Partygate illustrates the fundamental constitutional responsibility of government MPs

Boris Johnson and his Chancellor have now been fined for breaking lockdown restrictions. Both have misled parliament over Downing Street parties. These are clear breaches of the Ministerial Code, which should lead to resignation. If the PM refuses to police the Code, says Meg Russell, that constitutional responsibility rests with MPs. A failure to exercise it would seriously undermine both the integrity of, and public trust in, the democratic system.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have been issued fixed penalty notices for breaching COVID-19 lockdown rules over parties in Downing Street. This means that they have broken the Ministerial Code on two counts. Paragraph 1.3 emphasises ‘the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life’. But the police have concluded that the law has been broken. Paragraph 1.3c of the Code then states that:

It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.

But it has been clear for some time that Johnson breached this rule, by repeatedly insisting in the House of Commons that all regulations were followed, and denying knowledge of Downing Street parties, when it subsequently emerged that he had attended such gatherings. Multiple sources have catalogued these denials. Rishi Sunak also said on the parliamentary record that he ‘did not attend any parties’.

But the final line of paragraph 1.3c is the rub. While both of these forms of breach would normally be considered resigning matters, the ultimate keeper of the Code is the Prime Minister himself. He has already faced down criticism over failing to uphold it in the case of bullying allegations against Home Secretary Priti Patel, which led to the resignation of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. Both Johnson and Sunak have insisted that they are not going to resign, indicating that the Prime Minister is once again setting aside the Code – this time over multiple breaches, which are highly publicly salient.

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What happened to the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission?

The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto promised to appoint a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to conduct a wide-ranging constitutional review. In practice, this promise has not been delivered. Tom Fleming and Petra Schleiter discuss this by summarising their recent article about the Commission, Radical departure or opportunity not taken? The Johnson government’s Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, as published in ‘British Politics’.

What did the government promise?

At the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party’s manifesto promised to appoint a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’. This body would be tasked with reviewing various aspects of the constitution and producing proposals ‘to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates’.

The Commission’s proposed remit was very broad, encompassing many of the central elements of the UK’s constitution. It would be asked to examine: ‘the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people’, as well as the Human Rights Act, administrative law, and judicial review. However, the manifesto was decidedly vague about how the Commission would be organised. There was no information about its proposed membership, format, or timeline, beyond a commitment that it would be established within a year of the election.

The manifesto’s language suggested that this proposal stemmed in part from the government’s experience of the Brexit process. This was most obvious from the manifesto’s controversial description of ‘the way so many MPs have devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people in the 2016 referendum’ creating ‘a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people’. This led some observers to warn against the dangers of the Commission ‘fighting the last war’ rather than crafting durable constitutional reforms.

Whatever its motivation, the proposed Commission had the potential to be a radical departure from previous investigations of constitutional reform in the UK. In particular, it held out the prospect of a joined-up review of multiple interconnected constitutional issues. Such joined-up thinking is vital for ensuring a coherent reform agenda, but has been conspicuous by its absence in recent decades.

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Setting up the COVID-19 inquiry: an expert view

The inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic is due to start work in the spring, chaired by Baroness (Heather) Hallett, a former Court of Appeal judge. It will be one of the most complex inquiries in legal history, and highly charged politically, with over 150,000 deaths so far, and the pandemic far from over. In January, the UCL Political Science Department hosted an expert panel discussion to pool advice on how best to set up a complex inquiry to ensure that it works speedily and efficiently, victims feel they have been heard, and the findings are accepted as legitimate. Ioana Măxineanu summarises their contributions.

On January 13th, the UCL Political Science Department hosted an online seminar entitled Setting Up the Covid Inquiry. The event was chaired by Robert Hazell, and brought together three distinguished panellists previously involved in high profile inquiries: Lord (Nicholas) Phillips, chair of the BSE Inquiry (1998-2000); Margaret Aldred, secretary of the Iraq Inquiry (2009-2016); and Brian Leveson, chair of the inquiry into press regulation (2011-2012).

This post summarises the initial contributions of the three speakers. The full event, including a very informative and interesting Q&A, is available on the Political Science Department’s YouTube page.

Lord Phillips

Lord Phillips started by explaining the background of the BSE Inquiry. In 1986, the first case of BSE (mad cow disease) was identified in England. The disease deforms the proteins in the brain, and is inevitably fatal. The Conservative government appointed an expert committee to advise on the possibility of humans contracting the disease. The committee concluded that the risk was remote, a view the government passed on to the public. Unfortunately, that was wrong. In 1995, the first death of a man who contracted the human equivalent, Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease, was identified. Many felt misled by the previous guidance.

