The Fixed-term Parliaments Act did not cause the Brexit impasse

Next week MPs debate the government’s bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. One argument frequently deployed for scrapping the Act is that it generated gridlock over Brexit. But, Meg Russell argues, no clear counterfactual to support this claim has ever been presented. In fact, when considering the possible scenarios, it seems likely that the situation would have been made worse, not better, had the Prime Minister retained an untrammelled prerogative power to dissolve parliament in 2017–19.

Next week MPs debate the remaining stages of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). It proposes to reinstate the pre-FTPA position, whereby the Prime Minister would effectively control general election timing using prerogative power. A key argument deployed by those seeking repeal of the FTPA is that it helped to cause the Brexit deadlock of 2019: that the FTPA, as the Conservative manifesto put it, ‘led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’. But to what extent is this really true?

While suggestions that the FTPA created the Brexit deadlock are commonplace, most experts who contributed to the three parliamentary committees that have considered FTPA repeal (the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Lords Constitution Committee and Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) argued that the deadlock resulted from other factors. Most obvious were the post-2017 combination of a minority government, the need to deliver on a contested referendum result, and deep divisions within the governing party. These problems were clearly serious, and it is very far from clear that the FTPA could have resolved them.

A careful reading of the evidence presented to the three parliamentary committees, and of the Commons second reading debate on the bill, finds that most claims against the FTPA over Brexit are distinctly vague. No clear counterfactual is offered. This particularly applies to events during Theresa May’s premiership, when the most intractable problems arose. The situation did change in the autumn of 2019 under Boris Johnson (as discussed below), but the FTPA’s targeting as a causal factor dates back far earlier than this. Likewise, during interviews with a series of senior figures for a current book project on parliament and the Brexit process, I have asked several critics of the FTPA how, if Theresa May had been able to trigger an early general election without parliament’s consent, things would have turned out differently. I have yet to receive a convincing reply.

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Renewing and reviving the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement

Alan Whysall, a member of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, discusses the potential longer term constitutional destinies of Northern Ireland. He also analyses how we can ensure a more satisfactory debate, an ultimately more constructive politics, and the possible renewal of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The first part of this blog, which prefigures a discussion paper from the Constitution Unit, was published earlier today.

Destinies

Since the Brexit referendum, the debate on the Union versus Irish unity has stepped up.

Some suggest we are at a tipping point, where change might come quickly, because of Brexit, lack of faith in London, fractures in politics, disappointed expectations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – in Irish terms, perhaps, a period like the second decade of the twentieth century.

These developments may well have changed the political climate so far that reverting to the politics of five or 10 years ago is impossible.

But what we are heading towards is unclear. Fatalism would be a particularly misguided approach: there are no predestined outcomes, and certainly no panaceas.

The chances of things going well are much improved by informed debate, and by making every effort to sustain a constructive political process.

Without those conditions, we may well be on the road to nowhere, or a destination increasingly unwanted either in Britain or the South.

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The public policy challenges facing Northern Ireland

Following the report of its Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, the Unit will in the coming weeks publish a discussion paper on the wider political options for Northern Ireland. In the first part of this blog, Alan Whysall, the author of the paper, sets it in the current political context, and discusses the public policy challenges facing Northern Ireland. The second part, which will be published later today, considers longer term destinies, and what can be done to encourage more realistic debate, and ultimately constructive politics, in Northern Ireland.

Introduction

Politics will resume in Northern Ireland after the summer in deep conflict. But much of the political debate is totemic, neglecting the realities of public policy in Northern Ireland now.

The unreality of the debate reflects the unwinding of constructive politics, such as was seen in the better days following the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998.  

And the increasing talk of broader constitutional destinies is cast in vague and general terms, reminiscent of the Brexit debate; on one side, it often obscures serious issues that constitutional change would raise; on the other, it takes little account of the changing nature of Northern Ireland society.

The discussion paper

The discussion paper will aim, in a neutral spirit, to point up pressing immediate issues that need to be analysed and acted on; and key aspects of the debate about potential destinies.

And it will ask how a spirit of constructive political endeavour can be restored.

Is it practical to think of a renewed Agreement?

The paper will offer some tentative answers to the questions it raises, but it really does need to spark a discussion. Political tensions may once again reach breaking point before very long: and answers to the questions may be needed.

Finally, the paper asks who is to drive the effort towards changed debate and politics. The British and Irish governments have often sought to keep the Northern Ireland political system on the rails, and to impart new impetus. But at present their differences may mean they are challenged in doing so.

So the paper also asks whether others in Northern Ireland can help.

Dealing with the here and now

The Northern Ireland Protocol

The Northern Ireland Protocol looms over Northern Ireland politics. Brexit has been profoundly disruptive. It was the first major change in the arrangements established after the Good Friday Agreement that lacked the cross-community support by which the Agreement was reached – indeed Northern Ireland voted Remain. Hard Brexit inevitably meant more borders somewhere in or around Ireland. The Protocol is the outworking.

