governments, within the life of a Parliament, to call a general election at the time of their choosing.

The bill also contains an ouster clause to make sure that the exercise of the power of dissolution, and any decision relating to that power is non-justiciable and therefore not open to challenge in the courts. Alison Young and Mark Elliott have published detailed legal critiques of the bill which analyse the effectiveness of the ouster clause, and whether the power of dissolution that has been revived is now a statutory power, or a prerogative power. This blog does not go into the legal complexities, but focuses on the politics, and the possible outcomes from the review of the bill by the joint parliamentary committee established in November.

The joint parliamentary committee, and previous committees

The FTPA has all along contained a built-in mechanism for its own review, in a final section added during its parliamentary passage in 2011. Section 7 provides that between June and November 2020 the Prime Minister should arrange for a committee to review the operation of the Act. That committee was established last month, with 14 MPs and six members of the House of Lords. The Committee held its first sitting on 26 November, when it elected former Conservative Chief Whip Lord (Patrick) McLoughlin as its chair, and set a deadline of 4 January for the submission of evidence. The Committee held its first oral evidence session on 10 December, with Stephen Laws and Professor Alison Young; the next session is on 17 December, with former Commons clerks Lord Lisvane and Malcolm Jack.

But two parliamentary committees have already recently reviewed the operation of the FTPA: the Lords Constitution Committee, and the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). The Lords Committee held two evidence sessions, in autumn 2019 (including evidence from me); but it was a further year before the Committee published its report in September 2020, as summarised here by its chair Baroness (Ann) Taylor. The long delay suggested the Committee had difficulty agreeing its recommendations, and the report instead raised a series of basic questions about any legislation to replace the FTPA. 

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