In defence of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act has come in for a lot of criticism of late, but is it as badly designed and drafted as some commentators would have us believe? The House of Lords Constitution Committee recently commenced an inquiry into the effectiveness of the Act to seek answers to this question. Robert Hazell was one of the first witnesses to give oral evidence to the Committee, and in this blog , written with Nabila Roukhamieh-McKinna, he explains the background to the inquiry, and some of the key issues being addressed.

Background

With perfect timing, the House of Lords Constitution Committee announced on 25 July, the day after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, that they planned to conduct an inquiry into the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). With even more exquisite timing, the Committee held their first evidence session on 4 September, the day that Johnson tried but failed to persuade the House of Commons to vote for an early general election under section 2(1) of the Act. Robert Hazell gave evidence in that first session on 4 September, supported by Nabila Roukhamieh-McKinna.

The FTPA attracted some controversy when it was passed, and contains a provision for a statutory review after ten years. Section 7 requires the Prime Minister to arrange next year for a committee to carry out a review, with a majority of its members being from the House of Commons. The current inquiry can be seen as the Lords gearing up for the statutory review.

The FTPA has been strongly criticised, and blamed for the deadlock in parliament, where the government remains in office but cannot deliver on its flagship policy. This is largely due to the Act’s stipulation that the support of two-thirds of MPs is required for an early dissolution. Formerly, the Prime Minister could make an issue a matter of confidence, such that its defeat would automatically trigger a general election. Professor Vernon Bogdanor laments this undermining of prime ministerial power, arguing that Theresa May was unable to threaten the Commons with dissolution, unlike Edward Heath in 1972 with the European Communities Bill.

Conversely, Sir Bernard Jenkin MP has accused the drafters of the FTPA of strengthening the Prime Minister. He refers specifically to the ambiguity about the 14-day period after the government loses a vote of no confidence, during which there is no requirement for the Prime Minister to resign. Similarly, Catherine Haddon writes that the Act has ‘done little but to frustrate and confuse,’ given its silence on what should happen during the 14 day period. Such criticisms are not new. In a debate in 2014 Sir Edward Leigh MP argued for its repeal, and Lord Grocott and Lord Desai have both introduced bills providing for such an outcome.

This rush to judgement seems premature, with only limited experience so far of the FTPA. It is also insular. Fixed terms tend to be the norm, in Europe and the Westminster world, and there are lessons to be learned from their experience. Robert Hazell’s written submission to the Lords Constitution Committee summarised the main lessons to be learned from overseas, drawing on the Constitution Unit’s detailed report on Fixed Term Parliaments published in 2010. This blog starts with a summary of the arguments for and against fixed terms, before addressing the main concerns raised about the FTPA. Continue reading

This prorogation is improper: the government should reverse it

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgalan.jfif (1)professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgBoris Johnson’s prorogation announcement has generated widespread criticism, and will be hotly debated when MPs return today from their summer break. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell argue that the decision to suspend parliament for five weeks was an improper use of executive power, sets dangerous precedents, and undermines fundamental principles of our constitution. It should therefore not proceed. MPs may seek to block it, and so may the courts, but the preferable route would be for the government to recognise its mistake and reverse it.

MPs return to Westminster today after the five-week summer recess in deeply unusual and worrying circumstances. Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has faced just one day of parliamentary scrutiny since taking office on 24 July, triggered a prorogation of parliament, set to last another five weeks. Particularly given the Brexit deadline of 31 October, this has caused widespread consternation: among opposition parties, senior Conservatives (such as former Prime Minister Sir John Major, and Lord Young of Cookham who served for 24 of the last 40 years on the frontbench under a succession of Conservative leaders), plus constitutional experts, and the wider public. MPs must now decide how to respond, and meanwhile the action is being challenged in the courts. In this piece we argue that the prorogation was improper, that it sets dangerous precedents, that it is contrary to our constitutional traditions, and that there is still time for the government to defuse the crisis by reversing it.

The rights and wrongs of prorogation

At one level, parliamentary prorogation is entirely uncontroversial. By routine, a short prorogation usually occurs each year between the end of one parliamentary session and the start of the next – ahead of a new Queen’s speech. In addition, a short prorogation often occurs before parliament is dissolved for a general election, in order to regulate the timing and ensure that election day takes place on a Thursday. The recent practice and procedure of prorogation is set out clearly in an excellent briefing from the House of Commons Library.

