Choosing a Prime Minister: their exits and their entrances

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Seventeen of the Prime Ministers to take office since 1900 left office for reasons other than defeat at a general election. In this blogpost, Rodney Brazier, author of the recently published Choosing a Prime Minister, reflects on how those Prime Ministers have secured and surrendered the keys to Number 10, and the Queen’s role in their appointment.

It’s unlikely that Boris Johnson spends much time thinking about the next election. Thanks largely to him the government obtained an 80-seat Commons majority at the polls just over six months ago, and each member of his Cabinet gave pledges of personal loyalty before getting their jobs. What could possibly go wrong? But if any of his close advisers were to read my book Choosing a Prime Minister then brows might furrow. The book notes that 17 of the two-dozen individuals who have occupied Number 10 since 1900 were forced to leave without any push from the voters. Illness or old age, revolts in the governing party, loss of the confidence of the House of Commons, or personal political blunders all contributed to that high total. Indeed, three of Johnson’s four immediate predecessors (Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May) quit without the electorate’s help. Ill health and party coups were the main, but not at all the only, causes of all those 17 exits. Johnson himself had a brush with death in March. I would bet good money against the present Prime Minister leading the Conservatives into the next general election.  Continue reading

Five key questions about coronavirus and devolution

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The coronavirus is a once in a generation event that has required an almost unprecedented response from government at all levels, from Westminster to West Lothian. Akash Paun argues that it has raised five crucial questions about the politics of devolution at a time when efficient and effective intergovernmental relations are crucial. 

Coronavirus has hit all parts of the UK and has required a comprehensive response by government at all levels – central, devolved and local. The crisis has raised (at least!) five big questions about devolution, intergovernmental relations and the politics of the Union:

  • Does the crisis show that the UK and devolved governments can cooperate effectively?
  • To what extent does devolution enable policy divergence between the UK nations?
  • How is the crisis affecting the operation of the devolved institutions themselves?
  • How is the pandemic response being funded – and with what impact on devolution?
  • What might this period mean for wider constitutional debates and the Union?

It is too early to give a definitive answer to any of these questions. But developments over the past few months already point to some preliminary conclusions, as well as identifying important lines of investigation for future research.

The UK and devolved governments can work together – at least in a crisis

One important finding, as the Institute for Government (IfG) recently concluded, is that the UK and devolved governments have shown the ability to work together well at various points over the past three months. Given the many disputes over Brexit, the Union and other matters in recent years, and the underlying weaknesses of the UK’s system of intergovernmental relations, it was far from a foregone conclusion that the different administrations would be able to cooperate at all.

But credit should be given where it is due. In early March, the UK and devolved governments published a joint Coronavirus Action Plan – a rare sighting of a government policy paper that was co-branded by the four administrations. There was close working too on the Coronavirus Act, which was drafted with significant devolved input before being passed at Westminster with devolved consent under the Sewel Convention. And devolved leaders participated in meetings of the COBRA emergency committee throughout this period, helping to ensure that major announcements, not least the imposition of the lockdown in late March, were coordinated between the capitals. Continue reading

What happens when the Prime Minister is incapacitated?

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Boris Johnson’s admission to hospital has led to speculation about who is ‘in charge’, if he is not able to fulfil his duties. Former Unit Director Robert Hazell outlines the constitutional position when the serving Prime Minister is incapacitated, arguing that our parliamentary system allows for greater flexiblity than a system in which a president is directly elected.

Since Boris Johnson was admitted to an Intensive Care Unit, the airwaves have been full of speculation about how government will be conducted in his absence, and what would happen if his condition worsens; or worse still, if he fails to recover.

When he formed his government, Boris Johnson appointed Dominic Raab as First Secretary of State as well as Foreign Secretary, and when he went into intensive care Johnson asked Raab to lead the government in his absence. So Dominic Raab will chair meetings of the Cabinet and the main Cabinet committees, and at the end of the discussion he will sum up and pronounce their collective decision. He will represent the government at its regular COVID-19 press briefings, unless he invites another minister to do so: as Johnson himself did in asking Health Secretary Matt Hancock to talk about health issues. And Raab will lead on all the government’s day-to-day business, and in responding to any other emergencies: for example, convening meetings of the National Security Council if there is a flare-up in the Middle East. In all this he will be supported by Sir Mark Sedwill, now a very experienced Cabinet Secretary, and the staff of the Cabinet Office, as well as the civil servants and political staff in Number 10.

