Monitor 81. Johnson falls; what’s next for the constitution?

Today, the Unit published the 81st edition of Monitor, which provides analysis of the key constitutional news of the past four months. In this post, which also serves as the issue’s lead article, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on the collapse of Boris Johnson’s government, increasing concerns about ministerial and parliamentary standards, and continuing doubts about the future of the Union.

The preoccupying question in UK politics over recent months increasingly became when – rather than whether – the Prime Minister would be forced from office. In April, Boris Johnson was fined for breaching restrictions on social gatherings during lockdown, and the Commons referred him to its Privileges Committee for allegedly misleading parliament. In May, the Conservatives suffered steep losses in the local elections, and Sue Gray’s official report into ‘partygate’ was finally published, concluding that the ‘senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility’ for the culture of disregard for the rules that had emerged. In June, Johnson survived a vote of no confidence among his MPs and the loss of two parliamentary by-elections, followed by the resignation of the Conservative Party Co-Chair, Oliver Dowden. But the resignation of Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher in early July, and Number 10’s bungled reaction to it, finally brought the Prime Minister down.

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The next Prime Minister must consider how they want the ministerial standards regime to function before deciding who should be the next Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests

Following the resignation of the second Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests in two years, it now seems likely that it will fall to Boris Johnson’s successor as Prime Minister to appoint Lord (Christopher) Geidt’s successor. Peter Riddell argues that the next Prime Minister cannot do so without first considering how the role should function and discusses John Major’s proposed arrangements for the Privy Council to offer a support role.

An urgent priority for the new Prime Minister – who we expect to be appointed in September – will be appointing an Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests and deciding the terms on which they will serve. This decision will be the first test of whether there will really be a fresh approach to rebuilding constitutional standards after the departure of Boris Johnson, as Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell urged on this blog on 8 July.

Many of the important constitutional questions their blogpost raised will only be answered over time but the Independent Adviser appointment has to be addressed as soon as possible since there has already been a vacancy for nearly six weeks. Some business, such as compiling the register of ministers’ interests, can be handled by officials and permanent secretaries can advise new ministers about conflicts of interest. The problem of asking civil servants to carry out investigations has been underlined by the ‘partygate’ affair; no matter how conscientious such officials are, they cannot, by definition, be independent.

There is no agreement about the Independent Adviser’s powers, as shown by the lukewarm response of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) to the government’s proposals in late May. The resignations within two years of Alex Allan and Lord (Christopher) Geidt have underlined differences about how the role works in practice. After these departures and related disputes over the Ministerial Code, it is unclear who of independent standing would take the post unless the terms are changed.

Subsequent comments by the outgoing Prime Minister and by senior officials have pointed to a ‘quick’ review of the requirements of the Adviser’s role and the method of recruitment and appointment. The position is more public than before and more exposed to the media and political worlds. There is also a question about whether the role can be fulfilled by one individual.

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Parliament’s watchdogs: independence and accountability of five constitutional regulators

The Unit today published a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators. Robert Hazell explains that public awareness of these regulators is low and the position of some of them in public life is precarious. He calls for several measures, including putting the CSPL on a statutory footing, protecting watchdogs from dismissal, and repealing the legislation allowing the government to produce a strategy statement for the Electoral Commission.

Origins of this study

The constitutional reforms of the last 25 years have seen an upsurge in the number of constitutional watchdogs. The Constitution Unit anticipated these developments from the start, with an early report on constitutional watchdogs in 1997 (Unit report no. 10). This interest was continued by Oonagh Gay and Barry Winetrobe, who wrote two major reports on watchdogs: Officers of Parliament: Transforming the Role (Unit report no. 100, 2003) and Parliament’s Watchdogs: At the Crossroads(Unit report no. 144, 2008).

Today sees the launch of a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators, (Unit report 195), by Marcial Boo, Zach Pullar and myself. Marcial Boo, former Chief Executive of IPSA, joined the Constitution Unit in late 2020 as an honorary research fellow. We asked him to do a study of those watchdogs which are directly sponsored by parliament, working with Zach Pullar, a young law graduate who has since become a Judicial Assistant in the Court of Appeal. There is an obvious tension with watchdogs whose role is to scrutinise the executive (like the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests), being themselves appointed and sponsored by the government. Less obvious, but just as fundamental, is the tension for watchdogs whose role is to regulate the behaviour of parliamentarians, being themselves appointed and sponsored by parliament.

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Rebuilding constitutional standards: five questions for the next Conservative leader

Boris Johnson yesterday fired the starting gun on a Conservative leadership race which should make the winner Prime Minister. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell pose five key questions which Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to ask the party leadership candidates, based on recent public, parliamentary and expert concerns.

Boris Johnson’s premiership has been marked by ever-growing concerns about the maintenance of various constitutional standards, which in recent days have reached fever pitch. These were echoed repeatedly in ministerial resignation statements and calls for him to go. Recent opinion polls meanwhile show strong public support for constitutional standards of integrity and accountability.

Conservative MPs now have an opportunity to choose among candidates to take Johnson’s place, which also creates an important constitutional responsibility. A high priority when picking the next Conservative leader should be to restore the standards essential to UK democracy, in order both to rebuild integrity in politics, and to work towards rebuilding public trust.

This blogpost sets out five key questions for Conservative leadership candidates, reflecting concerns raised by the public, independent expert organisations, and MPs themselves. Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to prioritise these questions, and raise them with the candidates when the party is making its choice.

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What is democratic backsliding and is the UK at risk?

Concerns about the health of UK democracy and the risk of democratic backsliding are rising. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James warn that MPs, who are the ultimate democratic safeguard, cannot afford to be complacent if we wish to prevent backsliding and safeguard our democracy.

Commentators, civil society groups, think tanks and academics are increasingly warning about the health of UK democracy. Such warnings often draw on the concept of ‘democratic backsliding’.

But what is democratic backsliding? And is there good reason to worry about a risk of it in the UK?

What is democratic backsliding?

Democratic backsliding is, in its simplest form, the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic over time. Scholars emphasise that no cataclysmic state collapse or overthrow is required for backsliding to take place; instead, it is a gradual process, coming about through actions of democratically elected leaders.

Democratic backsliding has been observed internationally, and extensively catalogued by scholars including Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, 2021) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die, 2019). Such accounts generally define backsliding as involving the reduction of checks and balances on the executive. This might include:

  1. breakdown in the norms of political behaviour and standards;
  2. disempowerment of the legislature, the courts, and independent regulators;
  3. the reduction of civil liberties and press freedoms; and/or
  4. harm to the integrity of the electoral system.

Backsliding has been identified in multiple countries, with frequently cited cases including Poland, Hungary and the United States. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has significantly reduced judicial independence, and put pressure on the independent media. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has repeatedly assumed emergency powers allowing him effectively to bypass the legislature, undermined press freedom, and – as in Poland – curbed judicial independence. Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the 2020 presidential election, as well as longer-term patterns of voter suppression, have shown how backsliding can affect even very well-established democracies.

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