Discussion of potentially more sinister uses of prorogation began during the Conservative leadership contest, when Dominic Raab (now Foreign Secretary) refused to rule out proroguing parliament to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit in the face of opposition by MPs. This was roundly condemned by others in the race at the time: being described by Sajid Javid (now Chancellor of the Exchequer) as ‘trashing democracy’, and Michael Gove (now effective Deputy Prime Minister) as ‘a terrible thing’. Andrea Leadsom (now Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) commented that ‘I don’t think prorogation is the right thing to do and I don’t think that a Prime Minister would choose to do that’.

Following Johnson’s prorogation announcement, ministers have instead suggested that this is absolutely standard procedure. On Thursday’s Today programme, the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, claimed that it was more or less what happened every year, and that it was ‘because of the 3 ½ weeks of conference recess [that] it is five weeks in total’. Hence Rees-Mogg accused critics of the move of expressing ‘confected anger’.

But such suggestions of normality are disingenuous, seeking to exploit public confusion between the different means by which it can be decided that the Commons will not sit. It is important to distinguish between the following three things:

Prorogation brings all parliamentary business to a complete stop. Unless rescued by a government motion, bills that are before parliament fall and must start their passage again. Importantly, the decision to prorogue lies wholly in the hands of the government – through issuing advice to the Queen, which she is duty bound to accept. Usually a prorogation lasts for just a few days. Research by the House of Lords Library shows that a five-week prorogation will be the longest since 1930.  

Parliamentary recess is very different. Recess occurs periodically throughout the year, to accommodate holidays and, usually, a break for the party conferences. However, the decision to adjourn for recess lies with MPs. The motion for the 2019 conference recess had not yet been laid, and the looming Brexit deadline meant that there was increasing pressure from MPs to cancel or cut this recess short. Crucially, it is also possible for some parliamentary business – such as meetings of select committees – to continue during recess, and the progress of bills is not halted.

Dissolution of parliament in contrast occurs before a general election. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the decision to dissolve parliament again lies with MPs themselves – and is taken by a parliamentary vote. Dissolution does not simply suspend parliament: as the name suggests, it dissolves parliament in preparation for the creation of a new one through a general election.

Hence either recess or dissolution, sometimes combined with a short prorogation, frequently result in parliamentary breaks which last a number of weeks. But in both of these cases MPs take the decision to break themselves. Had ministers genuinely wanted to hold a ‘routine’ prorogation to facilitate a Queen’s speech, as they claim, they could easily have proposed one lasting a few days, and left the decision to MPs regarding whether to take the conference recess. Instead, they have proposed the longest prorogation for 90 years, using executive power to shut down parliament in the midst of a crisis – seemingly to avoid the risk that MPs would veto the conference recess, and perhaps use the time available defeat the government on other things. As suggested in the previous comments of Conservative leadership contenders, that represents an improper use of executive power. Continue reading

Can Boris Johnson ignore parliament and force a no deal Brexit?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgprofessor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgControversy is swirling over the extent to which Boris Johnson’s government must be bound by parliament, particularly regarding a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Some have even suggested that Johnson could flout a Commons vote of no confidence and pursue this outcome contrary to parliamentary support. Meg Russell and Robert Hazell explore such questions, concluding that both convention and parliamentary logic mean Johnson cannot ultimately force a ‘no deal’. But to prevent this MPs must be organised and determined.

There has been much recent controversy about whether Boris Johnson’s new government can press ahead with a ‘no deal’ Brexit against the express wishes of the House of Commons. This was kicked off in part by a front-page story in Tuesday’s Times headed ‘Johnson to defy any vote of no confidence’ – suggesting that even if MPs went so far as to withdraw their support from the government, the Prime Minister could stay on and force a ‘no deal’ Brexit, perhaps in the middle of a general election campaign. Various commentators have subsequently expressed their views. Many questions raised are close to those that we addressed in an earlier post on this blog reflecting on constitutional questions surrounding the (then still awaited) appointment of the new Prime Minister. Here we return to some of these questions, and our conclusions are twofold. First, despite disparate commentators’ voices, there is a high degree of agreement on the key issues. Second, the essential answer to the question posed in our title is ‘no’. But this depends on strong political will and organisation by the forces in parliament opposed to ‘no deal’.

The options available to MPs

Much energy has been spent in recent months, including prior to the Johnson premiership, reflecting on what MPs’ options are if they want to block a ‘no deal’ Brexit. The general view – for example from the Institute for Government, and from Jack Simson Caird on this blog – is that such options are limited, but do exist. MPs’ continued determination to prevent a ‘no deal’ outcome was demonstrated by the heavy defeat inflicted on Theresa May’s government over the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill – which in effect blocked the threat of an autumn prorogation. On a previous occasion, ‘no deal’ was defeated by 400 votes to 160. Now, following the departure of many ministers from the government, the forces against ‘no deal’ on the Conservative backbenches are even stronger.