What will happen if Johnson is ill for longer than expected? The Cabinet would then have to discuss whether to continue with these temporary arrangements, or start to consider a longer term solution if it seemed unlikely that Johnson could return to office. That leads on to the further question, what would happen if Johnson failed to recover. In those circumstances the Cabinet would then discuss who should be appointed as his successor, and would advise the Queen accordingly. Back in 1963, when Harold Macmillan reluctantly resigned from his hospital bed, it was the party elders (led by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Dilhorne) who took soundings of the Cabinet, leading to the Queen being advised to appoint Lord Home as his successor. But party leaders are now elected by the party membership rather than emerging through secret soundings, which can lead to a much longer process, typically lasting three months if the leadership election is contested. However, these would be difficult circumstances in which to hold a leadership contest, and it is notable that since the change in their rules the Conservatives have twice managed to choose a new party leader without reference to the wider membership – Michael Howard being elected unopposed in 2003, and Theresa May in 2016, when two of her rival candidates were eliminated in the initial votes by MPs, and two other candidates withdrew. Continue reading

Miller 2/Cherry and the media – finding a consensus? 

thumbnail_20190802_092917.jpgprofessor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpg Despite the UK Supreme Court managing to find unanimity regarding the legality of the attempted prorogation of parliament in  September, the rest of the country, including its national newspapers, appeared to divide along Leave/Remain lines regarding the correctness of the judgment. Sam Anderson and Robert Hazell analyse how the national press discussed the political and constitutional questions raised by the judgment.

The government’s resounding defeat in the Supreme Court is one example of the rolling constitutional drama that breaks in the news almost daily. However, when it comes to media coverage of these stories, the key consideration is almost always ‘What impact will this have on Brexit?’ Issues are reported through the Leave/Remain divide, with popular news outlets framing events for their audiences. This post seeks first to examine the extent to which this has occurred with the prorogation case by looking at eight national newspaper editorials, and the way they have framed the political implications of the judgment. Then, using the same editorials, we will examine whether there is consensus around important constitutional issues that have arisen in this case, such as the proper role of the Court and the importance of the independence of the judiciary. We coded the editorials on both these questions, and found that the case was framed by almost all the papers to some degree through a Brexit lens, and that there is a lack of consensus on the constitutional issues.  

The political questions

The first issue was coded on a scale of -5 to five. Zero reflects the position of the Court: that the judgment concerned the specific prorogation issue, but was neutral with regards to the political implications of the decision. Editorials which argued the judgment would have negative political implications for the government and the Brexit process were assigned a negative number up to -5, depending on the extent they engaged in direct criticism of the judgment, and promoted the government’s policy of getting Brexit done. Editorials that argued that the judgment would have positive political implications for the government and Brexit process were assigned a positive number up to five, depending on the extent to which they were directly critical of the government and its Brexit policies. All eight articles were independently coded by two researchers. Where discrepancies occurred, a mid-point was taken. 

Paper Implications for Brexit 
Sun -5
Mail -4
Express -2
Telegraph  -1.5
Times  0.5
FT  2
Independent 3
Guardian  4.5

 

Looking qualitatively, there were three overarching positions taken. Of the eight publications, four were critical of the judgment and its  potential political implications. The Sun described the Prime Minister as the victim of a ‘staggering legal coup and accused the Court of having done the bidding of Remainers. The Daily Mail was less virulent, but still argued the case was a victory for Remainers, and emphasised how the judgment allowed MPs (including ‘masochistically intransigent Eurosceptic zealots) to continue to try and block the will of the electorate. The Daily Express was less direct but warned politicians that the case should not be used as a way to try to avoid Brexit. The Daily Telegraph made the only substantive comments on the case, noting pointedly that the Supreme Court overruled the High Court’s finding of non-justiciability, and gave some explanation for the prorogation: the government had only been ‘trying to carry out the democratic will’ of the people as expressed in the referendum.  Continue reading

Inaugural Lecture by the former Cabinet Secretary Lord (Gus) O’Donnell

23rd April 2013

Building a Better Government: the Political and Constitutional Reforms necessary to build Better Government

After a lifetime in government ending up at its apex as Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell has come to the sobering conclusion that Britain suffers from deep rooted bad policies and bad ways of governing.  In his inaugural lecture as a Visiting Professor for University College London’s department of political science on Wednesday 24 April, Lord O’Donnell presents his radical critique. Among his reforms:

· A new Office of Taxpayer Responsibility (OTR) would join the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) in costing and evaluating new policies and each major party’s election manifesto.

· A smarter bureaucracy would make greater use of the behavioural sciences to assess the needs and responses of the public for better services.

· A new agency, along the lines of the Canadian Public Tenders, is needed  to ensure the taxpayer doesn’t miss out commercially in negotiations with the private sector.

· An emphasis on improving wellbeing, rather than just meeting targets, could lead to better policies in areas like health and welfare, while living within budget constraints.

· Politicians should turn their mind to reform of the political decision making process. Should we improve training and development opportunities for backbenchers to prepare them for ministerial office?  Should there be a way for the centre of government to assess the performance of departments at the political as well as the policy level?

· We need to encourage people into politics who reflect better our society. More diversity would lead to policies more suited to our diverse society. Is there a way of releasing the stranglehold of the main parties in, for example, elections for local mayors?

· To implement his incisive critique Gus O’Donnell declares: “We need to build a consensus for change that will be embraced across the political spectrum. The goal is a noble one: to increase wellbeing sustainably and reduce inequality. Better politics for a better Britain.”

