Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution

vb_image_70x90Brexit is a major constitutional change. It creates considerable constitutional uncertainty, but also opportunity. It could prove Britain’s constitutional moment. Vernon Bogdanor argues that just as joining the EU fundamentally altered the UK constitution, so Brexit could, by exposing the very nakedness of Britain’s uncodified arrangements, prove a catalyst for a written constitution.

During the period of membership of the European Communities/European Union, the UK was subject to a written or codified constitution, which was entrenched. Brexit is a process rare if not unique in the modern world, involving as it does disengagement from a codified to an uncodified system. It is just possible indeed that Brexit will lead to a codified constitution for the United Kingdom that would bring us into line with virtually every other democracy in the modern world.

At a seminar at King’s College, London shortly after the 2016 EU referendum, Takis Tridimas, a professor of European Law at King’s said that the result represented the most significant constitutional event in the UK since the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, since it showed that on the issue of Europe, the sovereignty of the people trumped the sovereignty of Parliament. Of course, from a legal point of view, the referendum was merely advisory, but the government committed itself to respecting the result and the outcome was seen by the majority of MPs as decisive. Since June 2016, therefore, both government and parliament have been enacting a policy to which they are opposed. That is a situation unprecedented in our long constitutional history. Europe, therefore, has been responsible for the introduction of a new concept into the UK constitution, the sovereignty of the people. On this issue, the people have in effect become a third chamber of Parliament, issuing instructions to the other two. The sovereignty of Parliament is now being constrained not by Brussels, but by the people.

The effects of the European Communities Act on the UK constitution

The main constitutional consequence of our EU membership was to restrict the sovereignty of parliament. Parliamentary sovereignty must be distinguished from national sovereignty, with which it is often confused. National sovereignty is engaged whenever a country signs a treaty. It is not an absolute, it can be pooled or shared with other countries, and it is a matter of political judgement how far it should in fact be shared. But parliamentary sovereignty – the notion that Parliament can enact any law it chooses – is not like that at all. It is an absolute. One either has it or one does not. One can no more be a qualified sovereign than one can be a qualified virgin. Continue reading

The House of Commons and the Brexit deal: A veto player or a driver of policy?

pastedgraphic-1-e1494926560214With parliament set to vote on the government’s Brexit deal today, there is much speculation about what will happen if it is rejected. Here, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon analyses the potential scenarios, including whether or not the House of Commons could end up running the country directly.

A key concern for the House of Commons when voting on the proposed deal with the European Union will be not only the merits of the agreement itself, but what happens if it is defeated. In theory, parliament – and in particular the House of Commons – is the ultimate source of constitutional authority within the UK system. But, in this particular circumstance, if MPs reject what is on offer, will they be able to take the initiative and impose a different course of action, or will they simply have to wait for the government to act?

The key problem for MPs wanting to implement other solutions to the Brexit deal is time – not just 29 March but debating time on the floor of the House. The government has complete control of the business and time of the House – with the exception of specific time set aside for the opposition and backbench business. Furthermore, any solution which requires legislation could only get through parliament with the government’s support.

But is it possible to contemplate the House taking the initiative in finding a solution to Brexit? If the government’s deal does not pass in the House on 15 January, might the government really say ‘we want to hear what the House thinks of the various options’?

An ‘All-Options’ debate?

At this point many MPs will want – and the public might expect – a debate leading to a vote on a whole range of options. In procedural terms, there is a clear precedent from 2003 when the House voted on a variety of options for the composition of a reformed House of Lords – though the salutary lesson from that experience is that each option was rejected. One group of MPs will be solidly opposed to opening up the options like this: those who oppose the government’s deal and want a no-deal exit. Continue reading

Article 50 and a Brexit general election: the problem of political time

wager.150x150Given the political divisions over the government’s Brexit strategy and the state of the Article 50 negotiations, speculation about a general election has increased in recent weeks. Alan Wager analyses the scenarios that could lead to a fourth parliament in as many years, and how the current timeframe imposed by Article 50 and the Withdrawal Act might complicate matters.

