The Cabinet Manual and the caretaker convention

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In the second of a short series of posts about government formation after the election, Robert Hazell discusses the weaknesses of the Cabinet Manual in terms of offering guidance on role of the incumbent PM and the caretaker convention.

On 23 February I gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for their inquiry into government formation after the election. We discussed the inadequacy of the guidance in the Cabinet Manual about two things:

  • Whether there is a duty on the incumbent Prime Minister to remain in office until it is clear who can command confidence in the new Parliament
  • The caretaker convention, which requires a caretaker government to avoid actions or decisions which would bind the hands of a future government.

Duty on incumbent Prime Minister to remain in office

The draft Cabinet Manual published in December 2010 stated:

‘The incumbent Prime Minister is not expected to resign until it is clear that there is someone else who should be asked to form a government because they are better placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons and that information has been communicated to the Sovereign.’

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Continuing resentment against ‘establishment’ politicians has brought the right of recall back on to the legislative agenda

Robert Hazell discusses the challenges around developing legislation that will permit MPs to be recalled.

It was not a complete surprise to see the right of recall in the Queen’s Speech. The coalition government had kept open the option of legislating in a series of exchanges with the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee over the last two years.  The proposals stem originally from the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, which led all three major parties to include almost identical proposals for a right of recall in their election manifestos in 2010.  The precise commitment of the coalition parties in the May 2010 Programme for Government was framed as follows:

Image credit- UK Parliament

Image credit: UK Parliament

‘We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP was found to have engaged in serious wrong doing and having had a petition for a by-election signed by 10 per cent of his or her constituents’.

True to its word, in December 2011 the government published a draft bill and White Paper.  But in 2012 the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) produced a very critical report, which led the government to pause.  The committee feared that the restricted form of recall proposed could reduce public confidence in politics by creating expectations that were not fulfilled.  The government’s long pause suggests that it may have shared the committee’s doubts.  But the rise of UKIP in the 2014 elections and continuing resentment against ‘establishment’ politicians tipped the balance: the government felt obliged to be seen to be doing something.

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What will become of the May 2015 UK Parliament if Scotland votes “Yes” on independence?

23rd March 2013

Every so often – but not very often – a major theme enters the national debate which nobody noticed much at first, but when attention is drawn to it, it becomes completely obvious.  This topic is one such we are pleased to  reprint, on how a referendum vote in favour of Scottish independence in September 2014 could greatly complicate the options for transitional UK government up to the general election in May 2015 and even more, the composition and form of the UK government thereafter.  The constitutional and political implications could be as fundamental for the reduced UK as for the departing Scotland.  The scenario is laid out in the Ballots and Bullets blog of the School of Politics and International Relations in Nottingham University. The authors are  Prof Ron Johnson of Bristol University, a leading authority on constituency boundaries and consultant on the proposed boundary changes in 2010;  the electoral geographer Prof Charles Pattie and David Rossiter, both of Sheffield University.
Ron was an expert commentator on the Conservative’s plan – aborted by the Lib Dems – to reduce the number of parliamentary seats by 50 and redraw boundaries to create constituencies of roughly equal size. The same team also warned that this policy would undermine” the underpinning of British representative democracy – that members of Parliament represent places with clear identities.”
The timetable for a Scottish Independence referendum in October 2014 and, if that is successful, implementation of the decision in March 2016 overlaps that of the fixed cycle for elections to the UK Parliament, for which the next general election will be held in May 2015. Governing the UK during that inter-regnum (when there will still be 59 Scottish MPs) will be difficult, as may forming a government after the May election, plus sustaining it after those 59 MPs depart in March 2016. And then there is the House of Lords…

Although opinion polls currently indicate declining support for Scottish independence, 18 months is a very long time in politics. Groups of civil servants are undoubtedly now working in both London and Edinburgh on the myriad issues that would have to be resolved should there be a positive vote in October 2014. Does their agenda include the following scenario?

  • Scotland votes clearly for independence, to occur – according to the SNP’s current timetable – in March 2016;
  • In May 2015 there is a UK general election (when Scotland is still a member of the UK). Labour wins 330 seats in the 650-member House of Commons, a majority of 10 over all other parties. Its complement of 330 includes 40 of Scotland’s 59 MPs. Labour forms a government; and then
  • In March 2016, the break-up of the United Kingdom occurs. The House of Commons is now reduced to 591 MPs, with Labour having 290; it no longer has a majority.

What would happen then?

Labour may go on governing – it would be only just short of a majority and, given that Sinn Féin MPs do not take their seats (and also that there are five of them then, as now), it could well get its business through. Alternatively it may reach an accommodation with one or more other parties – maybe even a LabLib pact (a full coalition is less likely).