Lord O’Donnell will deliver his lecture at  6pm on  Wednesday  24 April in UCL Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, Wilkins Building, Gower Street London WC1E 6BT.

Transcript of event can now be found:

Expertise and policy: the rise of the government “tsars”

4th April 2013

There has been an increasing reliance in government on the use of “tsars” to assist with policy-making in Whitehall. The numbers of tsars being appointed have increased dramatically since 1997: between May 2010 and July 2012, the Coalition has made 93 appointments alone. As with special advisers, the information available on these government appointees is patchy at best and there is limited understanding as to the role they play in processes of government. Dr Ruth Levitt came from KCL to the Constitution Unit to discuss her recently completed research (carried out with William Solesbury) on these little known figures. Talking alongside Dr Levitt was Sir Stephen Boys Smith; a former civil servant and “serial tsar” (having been one of only two who have assumed the tsar role on up to four separate occasions).

“Tsars” may be defined as individuals from outside government (though not necessarily outside of politics) publicly appointed by a government minister in order to advise on policy development or delivery on the basis of their expertise. One of the main drivers of Dr Levitt and Solesbury’s research was to understand who policy tsars actually are, what it is they actually do and why this particular form of advice might be pursued over others. While the type of work policy tsars are appointed to do may vary greatly, the KCL research found that the majority of tsars (over 80%) are appointed to review policy, with the rest having a role that is to some way represent policy or to focus primarily on promoting policy. An individual may be appointed on account of being a “specialist”, possessing expertise in a relevant field for the purpose of giving informed and objective advice. Others are appointed as “generalists”; invited to apply their management expertise to a specific task. In addition, there is the “advocate” – who may have expertise but also has spoken out on a particular issue and has a committed perspective to it.

One explanation as to why this form of advice might be pursued over others is that policy tsars are flexible and low cost. They may also provide an element of authority on certain areas of policy, due to knowledge gained from within certain industries. According to Stephen Boys Smith, tsars may also be preferable to other avenues of advice due to their ability to give a task undivided attention -something, he said, that no civil servant is going to be able to achieve (given all the distractions that inevitably crop up working in government). In this way, policy tsars can be a useful and refreshing avenue for departments looking to pursue certain policies requiring specific expertise or a consistent focus.

While these advantages do exist, the KCL research also serves to highlight some of the issues involved with the way policy tsars presently function in government processes. The picture of policy tsars that has existed so far, by no means represents the paragon of diversity. Dr Levitt’s research found that over four fifths of them have been male. Furthermore, more than half of tsars have been over fifty years in age and 98% have been white.

Another concern is that of transparency. Presently, tsars do not count as external advisers and as such are “invisible” – there being no obligation for the government to publish information about them. This has helped to ensure that certain facts go widely unnoticed. Almost a quarter of tsar appointments have culminated in with an informal report or nothing at all. Out of those reports that were made available to the public, ministers responded to just over half of them. What inevitably follows alongside this issue is a lack of accountability – there are currently no mechanisms by which the work of policy tsars can be publically judged or evaluated.

While these problems exist, Levitt and Solesbury argue that these people are now considered a crucial form of support to functions of government—like special advisers. The question remains as to their effectiveness.

Dr Ruth Levitt & Stephen Boys Smith on Expertise and Policy: the Rise of the Government “Tsar

3rd April 2013

Dr Ruth Levitt – Expertise and Policy: the Rise of the Government “Tsar”

Stephen Boys – Expertise and Policy: the Rise of the Government “Tsar”

A government “tsar” is defined as an individual from outside government who is publicly appointed by a minister to advise on policy development on the basis of their expertise. Their numbers have soared since 1997. Recently published research by Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury (see kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/politicaleconomy/research/tsars.aspx) is the first to systematically investigate and charter the growth in tsar appointments, examine the nature of tsars’ expertise, the issues ministers have asked them to address and the difference they can make. Dr Levitt will discuss the study’s findings and the important questions of accountability and the use of expertise in the policy system. Former tsar Stephen Boys Smith will provide a first-hand account of his experience in the role.

Dr Ruth Levitt is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Dept of Political Economy at King’s College London, and an independent researcher working on public policy analysis and evaluation studies in academic and not-for-profit environments. Studies include policy tsars, the role of outsiders in Whitehall, the use of evidence in audit, inspection and scrutiny of UK government, and the role of evidence in the UK’s policy making on GM crops. She is also a Research Fellow at the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide, and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Institute of North American Studies at KCL.

Stephen Boys Smith CB is a former civil servant. He spent most of his career in the Home Office, with spells in the Central Policy Review Staff, the Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury. In his last three posts he headed the police, the immigration and nationality, and the counter-terrorism and organised crime parts of the department. After leaving the Home Office he was Secretary to the Independent Monitoring Commission in Northern Ireland and served on the Civil Service Appeal Board.