In late 1997, a non-statutory public inquiry was set up by the incoming Labour government. Lord Phillips was provided with two assessors: June Bridgeman, a retired senior civil servant, and Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, a geneticist. They were full members of the tribunal, so they could write appropriate sections of the report. Paul Walker, a barrister in Lord Phillips’ chambers, was appointed as counsel to the tribunal.

The inquiry’s terms of reference required Lord Phillips to report within a year, which he had to extend twice. In the end, the Inquiry took nearly three years. It looked at 10 years of government activity, with a huge amount of documents. A large team of young people, many of them students, was recruited to help digest the documents.

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The Grocott Bill and the future of hereditary peers in the House of Lords

Today the House of Lords will announce the election of a new hereditary peer. Lord (Bruce) Grocott has once again put a bill before parliament to abolish the by-elections by which departing hereditary peers are replaced, following the removal of their automatic right to a seat in parliament in 1999. As David Beamish explains, the bill is unlikely to succeed despite having a great deal of support both inside and outside of the Lords. 

Following the Labour government’s reform of the House of Lords in 1999, 90 elected hereditary peers (as well as two office-holders, the Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain) remained part of the House of Lords, with – pending the promised second stage of reform – a system of by-elections to replace any who subsequently departed. The second stage did not happen and the by-elections remain as one of the strangest quirks of the UK constitution. In a 2018 blog post on the ongoing frustrations of those who sought reform to this system, I was rash enough to conclude that ‘there may nevertheless be some prospect of real progress in relation to both the size of the House of Lords and the ending of the hereditary peer by-elections’. The past three years appear to have proved me wrong.

House of Lords Standing Order 9(5) requires a by-election to be held within three months of a vacancy occurring among the hereditary peers (due to a death or retirement). This was suspended after the start of the pandemic in March 2020, alongside the postponement of local authority elections, initially until September, and then to the end of that year. Following a report from the Procedure and Privileges Committee, there was then another extension of the moratorium. A further report from that committee proposed yet another ‘short further suspension, until after Easter 2021, at which point the position should be reviewed again’. Finally, following another report from the committee, by-elections restarted, with a backlog of six vacancies to be filled.

There are five different electorates for by-elections: 15 of the 90 were elected by the whole House, and all members can vote in by-elections to replace them. The other 75 were elected by hereditary peers in their respective groups: 42 Conservatives, 28 Crossbenchers, three Liberal Democrats, and two Labour. The remaining hereditary peers in those groups can vote in by-elections to replace departed colleagues. Only four separate elections were needed when the moratorium on by-elections ended, as three of the vacancies were among the Conservative peers, and all three were filled together. For the first time, the arrangements were for the ballots to be conducted ‘using electronic means’, with the option of a postal vote for members ‘who have accessibility needs which mean they cannot use the online voting system or who do not have a parliamentary email address’. The four by-elections took place in June and July 2021.

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Green shoots for the Union? The joint review of intergovernmental relations

A review of intergovernmental relations conducted jointly by the UK government and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales was published last week. Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon argue that the most important question facing the proposed new model for intergovernmental relations will be whether an enhanced system for bringing these governments into partnership will be endowed with real respect, and be allowed to take root, by the politicians at the helm.

The territorial chasm that opened beneath the Conservative Party’s feet following the demand made by Douglas Ross, its Scottish leader, that Boris Johnson resign, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s retaliatory dismissal of him as ‘not a big figure’, shone an unflattering spotlight on some of the sharp tensions that devolution has created within the UK’s political parties.  

A much deeper divide has opened up in recent years between the UK government and the devolved governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Tensions that have been simmering since the election of administrations headed by different parties across the UK over a decade ago were exacerbated during the extended Brexit crisis, and since then more salt has been rubbed on these wounds during the COVID-19 pandemic. First Ministers Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon have been incentivised to make much of often minor differences in their approach from that adopted by the Johnson government. And yet there has been an abiding need for them and Whitehall to work together in the face of an airborne virus that does not respect the authority of internal borders.

While addressing the sharp differences that have emerged within the Conservative party looks difficult so long as Johnson remains in power, there is at least some cause for optimism that more functional arrangements for co-operation and engagement between the four governments within the UK are being put in place.

This arises specifically from the publication of the report of a long-running joint review which has been conducted by government officials from all parts of the UK. Landing amid the ‘partygate’ crisis engulfing Boris Johnson’s government, it has been largely ignored by the media and politicians at Westminster. But its content, and the thinking animating it, could prove to be an important factor in the future evolution and viability of the UK Union.

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