Why we need an independent Electoral Commission

The UK’s guardian of public ethics is reviewing the role of the Electoral Commission in regulating election finance. The evidence submitted to the inquiry shows wide support for maintaining, and in some ways enhancing, the Commission’s functions. But the regulator’s position is also challenged from some quarters, and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently conducting its own enquiry. Alan Renwick and Charlotte Kincaid argue that the debate raises important wider questions about the place of checks and balances in our system of democratic governance.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life – the body charged with monitoring ethical standards in public life in the UK – is conducting a review of electoral regulation. The terms of reference focus largely on the role of the Electoral Commission in regulating election finance. The first stage was a public call for evidence, and the responses were published last month. 

Grabbing some media headlines was a suggestion in the response from the Conservative Party that the Electoral Commission might be abolished, with its core functions transferred to other bodies. This was not the only option put forward in the submission. Indeed, the central proposal appeared rather to be that the Commission should continue to operate, but with a more restrictively defined remit. Nevertheless, the general tenor was striking. The submission said: ‘The Electoral Commission consistently lobbies for itself to be given more powers – this is not an argument for doing so. Rather, this is public choice theory in action: quangos seeking to expand their remit for their own sake.’

Following the same logic, however, that is a political party seeking to abolish or curtail the remit of the regulator of political parties. If the argument from public choice theory has any force against the Electoral Commission, it has the same force against the Conservative Party. Both the Commission and the Conservatives have interests at stake here. But both also have a wealth of relevant experience. Their arguments should be judged on their merits, with an eye to the possibility that they may be skewed by the organisations’ particular interests.

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MPs are right. Parliament has been sidelined

Backbench rebellion over parliament’s sidelining during the COVID-19 pandemic seems set to reach a critical point this week. Meg Russell and Lisa James argue that parliament’s crisis-era marginalisation is real, and part of a longer-running trend. So while government concessions now look likely, MPs should accept them only if they are genuine and comprehensive.

Backbench unease over the government’s treatment of parliament during the COVID-19 pandemic is coming to a head. On Wednesday, MPs will debate a motion to renew the government’s powers under the Coronavirus Act. But Conservative MPs’ frustration over the government’s handling of the crisis, and particularly its tendency to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, is increasingly evident. 

Earlier this month Charles Walker, joint Vice Chair of the 1922 Committee and former Chair of the Commons Procedure Committee, accused the government of treating its backbenchers like dogs. Similar concerns have appeared in the Telegraph and the Times. Now more than 40 Tory MPs have signed an amendment proposed by 1922 Committee Chair Graham Brady to Wednesday’s motion. This would make continuation of ministerial powers conditional on MPs getting a vote on any future coronavirus-related restrictions – whether made under the Coronavirus Act itself or other legislation (such as the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984). The amendment may have no formal legal force, and for procedural reasons might ultimately not be voted upon; but its political significance is clear.

Parliament has been sidelined

MPs have genuine cause for complaint: parliament has been consistently sidelined during the pandemic. The most frequent criticism is over the government’s use of delegated legislation. Numerous coronavirus restrictions have been imposed through regulations subject to limited parliamentary oversight, with debate often scheduled long after the restrictions themselves were announced or came into force. A critical report from the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) noted how the requirement to wear masks on public transport was announced in a Downing Street press conference on 4 June, coming into force 11 days later; yet it wasn’t debated in the Commons until 6 July. Only yesterday regulations on self-isolation were published, coming into effect just seven hours later, and imposing potential £10,000 fines; yet, despite media briefings 8 days previously, these were not debated in parliament. Such cases raise clear political questions, but also legal ones: as the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law points out, the underlying legislation allows ministers to bypass parliament only if a measure is so urgent that there is no time for debate.

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Will the Lords block the UK Internal Market Bill?

Parliament will this week begin debating and scrutinising the UK Internal Market Bill, which the Northern Ireland Secretary has already acknowledged will, if passed in its current form, place the UK in breach of international law. When the bill reaches the upper chamber, what sort of treatment will it receive? Might the Lords block it? Unit Director and Lords expert Meg Russell offers her view.