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Six constitutional questions raised by the election of the new Conservative leader

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgIn less than one month, Conservative Party members will elect a new leader from a two-man shortlist. Under normal circumstances, what happens next would be obvious – Theresa May would resign and the winner would be called on by the Queen to form a government and take office as Prime Minister. However, with the Conservatives lacking a parliamentary majority and normal party loyalties skewed by Brexit, the current scenario is far from normal. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell identify six key constitutional questions that the Conservative leadership election raises for the winner, his party, the Palace and parliament.

With the Conservative Party leadership contest in full swing, the expectation is that Britain will soon have a new Prime Minister. But the process has opened up some significant constitutional controversies. This is the first time that party members will potentially directly elect a new Prime Minister, and this innovation is happening at a time not only of minority government, but with the governing party severely divided. Some senior Conservatives have signalled that they might go so far as to vote no confidence in a new leader who sought to deliver a ‘no deal’ Brexit, while some candidates in the race suggested a possibility of proroguing parliament to avoid MPs blocking a ‘no deal’. In this post we address six of the most burning constitutional questions raised by these controversies.

1. Will the new leader of the Conservative Party be appointed Prime Minister?

Not necessarily. The key test is whether the Conservatives’ new leader is able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. This is how it is expressed in the key paragraphs of the Cabinet Manual:

2.8    If the Prime Minister resigns on behalf of the Government, the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government.

2.9    … In modern times the convention has been that the Sovereign should not be drawn into party politics, and if there is doubt it is the responsibility of those involved in the political process, and in particular the parties represented in Parliament, to seek to determine and communicate clearly to the Sovereign who is best placed to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. As the Crown’s principal adviser this responsibility falls especially on the incumbent Prime Minister …

2.18    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.

Clearly none of these paragraphs quite covers the present unusual circumstances: Prime Minister Theresa May is on course to resign as an individual (2.18), rather than on behalf of the government (2.8), but the governing party does not have an overall Commons majority. Two things however are clear in either case. First, that the new Prime Minister must be the person most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons, and second, that it is the responsibility of the politicians to determine who that person is, in order to protect the Queen from the political fray.

Whether the new Conservative Party leader can command parliamentary confidence is clearly in some doubt given comments from Conservative MPs that they may not be able to support the new government. The government only has a majority of three (including the DUP), so only a very few rebels is enough for it to lose its majority. The parliamentary arithmetic is not necessarily that simple, because some pro-Brexit Labour rebels could conceivably decide to support the government. But the number of Conservative rebels is potentially large enough. Continue reading

Brexit and the constitution: seven lessons

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The process of exiting the European Union has revealed that the relationship between law and politics was perhaps not as sound as it might once have appeared. Jack Simson Caird believes that we are in the midst of a constitutional moment that has taught us seven key lessons.

Brexit can plausibly be described as a ‘constitutional moment’. The decision to leave the EU will shape the UK constitution over the coming decades. Even if the full extent of the constitutional changes that will flow from Brexit are not yet known, future Prime Ministers will be defined (in part, at least) by their ability to oversee successful constitutional reform. The post-referendum period has revealed a great deal about the relationship between the UK’s political system and its constitutional framework. Those responsible for changing the constitution moving forward will need to learn the lessons from this tumultuous period.

1. Governing without a majority needs a change of approach

One of the principal causes of the current crisis has been the way in which Theresa May’s government approached the task of governing without a majority. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, members of the government stressed the need to deliver on the referendum result without delay. The overwhelming sentiment was that the government, led by the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, should be left to get on with the task of negotiating a deal: a majoritarian mindset disconnected from the reality of a divided Cabinet and parliament. Instead, the government should have sought to build a majority for its proposed approach to delivering Brexit before it triggered Article 50 (or at the beginning of the 2017 Parliament).

Any future government that wishes to deliver constitutional change without a majority should look to the example of 2010 Coalition government. The coalition agreement struck between the Conservative and Liberal Democrats specified the constitutional changes that the two parties would agree to support. Theresa May’s government should have done the same and at the outset sought support for the substance of its approach for delivering Brexit.

2. Identify processes that can help to build consensus

The domestic process by which Brexit was to be delivered was not given sufficient attention early enough. Constitutional change gives rise to cross-cutting issues deserving of a special form of public and parliamentary scrutiny. In the absence of a rock-solid parliamentary majority, a special process needed to be constructed to deliver the constitutional transformation of the scale required by Brexit. The commitment to construct such a process at an early stage would have sent a positive message to other parties – and to the public – that the government was committed to finding a compromise that commanded wide support.

