Boris Johnson and parliament: an unhappy tale in 13 acts

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliament returns from its summer break today. During Boris Johnson’s 13 months in office as Prime Minister his relationship with parliament has often been rocky. In this post, Unit Director Meg Russell reviews 13 episodes during these 13 months which illustrate Johnson’s difficult relationship with parliament. His Number 10 has often resisted parliamentary oversight, and faced down significant parliamentary opposition – including from his own backbenchers. With growing indications of backbench discontent, she explores the dangers of this situation.

As the Commons reassembles today, it’s a good moment to reflect on the relationship between Boris Johnson’s government and parliament so far. Johnson has now held office for just over a year, and rumours are emerging of significant discontent on the Conservative backbenches. From the outset, Johnson’s relationship with parliament has been beset with controversy. As he enters his second parliamentary year, what have been the key flashpoints, and what do they add up to collectively?

This post looks back at 13 episodes in the past 13 months, before reflecting on what they teach us, and what the future may hold. It suggests that while existing flashpoints have resulted from Number 10’s bold assertions of executive power, there are risks for Johnson that the tables could soon start to be turned.

1. The first day: two hours of scrutiny before recess

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on the afternoon of 24 July 2019, following his victory in the Conservative leadership contest. On that day, Theresa May took her final Prime Minister’s Questions. Johnson thus had just one day to face parliament, which was about to break for its summer recess. The hot topic was Brexit; May had been forced out after failing to gain adequate support from her own MPs for her Brexit deal, which was defeated three times in the Commons between January and March. Johnson had been among those voting against it. The big question was how he could succeed where Theresa May had failed. On 25 July there was a brief potential window for MPs to quiz him on his Brexit strategy. But he chose instead to make a far more general statement on ‘priorities for government’. After two hours of questions ranging across all policy topics, the Commons moved to adjourn until September. An attempt by MPs to delay adjournment had failed, as did a later attempt to recall parliament over the summer to discuss progress on Brexit. Recall is impossible without the agreement of the government. Continue reading

Proposals for a ‘virtual parliament’: how should parliamentary procedure and practices adapt during the coronavirus pandemic?

RuthFox.084_square.1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary scrutiny is essential to checking and legitimising government decisions. But the coronavirus crisis, during which government has been granted unprecedented powers, creates obvious challenges for parliament. Ruth Fox and Meg Russell argue that parliamentary change during the crisis must follow three core principles: first, parliament should go virtual insofar as possible; second, it should adapt its procedures accordingly, prioritising the most critical business; third, decisions about these changes should be open and consultative — to avoid the risk of a government power grab — should be strictly time-limited, and be kept under regular review.

Parliament has an essential role as the guardian of our democracy. But the coronavirus pandemic poses a huge and unprecedented challenge: how can parliamentarians conduct their core constitutional duties of holding the government to account, assenting to finance, passing legislation, and representing their constituents, when we are all required to adopt rigorous social distancing and, wherever possible, work from home? 

At a time when the government has been granted emergency powers of a kind unparalleled in peacetime, and ministers are taking rapid decisions that could shape our economy and society for a generation, democratic oversight is vital. Adversarial party politics take a back seat in a time of national crisis, but parliament’s collective responsibility to hold the executive to account remains. Hence the many calls – from both within and without parliament – for a ‘virtual’ legislature to ensure adequate scrutiny of the government’s decisions, and to maintain other essential time-sensitive work, while complying with public health requirements. 

As yet, however, there has been little detailed debate about how a ‘virtual parliament’ should operate. Parliament cannot work as normal, so what broad issues must it address in deciding how to work differently? 

This post identifies and argues for three core principles:

  • In the interests of safety, and to set a national example, parliament should operate as far as possible virtually, rather than accommodating continued physical presence at Westminster.
  • Parliament should not pursue ‘business as usual’ but should make more radical changes, identifying and prioritising essential business. 
  • Parliament’s crisis arrangements should be based on wide and transparent consultation with members to maximise support. ‘Sunsetting’ should be used to make clear that they are temporary and create no automatic precedent for the post-crisis era. 

In the UK, the government already has much greater control of the way parliament – particularly the House of Commons – operates than in many other countries. Any crisis arrangements must ensure fair representation for all members and parties; and the crisis and parliament’s response to it should not become a pretext to shift power further towards the executive and party managers.   Continue reading

Parliament, spin and the accurate reporting of Brexit

lisa.james.resized.staff.webpage.jpg (1).pngmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliament has been the site of many of the key Brexit battles, and political journalists play a vital role in reporting such developments and holding politicians to account. But unfamiliarity with the workings of parliament can leave them vulnerable to spin. Lisa James and Meg Russell argue that when it comes to key aspects of parliamentary procedure, the present climate of anonymous briefings and counter-briefings may make reporters’ traditional sources less trustworthy than usual. But there are other sources to which they can, and should, be turning.