Widespread shock greeted this week’s news that Boris Johnson hopes to set aside elements of the Withdrawal Agreement related to Northern Ireland – particularly when Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted to the House of Commons that the UK Internal Market Bill drafted to achieve this ‘does break international law’. Former Conservative Prime Ministers Theresa May and John Major, and senior government backbenchers, loudly protested. Former Conservative Solicitor General Lord (Edward) Garnier expressed surprise that the government’s law officers – those ministers expressly charged with protecting the rule of law – hadn’t resigned.

After an emergency meeting, the European Commission vice-president demanded that the UK withdraw the plans. The Irish Taoiseach described them as ‘extremely divisive – and dangerous’, while the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that breaching international law would mean ‘absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement’.

There are clear questions over whether such a controversial bill – whose Commons second reading is on Monday – can secure parliamentary approval. Specifically will it, as some suggest, be blocked by the House of Lords? A prior question is whether these provisions will make it through the House of Commons. Despite Johnson’s majority, Conservative dissent is unusually intense. This is unsurprising since, as many have recently quoted, that most iconic of Conservative prime ministers Margaret Thatcher consistently emphasised respect for the rule of law as a core Conservative value.

There is actually a prior question even to this, regarding whether the Commons will actually be asked to approve the offending clauses. In parliament the ‘law of anticipated reactions’ generally applies: sensible governments facing a likely Commons defeat will retreat on legislation if they can. When Charles Walker, vice-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, was asked whether Conservative MPs would vote against the bill (21:18), he responded ‘I doubt we are to get to the stage where we are asked’. This implied that the Prime Minister would hear the drumbeats, and back down.

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Boris Johnson and parliament: an unhappy tale in 13 acts

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliament returns from its summer break today. During Boris Johnson’s 13 months in office as Prime Minister his relationship with parliament has often been rocky. In this post, Unit Director Meg Russell reviews 13 episodes during these 13 months which illustrate Johnson’s difficult relationship with parliament. His Number 10 has often resisted parliamentary oversight, and faced down significant parliamentary opposition – including from his own backbenchers. With growing indications of backbench discontent, she explores the dangers of this situation.

As the Commons reassembles today, it’s a good moment to reflect on the relationship between Boris Johnson’s government and parliament so far. Johnson has now held office for just over a year, and rumours are emerging of significant discontent on the Conservative backbenches. From the outset, Johnson’s relationship with parliament has been beset with controversy. As he enters his second parliamentary year, what have been the key flashpoints, and what do they add up to collectively?

This post looks back at 13 episodes in the past 13 months, before reflecting on what they teach us, and what the future may hold. It suggests that while existing flashpoints have resulted from Number 10’s bold assertions of executive power, there are risks for Johnson that the tables could soon start to be turned.

1. The first day: two hours of scrutiny before recess

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on the afternoon of 24 July 2019, following his victory in the Conservative leadership contest. On that day, Theresa May took her final Prime Minister’s Questions. Johnson thus had just one day to face parliament, which was about to break for its summer recess. The hot topic was Brexit; May had been forced out after failing to gain adequate support from her own MPs for her Brexit deal, which was defeated three times in the Commons between January and March. Johnson had been among those voting against it. The big question was how he could succeed where Theresa May had failed. On 25 July there was a brief potential window for MPs to quiz him on his Brexit strategy. But he chose instead to make a far more general statement on ‘priorities for government’. After two hours of questions ranging across all policy topics, the Commons moved to adjourn until September. An attempt by MPs to delay adjournment had failed, as did a later attempt to recall parliament over the summer to discuss progress on Brexit. Recall is impossible without the agreement of the government. Continue reading

Brexit and parliament: where did it all go wrong?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary arguments over Brexit may now feel far behind us, but the bitterness of those arguments has left scars on our politics. Meg Russell examines four factors which contributed to the parliamentary ‘perfect storm’ over Brexit, concluding that ‘parliament’ largely got the blame for divisions inside the Conservative Party. This was fuelled by the referendum, minority government and the inability of parliamentary rules to accommodate a minority situation. The populist anti-parliamentary rhetoric which resulted was potentially damaging, with implications for the current Covid-19 crisis, when public trust in political decision-making is essential.

