Can muscular unionism save the Union?

Several UK politicians have been described as embracing a ‘muscularform of unionism, which includes taking a hard line against the possibility of constituent parts of the UK leaving the Union. As Iain McLean warns, muscular unionism can look like ‘know your place unionism’ and history has shown that such a muscular approach can backfire and hasten the very secession it seeks to prevent.

The phrase ‘muscular unionism’ is new but the concept is not. As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson called Scottish devolution ‘a disaster north of the border’. Liz Truss said while campaigning for the Conservative leadership that she would ‘ignore’ the ‘attention seeker’, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She was true to her word, never contacting Sturgeon or Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, during her premiership. Lord (David) Frost, who served as a member of Johnson’s Cabinet, recently wrote:

The Scottish “government” is not the government of a state in confederation with England. It is a subordinate entity within the UK, with powers granted to it by the UK government and Parliament, and ultimately subject to the supremacy of that Parliament.

It does indeed sound muscular, but it ended in tears and self-contradiction last time, and there is no reason to expect differently this time. The UK government would be well advised to become a little weedier than PMs Johnson or Truss. Rishi Sunak contacted Sturgeon and Drakeford on his first full day in office as Prime Minister. Is this a hopeful sign?

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Examining last session’s record-breaking number of government defeats in the House of Lords

In the 2021-22 session of parliament, government defeats in the House of Lords reached record levels. Sam Anderson argues that two key factors combined to drive this phenomenon. First, the Johnson government pursued a controversial legislative agenda. Second, it seemed in some cases unwilling to compromise where evidence suggests that previous governments would have done so.

There were numerous examples throughout Boris Johnson’s premiership of his government’s rocky relationship with parliament. One recent manifestation – noted elsewhere – was that there were an unprecedented 128 government defeats in the House of Lords in the 2021-22 parliamentary session. This led some government supporters to suggest that the Lords has become a ‘House of opposition’ that ‘views themselves as there to obstruct’ the government. But is this assessment fair?

The Constitution Unit’s tracking of when and on what topics governments are defeated in the House of Lords offers key insights. With data stretching back to 1999, we can compare such defeats between different governments over time. This blog uses such data to dig deeper into the 128 defeats, seeking to understand what might have caused them. First, I argue that a large number of bills covering topics that have long animated the Lords was a factor. Second, I suggest that pressures which have in the past increased the chances that the government would make some sort of concession to the Lords had less effect under Johnson.

Lords defeats over time

The Constitution Unit’s Meg Russell – who now serves as its Director – began recording defeats in 1999, when the House of Lords Act removed most hereditary peers, breaking the Conservative dominance of the chamber. Since then, no single party has had a majority in the Lords, making governments of all parties more vulnerable to defeats there than in the Commons. Votes are of course just one form of parliamentary influence, but the Lords’ ability to defeat the government has been an important source of institutional power.

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What Happens if Boris Johnson loses the confidence of his Cabinet, or his MPs?

Boris Johnson’s time in Downing Street appears to be in its final days, but how it will end remains unclear. Robert Hazell examines the possibilities. How long will a leadership election take? Could there be a caretaker Prime Minister? What happens if Johnson tries to call a snap general election?

If Boris Johnson loses a confidence vote among Conservative MPs, he is not able to stand again. Any other Conservative MP can then stand for the party leadership. How long it will take for the party to elect a new leader will depend on the number of candidates standing, and whether the vote goes to a second stage ballot of all party members.  Party rules prescribe that Conservative MPs vote initially in a series of ballots to select two candidates, who then go forward to a postal ballot of all party members for the final decision. In 2005 it took two months for David Cameron to be elected leader, defeating David Davis in the postal ballot. In 2019 it took six and a half weeks for Boris Johnson to be elected, defeating Jeremy Hunt. It therefore seems unlikely that we will know who is the new Conservative leader (and Prime Minister) until September. But when Cameron announced his resignation in June 2016, it took just 17 days for Theresa May to emerge as the new leader, because Andrea Leadsom stood down as the second candidate in the postal ballot.

Time is being finally called on Boris Johnson’s premiership.  The initial trickle of ministerial resignations has become a steady stream; a delegation of Cabinet ministers has reportedly called on him to resign; if he doesn’t take the hint, the 1922 Committee seems likely to hold an early second confidence vote in his leadership.   But what will happen if he does resign, or if he loses the confidence of a majority of Conservative MPs?  How long might it take for the Conservative party to elect a new leader, and how will the country be governed in the meantime?

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What happens if Boris Johnson loses a party confidence vote?

Conservative MPs will vote tonight on whether or not to retain Boris Johnson as party leader and Prime Minister. Robert Hazell explains that if Johnson loses, he might step aside immediately or act as caretaker until his replacement is elected. But he might instead stay on and seek to call a snap election, which could place the Queen in the constitutionally awkward position of having to refuse.

The political pundits predict that Boris Johnson will win tonight’s confidence vote amongst the Conservative parliamentary party. But what will happen if he loses, either this time or in a second vote at some point in the future? How long might it take for the Conservative Party to elect a new leader, and how will the country be governed in the meantime?

Under current Conservative Party rules, if more than 50% of all Conservative MPs (currently 180 MPs) vote in support of Boris Johnson, he can stay as party leader and Prime Minister and no new vote can be triggered for 12 months. But the rules can easily be changed. Theresa May won a confidence vote with a majority of 83 in December 2018, but was subsequently forced to announce a timetable for her departure under the threat of a rule change and new vote. She had been under pressure to say that she would go, and finally went after a disastrous European Parliament election result for the Tories in May 2019. Boris Johnson may similarly find that he survives the initial confidence vote, but his long-term position is not secure.

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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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