What does the new Prime Minister mean for the constitution?

The Constitution Unit held an event in November at which three expert panellists discussed the potential constitutional impact of newly appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, discussing the problems posed by concerns about ministerial standards, the government’s decision to proceed with several bills that pose worrying constitutional questions, and the future of the devolution settlement. Alice Hart and Hashmath Hassan summarise the contributions.

On the day that the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot legally hold another independence referendum without Westminster’s approval, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the potential constitutional impact of the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, and brought together three expert panellists: Jill Rutter (a Senior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government); Dr Ruth Fox (Director of the Hansard Society); and Professor Colm O’Cinneide (Professor of Constitutional and Human Rights Law at University College London). The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions. 

Jill Rutter 

Jill Rutter discussed the need to repair the damage done to the perception of standards in public life during Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister. Johnson suffered the resignation of two Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests in as many years, tolerated misbehaviour from his MPs and was ‘fast and loose with the facts’ in parliament. Sunak’s commitment to the integrity agenda is unclear, Rutter stated. He has made assurances that he will appoint an Independent Adviser (unlike his predecessor, Liz Truss, who indicated that she did not need one) and has appointed a barrister to lead an independent inquiry into bullying allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. However, questions remain about Sunak’s approach to his new Independent Adviser, such as whether he will provide the postholder with sufficient resources (as promised by Johnson to former Independent Adviser Lord (Christopher) Geidt) and whether he will make any effort to ensure their independence in terms of both the publication of reports and initiation of investigations without the approval of the Prime Minister.  

Other than these immediate actions, little is known about Sunak’s plans to restore integrity and trust in government. Clamping down on lobbying may be a good place to start, Rutter suggested: she noted that the Gordon Brown review of the constitution commissioned by the Labour Party is planning to propose limitations on MPs’ second jobs. She provided some examples of big ideas that Sunak could adopt, such as Labour’s proposal to establish an Integrity and Ethics Commission and the Australian government’s introduction of an anti-corruption commission. A key challenge for Sunak, Rutter suggested, is dealing with Johnson’s and Truss’ lists of nominations to the House of Lords – especially with regard to how they may affect trust in politics.  

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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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Prime Minister Liz Truss and the short, unhappy fate of the ‘takeover leader’

Following her appointment as Prime Minister yesterday, Liz Truss has become the third Prime Minister in a row to take office directly as a result of a party leadership election. Ben Worthy explains that taking office in the middle of a parliament has historically not gone well for the incoming Prime Minister, with none of the last three ‘takeover Prime Ministers’ able to complete a full parliamentary term in office.

There are two routes to becoming Prime Minister in the UK. You can either win a general election or triumph in a party leadership election to become head of the largest parliamentary party when a predecessor leaves. As section 2.18 of the Cabinet Manual puts it:

Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor.

Prime Minister Liz Truss is a ‘takeover’ leader, securing the post via the second route rather than the first. Remarkably, she will be the fifteenth takeover since 1916 and the second woman appointed mid-term since 2016.

There are some downsides to being a takeover. As the table below shows, takeovers’ time in office tends to be relatively brief. UK prime ministers in the last 100 years have lasted an average of just over five years, equivalent to the maximum length of one parliamentary term. Takeover tenure was considerably shorter at just over 3.6 years, compared with an average of 6.6 years for those who came to office following a general election. The longest takeover premiership was that of John Major, which lasted seven years, and the shortest was Andrew Bonar Law’s seven months (due to ill health).

The most recent takeovers are bywords for difficult, if not failed, premierships. Major (1990–1997), Gordon Brown (2007–2010) and the successive takeovers of Theresa May (2016–2019) and Boris Johnson (2019–2022) stand out as dysfunctional and struggling leaders. All led deeply divided parties and their names are linked to deep crises, whether economic (the Winter of Discontent or Black Wednesday), political (Maastricht or Brexit) or global (COVID-19).

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The 1997 Labour government’s constitutional reform programme: 25 years on

25 years have passed since the Labour election win of 1997, which preceded a plethora of constitutional changes, including partial reform of the House of Lords, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Human Rights Act. Tom Leeman summarises the contributions of three expert speakers (Professor Robert Hazell, Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti and Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton) at a recent Unit event to mark the anniversary.

This year marked a quarter of a century since the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 General Election on 1 May. Blair’s first government embarked upon a programme of constitutional reform, many elements of which, such as devolution, the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the status of hereditary peers in the Lords, still spark debate in the UK today.

To mark the anniversary and discuss the Blair government’s constitutional legacy the Unit convened an event with three expert panellists: Professor Robert Hazell, founding Director of the Constitution Unit, who supported the Cook-Maclennan talks on constitutional reform between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 1996; Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton, who served as Lord Chancellor in the second and third Blair ministries from 2003 until 2007; and Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti, who was Director of Liberty from 2003 until 2016. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions.

Robert Hazell

Robert Hazell presented slides to summarise New Labour’s constitutional reform programme from their first election victory in 1997 until Gordon Brown’s resignation as prime minister in 2010. The reforms in Blair’s first term (1997-2001) were the biggest package of constitutional reforms in the twentieth century. They included devolution of power to assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in 1998; incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law in the Human Rights Act; and the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

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