Amidst the current Covid-19 crisis, last year’s Brexit clashes already feel a long time ago. But at the time, they pushed Britain’s politics and constitution to their limits. Parliament was frequently at the heart of these conflicts – with angry headlines suggesting that parliamentarians were seeking to ‘block Brexit’, and branding them ‘wreckers’ or ‘saboteurs’. Twice questions of parliament’s proper role in relation to government ended up in the Supreme Court. Boris Johnson sought a lengthy prorogation of parliament, after which the Attorney General told MPs that they had ‘no moral right to sit’. How on earth did the UK, traditionally the most parliamentary of all democracies, get into such a mess? I dissect this question in a newly-published paper, ‘Brexit and Parliament: The Anatomy of a Perfect Storm’, in the journal Parliamentary Affairs. This post summarises the article’s key arguments. The full version is freely available to read online.

I suggest that four key political and constitutional features, all unusual in the UK context, contributed to this ‘perfect storm’. It was accompanied by a rise in populist and anti-parliamentary rhetoric – of a kind which would be destabilising and dangerous in any democracy, but particularly one based on a core principle of parliamentary sovereignty – as returned to at the end of this post. The four factors were as follows:

The referendum

As charted by the Independent Commission on Referendums, referendum use has grown in UK politics, but can sit awkwardly with traditional parliamentary sovereignty. Arguments for referendums on matters concerning EU powers were made over a long period (somewhat ironically) on the basis of protecting that very sovereignty. The 2016 EU referendum – eventually conceded by David Cameron, under pressure from Conservative Eurosceptics and UKIP – was very unusual, in two important ways. First, it was what the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (chaired by senior Brexit supporter Bernard Jenkin) criticised as a ‘bluff-call’ referendum: where the government’s purpose was not to seek approval for a change that it supported, but to shut down its opponents’ demands. Second, the referendum was held on a broad proposition (to leave the EU), rather than a detailed prospectus. Hence when the result came in, and was not the one the Prime Minister or most MPs (even on the Conservative benches at that time) wanted, parliament was left to decide how to put it into effect. Such circumstances generated clear tensions between parliamentary and popular sovereignty. Continue reading

Can Dominic Cummings defy the political laws of gravity?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgRecent news has been dominated by Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Durham. As a serial rule-breaker, he seems intent on flouting the maxim that ‘when the adviser becomes the story, the adviser must go’. But with MPs returning today, other fundamental political rules may not be so easily broken, writes Meg Russell. All Prime Ministers depend on their backbenchers for support and, with Conservative MPs in open revolt over Cummings, Johnson’s backing for him may yet become untenable. In the Westminster system MPs are ultimately in charge, and there are ways in which they could assert their position.

The Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings doesn’t like to follow the rules. That’s not necessarily a statement on his lockdown-breaking trip to Durham – disdain for established rules, and specifically for conventional wisdom that can’t be directly enforced, is what Cummings has long been known for. For some, it’s seen as part of his ‘genius’. From flying a giant inflatable white elephant over the north-east during a referendum that destroyed Labour’s plans for English regional devolution, to the audacious ‘£350 million a week’ for the NHS on the Vote Leave battlebus, to the long-planned ‘people versus parliament’ election of 2019, his boundary-stretching has often proved a winning formula, and delivered for Boris Johnson.

Cummings has long shown particular disdain for traditional political institutions, and their old ways of doing things. He’s well-known for wanting to pursue radical reform of the civil service. Conservative Brexiteer MP Steve Baker, who was among the first to call for him to quit, credits Cummings with Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament for five weeks, which was overturned in the Supreme Court. That move, like several others associated with Cummings, indicated his view that conventions, or the ‘accepted way of doing things’ count for nothing, while all that matters is the letter of the law. Other examples include suggestions to ‘pack’ the House of Lords with hundreds more Brexit-supporting peers, or to advise the Queen not to sign a rebel bill into law. Indeed ‘Downing Street sources’ went even further late last year, suggesting that Johnson might refuse to abide by a law passed by parliament. Continue reading

What happens when the Prime Minister is incapacitated?