How will the current Brexit impasse be broken? If the government can’t get its Brexit deal through parliament, there are two potential ways of getting through the deadlock: a referendum, or a general election.

The Constitution Unit’s recent report, The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit, set out two sets of obstacles standing in the way of a Brexit referendum: problems of political will, and issues of political timing. It convincingly showed that issues of timing were far from insurmountable, but would likely require an extension of the Article 50 process. To make that extension a viable prospect, and for parliament to support a referendum, will in turn require significant political will.

The path to a referendum is fraught, but the route to a general election is no less difficult to map out. Westminster is quickly getting to grips with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011  (FTPA), a piece of legislation which many wrote off as dead following Theresa May’s successful snap election in 2017. Stated simply, there are two ways parliamentary gridlock could lead to a general election. Firstly, the government could, as Theresa May did in April 2016, seek the approval of 434 MPs in the House of Commons to trigger an election. Secondly, if the Prime Minister lost a vote of confidence in the Commons by a simple majority, and no majority could be found in parliament for a new government after two weeks, then a general election would be the result.

These procedural hurdles are forbidding, but far from insurmountable. Labour would undoubtedly support Theresa May in parliament if she called a general election. It is hard to see the circumstances where the Prime Minister would wish to risk seeking the support of 434 MPs to trigger a general election. It is less difficult to imagine a new Conservative leader, if May lost a leadership election, doing so in order to gain a mandate. The second path, losing a confidence vote, would require some Conservative MPs to vote against their own government in parliament. This would, in short, require a fracture in the party system. Continue reading

How and when might a second referendum on Brexit come about?

download.001alan_renwick.000jess_sargent.000Today the Constitution Unit launches a report on the possible mechanics of a further referendum on Brexit. In the last of a series of posts on this topic, Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Jess Sargeant sum up the report’s findings, focusing on how a referendum might come about, what question would be asked, and the implications for referendum timing.

Our new report, The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit, is published today. While the report takes no position on whether a further referendum should be held, it explores the constitutional and legal questions that politicians would need to consider if proceeding with such a poll. Earlier blog posts in this series have considered the timetable, the possible triggers, the referendum question, the legal and regulatory framework, and the implications of extending Article 50. This post, based on the final chapter of the report, draws all this material together to consider how and when a further referendum might occur.

Conclusions from earlier chapters (and posts) include the following:

  • It would take at least 22 weeks to hold a referendum, following parliament’s initial decision. This is required for passing legislation, question testing by the Electoral Commission, and preparing and holding the campaign. An extra six weeks might be needed if a three-option question were used.
  • This implies that Article 50 would need to be extended, but this should be easy to achieve. The biggest complication is the European Parliament elections, due in late May 2019.
  • Given the planned parliamentary processes around Brexit there are five basic scenarios in which a referendum might be triggered – these are examined further below.
  • There are three viable options to put to a referendum – accepting the government’s deal with the EU (assuming there is one), leaving without a deal, or remaining in the EU. A yes/no vote on the deal would be unwise (as the meaning of a ‘no’ vote would be unclear). A two-part referendum would also be problematic. Hence the public might be offered the choice between two options, or all three options, in a single-question referendum.
  • The franchise for the poll should remain the same as in 2016, to avoid exacerbating arguments about legitimacy. Some updates to regulation (particularly regarding online campaigning) would be advisable.

Continue reading

Brexit and the territorial constitution: déjà vu all over again?

wincottd (1)Brexit has led to conflict between Westminster and the devolved administrations, with the UK Attorney General recently going as far as referring the Welsh and Scottish Continuity bills to the UK Supreme Court. Here Daniel Wincott argues that the Brexit process has highlighted the flaws in the UK’s systems of intergovernmental relations and that action is needed to prevent repeating the mistakes of the past.

The territorial constitution is particularly fragile. Pursuing Brexit, Theresa May’s government has stumbled into deep questions about devolution. The territorial politics of Brexit is a bewildering mix of ignorance, apparent disdain, confrontation, cooperation and collaboration. Rarely have the so-called devolution ‘settlements’ appeared more unsettled.

