Protecting constitutional principles: what are they and why do they matter?

Recent debates about the health of the UK political system have raised questions about the core principles underlying constitutional democracy. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James set out some of these principles, and argue that MPs have a particular responsibility for upholding them.

Recent years have seen much discussion of the health of UK democracy, and some concerns about the risk of ‘democratic backsliding’. But this raises the question ‘backsliding from what’?

Widely shared assumptions exist about the principles which underlie constitutional (or ‘liberal’) democracies – the features that distinguish them from autocracies and so-called ‘illiberal democracies’. Although the UK famously lacks a codified constitution, such values are deeply embedded in its constitutional traditions and arrangements.

This briefing identifies and explains five such core principles:

  1. Institutional checks and balances
  2. Representative government, and free and fair elections
  3. Rule of law
  4. Fundamental rights
  5. Integrity and standards
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The constitutional causes and consequences of the Truss-Kwarteng budget crisis

Within weeks, Liz Truss’s premiership was plunged into economic and political turmoil due to Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. But this crisis, suggests Meg Russell, has distinctly constitutional roots. Building on Boris Johnson’s legacy, Truss chose to sideline expert officials and regulators, and shut out her own MPs. The consequences that have since befallen her are a compelling advertisement for respecting – and rebuilding – appropriate constitutional checks and balances.

The Conservative Party conference, indeed the entirety of Liz Truss’s new premiership, has been severely destabilised by the market reaction to Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. Far from securing Truss her desired reputation for acting on the energy crisis and boosting the economy, and a positive bounce in the polls, Kwarteng’s 23 September ‘fiscal event’ saw the pound plunge, lenders withdraw mortgage products, and Labour achieve record poll leads. Faced with a mass rebellion by Conservative MPs, Kwarteng performed a U-turn on abolition of the top rate of income tax, while other parts of the package may face further such trouble ahead.

Fiscal policy is well beyond the usual scope of the Constitution Unit blog, or of this author. But the extent to which the unforced economic and political crisis built on foundations of poor constitutional and governance practice is striking. Boris Johnson played fast and loose with many constitutional norms, and Liz Truss seems quickly to have followed suit. But her now catastrophic position – with some Conservative MPs calling for the Prime Minister’s removal after less than a month in the job – demonstrates just how shortsighted and dangerous such behaviour can be.

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Constitutional standards matter: the new Prime Minister must not forget that voters care about the honesty and integrity of their leaders

Tomorrow, it is expected that the UK will have a new Prime Minister. Whoever is appointed will have a number of high priority issues competing for their attention. Peter Riddell argues that constitutional standards should be near the top of the new PM’s to do list. He calls for a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests to be appointed, and warns against interfering with the Privileges Committee investigation into Boris Johnson.

The new Prime Minister is going to have such a large in tray of urgent decisions that there is a danger that the ethical and constitutional issues that largely brought down Boris Johnson will be neglected. There is an even worse risk that the wrong lessons will be learned from these events and that the future standards regime will be weaker than before, particularly over the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests.

During the regional hustings meetings of the past few weeks, there have been hardly any references to the controversies over standards that so dramatically undermined Johnson’s position among Conservative MPs. As striking, and worrying, have been the recurrent attacks by Liz Truss’s supporters on unelected advisers and regulators, whether the civil service, the Bank of England, City and business regulators, or ethical watchdogs. In particular, while Rishi Sunak has said that he would quickly appoint a new Independent Adviser to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Lord (Christopher) Geidt in mid-June, Truss has been more equivocal.

Truss has so far refused to commit to appointing an ethics adviser, arguing that she personally has ‘always acted with integrity’ and understands the difference between right and wrong. She has said that ‘one of the problems we have got in this country in the way we approach things is that we have numerous advisers and independent bodies, and rules and regulations’. While she would ‘ensure the correct apparatus is in place so that people are able to whistle-blow’, she believes that ‘ethics and responsibility cannot be out-sourced to an adviser’.

This view confuses the roles of advisers/regulators and ministers. In the case of the Independent Adviser, there is no outsourcing of ethics and responsibility. What the Adviser is being asked to do is to establish the facts about whether the Ministerial Code has been broken, while an elected politician, in this case the Prime Minister, decides whether a minister should be punished and what form any sanction should take. In that sense the Prime Minister is the guardian of the final judgement on ethics and responsibility. And there is now general agreement that there should be a range of sanctions, and not just resignation.

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Boris Johnson’s constitutional legacy

Boris Johnson’s premiership is expected to end on 6 September, when it is anticipated that he will offer his formal resignation to the Queen at Balmoral and make way for the winner of the Conservative Party leadership election. Lisa James demonstrates that his time in office has been marked by an impatience with constitutional checks and balances and a willingness to depart from convention. She argues that his legacy risks being the normalisation of such behaviour.

What have been the major issues and challenges during Johnson’s premiership? 

Constitutional controversy has been a consistent feature of Boris Johnson’s premiership. His first months in office, amid the turmoil and acrimony of the late-2019 Brexit deadlock, were marked by the unlawful prorogation of parliament, suggestions that he would defy the law, and briefings from allies that if the Commons withdrew its confidence he would ‘dare the Queen to sack him’.

Thankfully, the monarch was not dragged into Johnson’s resignation this summer. But the Prime Minister stepped down only after a tense standoff with his own party, as it forced him from office over a series of standards-related scandals. The most prominent of these, partygate, will outlast Johnson’s premiership – with the Privileges Committee’s investigation into whether the Prime Minister misled parliament ongoing.

Though the intervening years perhaps lacked such obvious constitutional fireworks, these topics were never off the agenda. The Johnson government’s reform programme, and behaviour, often provoked controversy; the COVID-19 pandemic raised questions about how the country should be governed in times of crisis; and the fallout from Brexit heightened tensions over the territorial constitution, as discussed elsewhere on this blog – particularly in Northern Ireland.

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The next Prime Minister must consider how they want the ministerial standards regime to function before deciding who should be the next Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests

Following the resignation of the second Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests in two years, it now seems likely that it will fall to Boris Johnson’s successor as Prime Minister to appoint Lord (Christopher) Geidt’s successor. Peter Riddell argues that the next Prime Minister cannot do so without first considering how the role should function and discusses John Major’s proposed arrangements for the Privy Council to offer a support role.

An urgent priority for the new Prime Minister – who we expect to be appointed in September – will be appointing an Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests and deciding the terms on which they will serve. This decision will be the first test of whether there will really be a fresh approach to rebuilding constitutional standards after the departure of Boris Johnson, as Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell urged on this blog on 8 July.

Many of the important constitutional questions their blogpost raised will only be answered over time but the Independent Adviser appointment has to be addressed as soon as possible since there has already been a vacancy for nearly six weeks. Some business, such as compiling the register of ministers’ interests, can be handled by officials and permanent secretaries can advise new ministers about conflicts of interest. The problem of asking civil servants to carry out investigations has been underlined by the ‘partygate’ affair; no matter how conscientious such officials are, they cannot, by definition, be independent.

There is no agreement about the Independent Adviser’s powers, as shown by the lukewarm response of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) to the government’s proposals in late May. The resignations within two years of Alex Allan and Lord (Christopher) Geidt have underlined differences about how the role works in practice. After these departures and related disputes over the Ministerial Code, it is unclear who of independent standing would take the post unless the terms are changed.

Subsequent comments by the outgoing Prime Minister and by senior officials have pointed to a ‘quick’ review of the requirements of the Adviser’s role and the method of recruitment and appointment. The position is more public than before and more exposed to the media and political worlds. There is also a question about whether the role can be fulfilled by one individual.

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