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Boris Johnson’s admission to hospital has led to speculation about who is ‘in charge’, if he is not able to fulfil his duties. Former Unit Director Robert Hazell outlines the constitutional position when the serving Prime Minister is incapacitated, arguing that our parliamentary system allows for greater flexiblity than a system in which a president is directly elected.

Since Boris Johnson was admitted to an Intensive Care Unit, the airwaves have been full of speculation about how government will be conducted in his absence, and what would happen if his condition worsens; or worse still, if he fails to recover.

When he formed his government, Boris Johnson appointed Dominic Raab as First Secretary of State as well as Foreign Secretary, and when he went into intensive care Johnson asked Raab to lead the government in his absence. So Dominic Raab will chair meetings of the Cabinet and the main Cabinet committees, and at the end of the discussion he will sum up and pronounce their collective decision. He will represent the government at its regular COVID-19 press briefings, unless he invites another minister to do so: as Johnson himself did in asking Health Secretary Matt Hancock to talk about health issues. And Raab will lead on all the government’s day-to-day business, and in responding to any other emergencies: for example, convening meetings of the National Security Council if there is a flare-up in the Middle East. In all this he will be supported by Sir Mark Sedwill, now a very experienced Cabinet Secretary, and the staff of the Cabinet Office, as well as the civil servants and political staff in Number 10.

What will happen if Johnson is ill for longer than expected? The Cabinet would then have to discuss whether to continue with these temporary arrangements, or start to consider a longer term solution if it seemed unlikely that Johnson could return to office. That leads on to the further question, what would happen if Johnson failed to recover. In those circumstances the Cabinet would then discuss who should be appointed as his successor, and would advise the Queen accordingly. Back in 1963, when Harold Macmillan reluctantly resigned from his hospital bed, it was the party elders (led by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Dilhorne) who took soundings of the Cabinet, leading to the Queen being advised to appoint Lord Home as his successor. But party leaders are now elected by the party membership rather than emerging through secret soundings, which can lead to a much longer process, typically lasting three months if the leadership election is contested. However, these would be difficult circumstances in which to hold a leadership contest, and it is notable that since the change in their rules the Conservatives have twice managed to choose a new party leader without reference to the wider membership – Michael Howard being elected unopposed in 2003, and Theresa May in 2016, when two of her rival candidates were eliminated in the initial votes by MPs, and two other candidates withdrew. Continue reading

The Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda: prospects and challenges

thumbnail_20190802_092917.jpgThe Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election included a commitment to set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission (as discussed previously on this blog by Meg Russell and Alan Renwick) and engage in a wider programme of constitutional reform. In February, the Unit hosted an event to discuss the new government’s constitutional reform agenda: Sam Anderson summarises the main contributions. 

Page 48 of the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 general election committed to a wide range of constitutional reform proposals – including repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), an ‘update’ of the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the creation of a ‘Constitution Democracy and Rights Commission’ to examine broader aspects of the constitution. On 4 February, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the implementation of this agenda, entitled ‘The Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda: prospects and challenges. The panel consisted of two Conservatives: Lord Andrew Dunlop, a member of the House of Lords Constitution Committee and former Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland; and Chris White, a former Special Adviser to William Hague, Andrew Lansley and Patrick McLoughlin. Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, chaired the event. The following is a summary of the main contributions. 

Lord Dunlop

Lord Dunlop suggested that the key question for the new government is what ‘taking back control’ means in constitutional terms. The years since the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 have been incredibly rich for those interested in the constitution. We have seen a deadlocked parliament, an arguably ‘activist’ judiciary, and fracturing Union, whilst foundational concepts like parliamentary sovereignty, the separation of powers, and the rule of law have come under scrutiny. It would be wrong, however, to see the government’s manifesto commitments as simply a direct response to the political and constitutional crisis of last autumn. Brexit placed a number of areas of the constitution under strain, but for Dunlop, it is the long-term context that is key to explaining the proposals in the manifesto. In his opinion, the proposals are not about ‘settling scores’.