If at some stage Labour loses a vote of confidence, however, then the procedures set out in the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, 2011, come into play: there may be a premature general election. And if that happens before late 2018, such an election would be held in the current 591 English, Welsh and Northern Irish constituencies – created using electoral data for 2000; following the Lords’ amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act, 2013, the Boundary Commissions do not have to deliver recommendations for 548 new constituencies in those countries until October 2018.

Having voted for independence, however, the Scottish electorate may decide to send many more SNP MPs to Westminster in May 2015 – why vote for the parties of the now-rejected Union? Indeed, why vote at all?  It is doubtful that Labour could win a majority in England and Wales alone so David Cameron’s hopes of a Conservative majority over Labour and the LibDems in 2015 would be enhanced if very few Scottish MPs were elected to represent those two parties.

In addition, 11 of the Liberal Democrats’ current 57 MPs represent Scottish constituencies, so much will depend on how the soon-to-be-independent Scots vote in the 53 seats that currently return a non-SNP MP and how the MPs who replace them vote in the Commons during that inter-regnum (would they join with Labour and the Liberal Democrats in voting against the Queen’s Speech, for example, or just abstain?)

That might be a bit – perhaps very – messy, at a time when continuity and stability will still be preached as necessary conditions for economic recovery. As interesting – and potentially very controversial – will be what happens between October 2014 and March 2016, and especially between May 2015 and the latter date, whichever party (or parties) are in power. The government is already concerned about, and seeking a resolution to, the West Lothian problem: it will be magnified many-fold during that inter-regnum.

Once Scotland has voted for independence, what role should Scottish MPs play at Westminster during the following 18 months? Some might argue they should no longer participate – certainly not in its votes, though, of course, they should continue to represent their constituents’ interests that are covered by the transitional UK government (just as Sinn Féin MPs do now). But Scotland will still be a member of the UK and decisions will be taken during those 18 months on which they should have a say: what if the UK government recommends that the country goes to war somewhere in December 2014?

Would Scottish MPs agree to vote on a restricted range of issues only? Could agreement be reached on what those issues are? If not, would the government legislate to limit Scottish MPs’ roles in the House of Commons – perhaps with opposition support (the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are all opposed to the break-up of the Union)?

And what of the House of Lords. What would happen to the Scottish hereditary peers? The 1800 Act of Union allowed the Irish peers to elect 28 members to the Lords. None were elected post-independence, but also none were required to relinquish their seats, with some remaining members of a ‘foreign’ Parliament until their death, which for one Irish peer was as late as 1961. A similar situation occurred after the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707, when the Scottish peers were entitled to elect 16 of their number to sit in the Lords. From then on all new peers were appointed to the Peerage of Great Britain (as were a few peers created after 1922 who took Irish titles). All Scottish peers were entitled to sit in the Lords under the Peerage Act, 1963, and became part of the electorate after most of the hereditaries lost their seats under the House of Lords Act, 1999. There is thus no Scottish hereditary peerage, merely a UK Peerage, and it would presumably be up to those who, post-independence, considered themselves Scottish rather than UK citizens to withdraw from the hereditary electorate.

Of course, all peers are now appointed for life, and many of those currently occupying the House of Lords benches have some Scottish links. But could a separate ‘Scottish Life Peerage’ be defined to identify them? On what criteria – residence (first, or second)? Some may self-identify and withdraw but others, like their Irish predecessors, may decide to stay. How could they be removed? Could a generic Act be conceived, or would there have to be a series of ad hoc pieces of legislation? And when it was all settled – it might take some time – would the Prime Minister then replace them with a new tranche to maintain the currently-desired party balance?

Uncertainties abound, but governing the UK may be very difficult during the transition period, even if there is good will on all sides.

Ron Johnston is Professor of Geography in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol, Charles Pattie is Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield, and David Rossiter.

Lords Defeat Poses Challenge to Cameron on Peerage Appointments

1st March 2013

BY MEG RUSSELL

Yesterday (28 February) the coalition suffered a massive defeat in the House of Lords over the question of David Cameron’s right to appoint new peers. This reflected widespread concern among existing members that new appointments could lead to increasingly bloated numbers, and also weaken the chamber’s ability to hold the government to account. The ill-tempered debate took place amid rumours that new government appointees are on the way.

The defeat was on a motion proposed by senior Liberal Democrat (and former party leader) David Steel, as amended by Labour frontbencher Philip Hunt. Steel’s original motion called for a complete halt to the introduction of any new peers until arrangements had been made to allow members to permanently retire. This was a novel proposal, because the Prime Minister (and nominally the monarch) controls appointments, but the Lords controls its own procedures, and could in theory refuse new members an introduction ceremony. But this was considered too incendiary by many peers, encroaching on the powers of the monarchy; so Hunt’s amendment merely called for “restraint” in creation of new peers, and for immediate introduction of retirement procedures, and barring peers who do not attend or are convicted of criminal offences. This more cautious approach did the trick, and attracted overwhelming support from peers.

