Boris Johnson and parliament: misunderstandings and structural weaknesses

On 21 January Unit Director Meg Russell appeared on a panel with two former Conservative Chief Whips, reflecting on Boris Johnson’s troubled relationship with parliament as Prime Minister. In this post she presents her central arguments – that the Johnson government in its early months has seemed to demonstrate some basic misunderstandings about parliament and its role; but also the government’s behaviour has highlighted some of parliament’s key weaknesses.

In early September 2020 I wrote a blogpost on Boris Johnson and parliament, which documented 13 unhappy episodes in 13 months. I had originally aimed at producing a list of 10 such episodes, but found that there was just too much material. Some of the incidents were obvious – such as the attempted prorogation the previous September, ultimately ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Others have continued to bubble along unhappily in the subsequent months – including the persistent refusal by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to provide time for MPs to debate and agree proposals from the Procedure Committee to allow them to work virtually during the pandemic (frequently covered on this blog – see here and here), and the sporadic suggestions from government sources that the House of Lords should move to York. Some incidents were more obscure, but worth recalling for the record – such as Downing Street’s attempt to impose Chris Grayling as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (which rather dramatically backfired).

Of course that post was written five months ago, and the list continues to gets longer. It predated, for example, the dramatic showdown with former Conservative leaders over the government’s Internal Market Bill. It predated the announcement of the new Christmas lockdown rules during Commons recess, and the government’s refusal to allow a recall to debate them – despite protests by numerous Conservative backbenchers. It noted Johnson’s excessive first round of Lords appointments, but not his second within six months – both in clear breach of the Lord Speaker’s hardfought attempts to control the size of the chamber. It predated Johnson’s overruling of the House of Lords Appointments Commission’s recommendations on propriety, for the first time by any Prime Minister in the Commission’s 20-year existence.

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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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Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time

Various high-profile tensions between parliament and government – including over Brexit and COVID-19 – have focused on what the House of Commons can discuss and when. In a major new report published today, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover highlight the problems that result from the government’s default control over the Commons agenda, and make proposals for reform. They argue that the fundamental principle guiding House of Commons functioning should be majority decision-making, not government control. 

The last few years have been turbulent ones in the House of Commons. First over Brexit, then over COVID-19, tensions between government and parliament have sometimes run exceptionally high. This was perhaps predictable during 2017-19 under minority government, but has remained the case subsequently despite Boris Johnson’s 80-seat Commons majority.

A common theme throughout this period – as highlighted in a major new report, published today – has been frustration about the extent to which the government decides what MPs can discuss and when. Brexit saw headlines about MPs ‘seizing control’ of the Commons agenda (some suggesting that this marked the ‘end of politics as we know it’), followed by worldwide media attention on the government’s attempt to prorogue parliament (ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court). During the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints have focused on parliament’s limited opportunities to scrutinise ‘lockdown’ restrictions, and ministers’ resistance to MPs’ ability to participate in the Commons virtually. On all of these matters, MPs have struggled to secure debates on their own priorities at key moments – despite the Commons’ status as the senior chamber in a supposedly ‘sovereign’ parliament. Even when lacking a Commons majority, ministers have generally been able to exercise agenda control.

Controversies about government control of the House of Commons are nothing new. At one level, they are part of a tussle for dominance that dates back centuries. In more recent times, they were a key focus of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (generally referred to as the ‘Wright Committee’) which reported in 2009. It recognised ‘a feeling that the House of Commons, as a representative and democratic institution, needs to wrest control back over its own decisions’, and made a series of recommendations to achieve this. Some – including the election of select committee members and chairs, and establishment of the Backbench Business Committee – were implemented. But others were not. The failure to resolve these issues helped fuel the tensions of recent years.

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Constitutional reform: then and now (1995-2020)

In the latest blog celebrating the Constitution Unit’s 25th anniversary, human rights academic and advocate Francesca Klug recounts how aspects of the constitutional agenda of the mid-1990s were realised, and what lessons we can learn about how to entrench its achievements, prevent democratic backsliding and stop erosion of hard-won rights.

When I was at school, I learned nothing about the British constitution, but one thing I did absorb was this: although we do not have a written founding document, our invisible constitution was apparently uniquely successful and therefore inviolable. However, during the 1980s, I gradually became aware that there was something a bit odd about this perfect constitution. In other democracies, many of the controversial or unpopular measures introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s governments – such as the ‘poll tax’ and broadcasting and book bans – could be challenged in the courts. In the UK, however, there was nothing citizens could do to overturn such policies, except take to the streets to protest or wait up to five years for another election. 

This powerlessness and lack of accountability was a major driver behind the founding of Charter 88 in 1988, led by Anthony Barnett and Stewart Weir. I was lucky as a relatively young activist to be asked to join its council. We called for holistic change: a democratic second chamber, electoral reform, devolution, freedom of information and a bill of rights. And we had one major overall objective: we wanted the people of this country to have more power over the decisions which affected them; what in today’s money might be called ‘taking back control’. We sought this not for its own sake, but as a means of making our society fairer. 

It took a little time, but this message started to persuade people at the highest levels of the Labour Party. John Smith succeeded Neil Kinnock as Leader following the Conservatives’ 1992 general election victory and the following year he gave a landmark speech to Charter 88, entitled ‘A Citizens’ Democracy. For the first time, he articulated a clear objective for wholesale constitutional reform. Its purpose, he said, was to ‘restore democracy to our people – for what we have in this country is not real democracy: it is elective dictatorship.’ The use of the term ‘elective dictatorship’ is interesting, as it partly echoed Lord Hailsham, a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, who had coined the phrase two decades earlier. Notably, in this speech Smith committed the Labour Party to the introduction of a human rights act based on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which turned 70 years old this month. 

John Smith died unexpectedly the following year, but Tony Blair, despite some scepticism, largely kept faith with his predecessor’s commitment to constitutional reform. The precise objectives articulated by Smith, however, seemed to wither away and the purpose of the proposed policies became more obscure. In particular, there was no unified narrative to link them together and no sense of what might come next. 

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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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