For a number of years, EU membership, the devolution settlements and the HRA have all to varying extents limited parliament’s law-making powers. For example, Lord Neuberger, former President of the Supreme Court, has pointed out the profound changes that the HRA has brought to the role of judges in relation to interpretation of statute law, and retired Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption’s recent Reith Lectures have contributed to a long-running debate about the proper role of judges in a democracy. In Lord Dunlop’s view, the proposals on page 48 of the manifesto reflect the fact that Brexit has put additional pressure on an already strained constitution, and should therefore prompt us to consider whether the constitution is operating as it should.  Continue reading

Why a central role for party members in leadership elections is bad for parliamentary democracy

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThe Labour Party is currently engaged in picking a new leader. In recent years greater and greater powers have been given to party members in such elections, at the cost of parliamentarians. Meg Russell argues that these changes have destabilised the dynamics of parliamentary democracy, weakening essential lines of accountability. She suggests that there is a need to properly review these effects. In the meantime she proposes some short-term solutions for Labour.

Labour’s leadership election is underway, with a final decision due after a ballot of party members and affiliated supporters on 4 April. Currently, four candidates are pursuing nominations from constituency parties and affiliated organisations, following an initial round of nominations by Labour MPs (and MEPs). Under Labour’s present system, the party’s MPs have relatively little control over the outcome – serving solely as ‘gatekeepers’ to the ballot. As occurred in 2015, a leader could hence emerge who has little Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) support. This arrangement departs significantly from the original basis for choosing UK party leaders, and is unusual internationally. It has potentially destabilising effects on the whole political system, given parliament’s centrality. This post argues that, in the short-term, pledges from Labour candidates could avoid the worst potential effects on the party.

The history of leadership election rules

Traditionally, MPs chose the UK’s party leaders. Labour was the first party to diverge from this, under pressure from left-wing activists in the 1970s. Believing that MPs were prone to pick overly-centrist leaders, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy pressed for local party and trade union involvement. This led to adoption of the so-called ‘electoral college’ in 1981, giving equal weight in the final outcome to 3 groups – MPs, constituency parties and affiliated organisations – though MPs controlled the initial nominations. That system survived largely intact for decades without upset. Crucially, the final ballot outcome was consistent with MPs’ own preferences for the elections of Neil Kinnock in 1983, John Smith in 1992 and Tony Blair in 1994 (while Gordon Brown’s 2007 succession was uncontested). Cracks began showing in 2010, when Ed Miliband was elected despite his brother David having greater support from both MPs and party members. To avoid future splits in the electoral college Ed Miliband abolished it – giving the final say to members, ‘registered supporters’ and affiliated members who all participate on an equal basis. This system elected Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 – despite his limited backing in the PLP – and is being repeated (with minor modifications) now.

The Conservative Party changed its rules more slowly, and retained more safeguards. Famously, Conservatives used to pick their leader through a system of informal ‘soundings’ in the parliamentary party, with formal elections not introduced until 1965. Thereafter, the leader continued being chosen by Conservative MPs, until William Hague’s reforms following the party’s 1997 defeat. The new system echoed Labour’s, by including the wider membership, but retained stronger parliamentary party control. Candidates are whittled down to two (if necessary) through successive MP ballots, with the choice between them being put to the wider membership. This system remains unchanged, and was most recently deployed in 2019 when Boris Johnson beat Jeremy Hunt. Notably, in both 2003 and 2016 the parliamentary party chose a leader (Michael Howard and Theresa May, respectively) without a member ballot, after other potential candidates withdrew.

Member ballots and parliamentary accountability

Inclusion of the wider party membership inclusion in selecting leaders has weakened traditional lines of accountability, as illustrated most starkly by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Although MPs (very narrowly) put Corbyn on the ballot in 2015 it was always clear that he had only minority support within the PLP. A vote of no-confidence in June 2016 made this explicit, when 172 Labour MPs (81%) voted against him, and only 40 in favour. This sparked a fresh leadership contest, which Corbyn comfortably won – leaving the PLP to coexist with a leader that it plainly did not support. Continue reading