Despite the government whipping against the proposal, only 45 peers opposed it (31 Conservative, 11 Liberal Democrat, 2 Crossbench and 1 other) while 217 supported Steel and Hunt (35 Conservative, 16 Liberal Democrat, 94 Labour, 57 Crossbench and 15 others). For full details of those voting see here. This defeat – by 172 votes – was the coalition’s largest to date, and certainly the first in which the number of rebels in both coalition parties exceeded the number of loyal voters. In fact, it was the third largest defeat in the Lords since its reform in 1999, being exceeded only by resistance to Labour’s Prevention of Terrorism Bill introducing control orders (in 2005) and Counter-Terrorism Bill over holding terror suspects for 42 days without charge (in 2008).

The vote therefore demonstrates real alarm and anger inside the Lords about the threat of ‘swamping’ by new government peers, and significant tensions inside the coalition. The coalition agreement suggested that appointments would be used to bring the Lords into line with general election vote shares, but as a Constitution Unit report in 2011 pointed out that this would require appointment of 269 new peers (or 349 if Crossbenchers were to maintain their current share of seats), bringing its size to 1062 (or 1142). This research was cited in the debate by Lord Hunt. Notably UKIP (see column 1651) have begun to demand the 24 peers that they would be due under strict proportionality, and other parties such as the BNP could do the same. Since the furore caused by our report, appointments have been very limited. But the government has not officially renounced its earlier rather foolish pledge.

Of course, the wider context is the bitter issue of Lords reform within the coalition. Resistance from Conservative MPs meant Nick Clegg’s reform bill to introduce elections to the chamber had to be dropped. Lord Steel opposes elections, and has several times promoted a bill to facilitate small ‘tidying up’ changes, including retirement for peers. This is due for debate in the Commons today, sponsored by Conservative MP Eleanor Laing, but is likely to be blocked by the whips. Nick Clegg had previously argued that it was important to “not make the best the enemy of the good” when it came to Lords reform, but having been angered by the blocking of his bill he has clearly changed his mind. Lord Steel read from a recent parliamentary written answer, which stated that “In the absence of full reform, it is the Government’s view that there is no easy set of smaller reforms to the House of Lords… So reform measures must include introducing elected Members to the House of Lords”.

Yet as former Lord Speaker Baroness Hayman said in yesterday’s debate, “it is not responsible to continue to do nothing”. Statistics were traded, and Leader of the House Lord Hill suggested that the number of peers eligible to attend is barely larger than it was in 2007 (761 to 738). But this carefully excluded 50 members on temporary leave of absence and the like, who can potentially return. The total eligible membership, at 811, is significantly higher than at any time since 1999. Additionally, as some members pointed out, the rise in active members is far higher. Immediately post-reform in 1999 the average daily attendance was 352; in 2010-12 it was 475.

But this issue is also now highly politicised. Labour fears that the coalition – which is already numerically stronger than it ever was when in government 1997-2010 – will use new peerage creations to smother Lords’ resistance, and end defeats (this being its 62nd since taking office). The coalition claims that numerous Labour peers were appointed by Blair and Brown – which is true, and added to the chamber’s size, but never gave government anything close to a political majority.

The fundamental problem is that there is no agreement about how seats should be shared between the parties, and no constraints – aside from political embarrassment – on prime ministerial patronage power. What is urgently needed is some formula, agreed between the parties, under which any future appointments will be made. Linking this in some way to general election vote shares is reasonable, but not in the way that the coalition agreement laid down. Earlier proposals, such as those from the Wakeham Royal Commission, suggested that each new set of appointments should be in line with votes – which is a far more sustainable formula. For example, if 10 new peers were appointed in line with the 2010 result these would be shared 4 Conservative, 3 Labour, 2 Lib Dem, 1 other. Such proportions would vary only slightly over time (the 1997 equivalent would be 4 Labour, 3 Conservative, 2 Lib Dem, 1 other). But the trouble is that the baseline membership of the chamber matters too, and the coalition considers itself underrepresented (insofar as that claim is justified, it essentially just applies to the Lib Dems). If we are to engage in grown-up politics, the three parties should sit down and urgently and agree a future appointment formula, alongside some trimming of the existing membership so that the starting point is fair. But this would require maturity, and also the kind of retirement provision sought by Lord Steel. There would also need to be a strict cap agreed on the overall size of the chamber.

The Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has recently announced an inquiry into what immediate reforms are needed to the Lords following the failure of Clegg’s bill. If it can agree a cross-party report on such matters, this could be a first step to ending the present bitterness in the Lords, and ensuring that public confidence in parliament doesn’t dip further by the chamber being made to look absurd.

Meg Russell is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and leads its research on parliament.
Her new book ‘The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived’ will be published by OUP this summer. See here: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199671564.do
For the Unit’s research on the Lords see: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/parliament/house-of-lords