The UK’s system for intergovernmental relations (IGR) between devolved and UK governments has been hidden in obscurity. Arcane processes – Legislative Consent Memoranda (LCMs – also known as Sewel Motions) and Joint Ministerial Committees (JMCs) – are now more widely discussed.

Brexit has revealed limits and weaknesses in existing devolution structures. UK intergovernmental relations is an unappetising spaghetti of abstruse acronyms, but compared to other multi-level states it is also remarkably informal and limited. Opportunities to develop the system may emerge, but it could also collapse under the pressure of leaving the EU. Continue reading

The executive’s Brexit: the UK Constitution after Miller

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The judgment of the Supreme Court in R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union required the government to seek parliamentary approval (through legislation) for the triggering of Article 50, which formally started the Brexit process. In this post, Mark Elliott, Jack Williams and Alison Young argue that parliament has failed to capitalise on the court’s decision and that it is the executive, not parliament, that is truly in control of the Brexit process.

Whether you like your Brexit ‘hard’, ‘soft’, or ‘red, white and blue’, one thing is clear – this will be the executive’s Brexit. Despite the Supreme Court decision in Miller handing parliament a golden opportunity to shape Brexit, Theresa May’s government has been in the driving seat, largely unimpeded, ever since the 2016 referendum in favour of leaving the EU. Parliament has consistently been a passenger.

The first pitstop on the executive’s journey to Brexit was the triggering of Article 50. As is by now well known, the government claimed that it already had the power to trigger the process of the UK’s leaving the EU by virtue of its foreign relations prerogative. Indeed, the government’s initial intention was to trigger Article 50 by the end of 2016, necessitating an expedited process in the Miller litigation, leapfrogging the Court of Appeal to ultimately reach the Supreme Court by the end of the year. If one believes that the triggering of Article 50 (in March 2017) was premature, then it is troublesome to imagine what would have happened if, in the absence of the litigation, it had been triggered six months earlier.  

The Supreme Court came down firmly in favour of parliament, ruling that the government would be able to initiate Brexit only if parliament were to empower it to do so, albeit that the UK parliament could lawfully go ahead and authorise the triggering of Article 50 whether the devolved legislatures liked it or not. This was on the basis that the foreign relations prerogative does not extend, by its very nature, to changing or affecting domestic law or rights. At the time, Miller therefore appeared to be of immense political significance because it put parliament so firmly in the Brexit driving seat. However, 18 months on, the picture looks rather different, and the judgment has proven to be far from the final word on the underlying controversies. Continue reading

Is the UK-Scotland Supreme Court case the start of a new phase of constitutional conflict?

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The UK and Scottish governments are engaged in a legal dispute about the Scottish Parliament’s Brexit legislation, leading to the matter being argued before the UK Supreme Court on 24 and 25 July. Akash Paun fears this could be the start of a new phase of conflict between Westminster and Edinburgh.

In July, the UK and Scottish governments squared off at the UK Supreme Court in a case relating to the Scottish Parliament’s EU ‘Continuity’ Bill (the Continuity Bill) and whether or not it is constitutional, in light of the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998.

The purpose of the Continuity Bill is to ensure there is continuity in Scottish law after Brexit. It retains EU law in devolved areas such as the environment and food standards, and creates powers for Scottish ministers to amend the law so it can operate effectively outside the EU. It therefore has a similar purpose to the UK government’s European Union (Withdrawal) Act (the Withdrawal Act), which was passed at Westminster in June, controversially without Scottish consent for the devolution provisions.

The Continuity Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament in March, but two of the UK Government’s senior Law Officers, the Attorney General and the Advocate General for Scotland, referred the bill to the UK Supreme Court in April. This is the first time a bill passed by a devolved parliament has been challenged in this way. A similar continuity bill for Wales was also passed in March, but it is now being repealed following agreement between Westminster and Cardiff over the terms of the Withdrawal Act. Both the Welsh and Northern Irish governments were represented at the hearing. 

This is a complex case, as more than one of the judges themselves remarked during the proceedings. Judgment is expected in the autumn, and the Continuity Bill could be ruled within or outside the competence of the Scottish government, or it could be referred back to Edinburgh for amendment, in order to make it compatible with UK law. Continue reading