Parliamentary reporting has rarely been more exciting or important. From the ‘meaningful votes’ on Theresa May’s Brexit deal to the first Saturday sitting since 1982, parliament has been the site of ever-more suspenseful Brexit episodes. These have been narrated and analysed by reporters in real time – and followed by record audiences.

Recent weeks have seen a growing chorus of concern about the relationship between the Johnson government and the media, with the perceived misuse of anonymous briefing and spin coming under pointed criticism from senior journalists and former Conservative MPs. In this environment, parliamentary battles and controversies pose particular challenges for journalists. The more politics is played out in parliament, rather than around the cabinet table or in TV studios, the more important an understanding of parliamentary procedure becomes.

Raw politics of course is important in driving parliamentary outcomes. But parliamentary procedure sets the framework within which political questions are negotiated and resolved. It can determine which actors will have most influence and when. Hence if journalists misunderstand procedure, or are deliberately misled, they risk misrepresenting which political outcomes are likely to happen, and indeed which are even possible. Continue reading

Representation in Britain: Learning about parliamentary candidates and their experiences

Photo.001On 18 June, the Constitution Unit and the Hansard Society co-hosted an event in parliament marking the launch of Representation in Britain, a four-year ESRC funded study of parliamentary candidates standing in the 2015 and 2017 general elections by the Representative Audit of Britain (RAB) team. Lotte Hargrave offers a summary of what was said. 

The event shared research and insights into key questions around selection, campaigning, and representation in Britain: who are our parliamentary candidates; what motivates them to stand; how much does it cost to run; and are candidates representative of the constituents they serve? The event was chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, with presentations from Professor Rosie Campbell, Dr Sofia Collignon Delmar, Dr Stefanie Reher, Dr Javier Sajuria, Professor Maria Sobolewska, and Lord Hayward, the last of whom served on the Political Polling and Digital Media Committee. In this blog, we summarise key insights from RAB research on a range of topics.

Professor Rosie Campbell,  Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London

Professor Campbell began by introducing the motivation for the study, citing the need for a reliable source of data on the profiles, motivations, and opinions of parliamentary candidates. The RAB began as a study of candidates standing in the 2015 general election, however following Theresa May’s decision to instigate a snap election, the team also surveyed candidates standing in 2017. Campbell noted the survey’s response rates – 57% in 2015 and 51% in 2017 – figures comparable with, and in some cases higher than, previous candidate studies. Alongside the survey, in 2015, 44 qualitative interviews were carried out that proved invaluable for reinforcing the robust nature of the quantitative data. Campbell highlighted that the purpose of the Audit was not to offer policy recommendations to parties or parliament, but to provide an independent and reliable source of data on the attitudes and experiences of UK parliamentary hopefuls. Continue reading

Amendments are needed to strengthen the Withdrawal Bill’s provisions for scrutiny of Statutory Instruments

5GMFtvPS_reasonably_smallToday saw the start of two days of report stage debate in the House of Commons on the content of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. At committee stage, amendments were made that created a new sifting committee for statutory instruments related to Brexit. Joel Blackwell, of The Hansard Society, argues below that the current proposals are insufficient to guarantee proper scrutiny and makes several recommendations for changes that can be made before the bill passes to the House of Lords.

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which returned to the House of Commons for its report stage today, was successfully amended at committee stage in December 2017 to create a mechanism which will allow MPs, via a new European Statutory Instruments sifting committee, to consider statutory instruments (SIs) made under the Bill’s widest delegated powers and recommend an upgrade in the level of scrutiny of those about which they have most concern.

This new scrutiny mechanism, incorporated through a series of amendments tabled by Procedure Committee Chair Charles Walker, is intended to constrain the wide Henry VIII powers the government will use to make changes to retained EU law via SIs (under clauses 7, 8 and 9 of the Bill).

But if MPs are serious about scrutinising the changes arising from Brexit, these amendments, and the related proposals to amend Standing Orders will, as currently drafted, offer only limited help. If MPs are not happy with what the government wants to do, they will still be unable to exercise any real influence on the substance of a Brexit SI.

Continue reading