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Northern Ireland on the brink, again: the responsibility of London

As political tensions rise and riots erupt, or are provoked, on the streets of Belfast, the suggestion is now widely heard that the Northern Ireland institutions may again collapse before long. But London appears at present to have a limited grip of the Northern Ireland situation, suggests Alan Whysall, and if it does not change its approach markedly, it – and others – may face great grief soon.

Lessons of history

London governments were hands off in Northern Ireland until the late 1960s. Meanwhile conditions developed there that provoked protest, which was then hijacked by terrorism. Over several decades they painfully learned again about Ireland, the need to give its affairs at times a degree of priority, and the importance of working with Dublin. That approach led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and an intensive cooperative effort between the governments to implement it and keep it on the road.

Since 2016, matters have changed. In settling the UK’s approach to Brexit, it has generally been regarded as a side issue, to be resolved once the grand lines of the withdrawal plan were settled. The May government, under much pressure from Brussels, Belfast and Dublin, eventually recognised that the architecture of Brexit must accommodate Northern Ireland concerns. In 2019, however, policy shifted from the May backstop to the Johnson Protocol, and there is a strong perception that Northern Ireland has chiefly been valued as a battleground for the government’s trench warfare with the EU.

The build-up to the recent violence

Brexit is of course not the sole cause of what is now going wrong. In various ways, the underpinnings of the Agreement have been weakening for eight or nine years; and a number of factors led to the Executive collapsing in early 2017. But the tensions that Brexit has provoked, and the necessity to create a border somewhere – across the island, around the two islands, or between Great Britain and Ireland (the inevitable choice, because the other two are unfeasible) have seriously envenomed matters.

Nevertheless, Julian Smith, the last Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, developed a strong rapport with all the main Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish government, and was able to reach the New Decade, New Approach agreement to bring the institutions back early last year. But he was promptly sacked, apparently for having offended Number 10, a step widely seen in Northern Ireland as indicating the government’s general lack of concern for its affairs. He was replaced by Brandon Lewis.

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‘Our travel difficulties haven’t been well-understood by the Government’: life as an MP from the smaller opposition parties during the pandemic

Parliament has been forced to adapt its procedures and practices to the new environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, Louise Thompson and Alexandra Meakin outline how smaller parties have been disproportionately affected by the decisions that the government has made about how parliament should operate during the pandemic.

Legislatures across the world have had to adjust to new ways of working during the coronavirus pandemic, and the UK parliament is no different. All 650 MPs have seen their role transformed as they have adjusted to virtual and then hybrid proceedings in the House of Commons, remote and then proxy voting, the loss of the informal spaces for chats and networking, and moving constituency surgeries and meetings online. For a particular subsection of MPs, however, the last year has brought even more challenge and complexity. We argue that the changes to proceedings and operation of the Commons since March 2020 have disproportionately affected MPs from the smaller opposition parties, highlighting a failure in the decision-making structure to sufficiently take into account the circumstances of these MPs. This failure, we contend, risks delegitimising the Westminster parliament in the eyes of people living in the devolved nations.

The typical view of the House of Commons, with the government on one side and the official opposition on the other, reflects the traditional two-party dominance on the green benches. But if you look to the opposition benches, you will see a growing number of MPs representing smaller parties. Some 73 constituencies (that’s 11% in total) are now represented by parties outside this duality. The smaller parties range in size, from the 47 SNP MPs, to the sole representatives of the Alliance Party and Green Party. They differ politically too: the pro-EU Lib Dems and the Brexiteer Democratic Unionist Party share the same small-party benches. But regardless of size or ideology, all small parties and their MPs must deal with an institution designed, both physically and in its rulebook, with an emphasis on the two larger parties, something that this last year has demonstrated well.

The constituencies represented by the 73 small-party MPs are overwhelmingly concentrated outside of England, with 89% located in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Even in normal times, travelling to Westminster for these MPs almost invariably involves far longer and more complex journeys than for members representing English constituencies. The pandemic has exacerbated this, with public transport (literally the only option for MPs in Northern Ireland or the Scottish islands) cut drastically. In June 2020 the number of flights from Belfast to London, for example, fell from 12 a day to just one. Virtual participation in the Commons at this time was severely restricted, but the timing of the flights and difficulties securing tickets meant that MPs from Northern Irish constituencies were often unable to be present in the Commons chamber for the first items of business on a Monday or stay for business on Thursdays without being stuck in London (and away from their families and caring responsibilities) all weekend. For one Urgent Question on abortion in Northern Ireland, Alliance MP Stephen Farry had to ask another MP (the Scottish Liberal Democrat, Wendy Chamberlain) to speak on his behalf as he was unable to travel to Westminster at short notice (at this date, no virtual participation was allowed).

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