In the absence of a formal agreement with another party, the government could have sought to construct a bespoke process that might have facilitated cross-party support for delivering Brexit.

In the early stages of the process, suggestions that parliament should have more input in the negotiations were rejected on the basis that the government should not have its hands tied. Rather than treating these suggestions as an opportunity to bring MPs onside, they were treated as threats that could derail the process. Theresa May’s government only resorted to indicative votes and cross-party talks after the negotiations with the EU finished (and her deal or no deal strategy had failed) which did little to inspire the sense that the desire to engage was genuine.

3. Parliament needs to develop new forms of influence

The Article 50 process has demonstrated that parliament is a powerful constitutional actor. Since the Withdrawal Agreement was published in November 2018, the majorities against the Withdrawal Agreement and against a no deal exit shaped the debate. However, the Article 50 process has also shown that parliament’s influence on the substance of treaty negotiations and the legislative process is limited. Over the course of the 2017 parliament, the House of Commons inched its way to more control through innovative uses of parliamentary procedure, such as through business of the House motions and the Humble Address. The problem is that MPs only realised the extent of their power when it was too late. This meant that compromises were put together and agreed in haste. Essentially, backbench MPs made the same mistake as the government by not prioritising their influence over the process at an earlier stage.

4. The values of liberal democracy should be robustly defended

During the Brexit process, parliamentary scrutiny and debate has been characterised by some as anti-democratic. However, one of the central tenets of liberal constitutionalism is that proposals to change the constitution should be subject to scrutiny and debate. Constitutional democracy is in a very difficult place if this scrutiny and debate is not valued and defended. The core of the case for a carefully constructed procedure for constitutional change is that it enhances the democratic legitimacy of the end-product. How can constitutional reformers build the case for properly constructed change, if deliberation itself is undervalued in UK political culture?

The House of Commons and the Civil Service are restricted in their ability to defend their constitutional role by the requirements of impartiality. So, advocates of constitutional democracy need to robustly defend the role that institutions play in empowering citizens through democratic deliberation. No one is suggesting that politicians or institutions should be free from criticism (on the contrary, criticism is critical to their health and development). However, Brexit has highlighted a need for the values that underpin the basic elements of the democratic process to be defended far more vigorously.

5. Reframe the language of constitutional democracy

Prior to the referendum vote, the Vote Leave campaign demonstrated that a constitutional argument could be framed and communicated in a way that could cut through. Restoration of sovereignty (‘take back control’) was central to the Vote Leave campaign narrative. However, in the post-referendum period, the government has struggled to find a way of communicating the message that leaving the EU with a deal would empower ordinary citizens.

Of course, the reality of constitutional change is more complex than the messaging during the referendum campaign conveyed. However, it is clear that the constitutional ambition of the government was limited by its ability to communicate the value of democratic institutions. Implementing Brexit through radical constitutional change (by, for example, devolving power to English regions) would have required innovative ways of communicating this change to voters – and the government did not have this capacity.

6. Bring law and politics closer together

The Brexit process has exposed a fairly dysfunctional relationship between law and politics in Westminster. Parliamentarians have often been called out for misunderstanding some of the legal fundamentals of the Brexit process. The level of understanding of international law and EU law has been particularly problematic (although this perhaps reflects the limited incentives that parliamentarians have so far had to engage with either of these areas of law). At the same time, it is important to recognise that lawyers are not best equipped to engage with politics. As a result, the Brexit process has often been characterised by a frustratingly circular discourse. To improve the quality of debate over constitutional change, we need to bridge the gap between law and politics.

7. We need politicians that want to build a constitutional consensus

It may be that the UK’s constitutional democracy is in such difficulty that it cannot be repaired through piecemeal change. However, a more radical constitutional overhaul (perhaps in the form of a written constitution) will require politicians that are willing to prioritise finding a new constitutional settlement to resolve the post-Brexit divisions. At present, there are very few frontline politicians that prominently advocate constitutional change. It is not a message that seems to garner support.

Professor Jeff King’s inaugural lecture – delivered at University College London in April 2018 – persuasively argued that moving towards a written constitution in the UK would provide a means for citizens to take ownership over the UK’s constitutional democracy. In order to revitalise constitutional democracy in the UK post-Brexit, political leadership will need to harness this insight and communicate it to the public at large.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Counsel and is reprinted with permission.  

About the author

Dr Jack Simson Caird is Senior Research Fellow in Parliaments and the Rule of Law at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. He tweets as @jasimsoncaird

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