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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Could innovative voting rules break parliament’s Brexit impasse?

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Following last night’s inconclusive votes in the House of Commons, MPs are heading for another round of voting on Brexit options next Monday. The hope is that new voting rules will help deliver a compromise solution. In this post, Alan Renwick argues that a bold approach to the voting system could achieve a great deal – though, ultimately, compromise will be attainable only if MPs want it.

MPs last night declined to give majority backing to any of the eight Brexit options put before them. The architects of the ‘indicative voting’ process expected this and have therefore reserved next Monday for a second round. They hope to find a route towards a compromise that will break the Brexit impasse, and they have repeatedly suggested that a different voting process could facilitate that.

There are at least three fundamental questions about that process. First, what options will be included? All of last night’s options – plus the deal as it stands – might go forward, or they could be whittled down to a shorter list, or some options could be packaged in a new way. Second, how should the choice be structured? Writing on this blog earlier in the week, Meg Russell suggested that the options put should be mutually exclusive and exhaustive, and that two dimensions – outcomes and processes – should be separated out. Some MPs have adopted similar arguments. Third, by what voting system should MPs make their choice? Last night’s ballot used a series of yes/no votes, but something less crude is envisaged for Monday.

All of these questions are crucial, but this post focuses largely on the third. Its message is that MPs could indeed greatly ease the path to compromise through their choice of voting system. The rules cannot, however, do all the work on their own. Compromise can be reached only if MPs want it. Continue reading

How did parliament get into this Brexit mess, and how can it get out?

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Some, controversially including the Prime Minister, have accused parliament of failing on Brexit. Last week’s Article 50 extension hands parliament responsibility for solving the crisis. Here, Meg Russell reflects on why parliamentary agreement has thus far been difficult, and what parliament now needs to do.

This week’s Brexit events have been fast moving. Following a series of House of Commons votes on 12–14 March, the Prime Minister travelled to Brussels to negotiate an extension to the Article 50 period. Beforehand she made an extraordinary – and widely criticised – statement to the nation, seeking to lay the blame for the UK’s Brexit impasse at parliament’s door. Following many hours of discussion, the EU27 offered a limited extension: to 22 May if parliament approves the existing Withdrawal Agreement, else to 12 April, before which the UK government should ‘indicate a way forward’ for the EU’s further consideration.

This gives parliament (and specifically the House of Commons) an urgent task of resolving matters, to avoid the UK ‘crashing out’ without a deal in just under three weeks. To date, parliament has been unable to resolve the Brexit dilemma. This post explores why, before turning to what should happen next.

How did we get here?

As explored in a previous post, various factors have combined to make parliament’s Brexit dilemma unique. The most important is the context provided by the June 2016 referendum. By voting for ‘Leave’, the British public issued an instruction to government and parliament, which went against the prior views of most MPs. Politicians pledged to honour the referendum result, but as pointed out by various key actors (including the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, chaired by a leading Brexiteer, and the Independent Commission on Referendums), the instruction was far from clear. As we now know, there are many different competing visions of Brexit from which MPs could choose. To complicate matters further, Theresa May’s snap general election of 2017 delivered a hung parliament and minority government, making it far more difficult than usual for parliamentary majorities to form. Continue reading

The House of Commons and the Brexit deal: A veto player or a driver of policy?

pastedgraphic-1-e1494926560214With parliament set to vote on the government’s Brexit deal today, there is much speculation about what will happen if it is rejected. Here, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon analyses the potential scenarios, including whether or not the House of Commons could end up running the country directly.

A key concern for the House of Commons when voting on the proposed deal with the European Union will be not only the merits of the agreement itself, but what happens if it is defeated. In theory, parliament – and in particular the House of Commons – is the ultimate source of constitutional authority within the UK system. But, in this particular circumstance, if MPs reject what is on offer, will they be able to take the initiative and impose a different course of action, or will they simply have to wait for the government to act?

The key problem for MPs wanting to implement other solutions to the Brexit deal is time – not just 29 March but debating time on the floor of the House. The government has complete control of the business and time of the House – with the exception of specific time set aside for the opposition and backbench business. Furthermore, any solution which requires legislation could only get through parliament with the government’s support.

But is it possible to contemplate the House taking the initiative in finding a solution to Brexit? If the government’s deal does not pass in the House on 15 January, might the government really say ‘we want to hear what the House thinks of the various options’?

An ‘All-Options’ debate?

At this point many MPs will want – and the public might expect – a debate leading to a vote on a whole range of options. In procedural terms, there is a clear precedent from 2003 when the House voted on a variety of options for the composition of a reformed House of Lords – though the salutary lesson from that experience is that each option was rejected. One group of MPs will be solidly opposed to opening up the options like this: those who oppose the government’s deal and want a no-deal exit. Continue reading

Could an ‘indicative vote’ break the Brexit logjam?

albert_weale (1)An indicative vote on the government’s Brexit deal has been suggested as a means of determining which of the options available to parliament has the best chance of securing the support of the House of Commons. In this post, Albert Weale examines how an indicative vote process would work, and whether or not it offers a workable solution to what appears to be a parliamentary impasse.

Pressure is growing for an indicative vote in the Commons to break the Brexit logjam. Such a vote would allow MPs to vote on a number of alternatives to the government’s ‘deal’, as laid out in the Withdrawal Agreement announced in November. The purpose of such a vote would be to see whether there was significant support in the Commons for each of the specified alternatives. A similar exercise was tried in 2003 when the then Labour government was seeking support for reform of the House of Lords, and in particular what balance of elected or appointed members a reformed upper chamber should contain. It did not work then, but could it work in the case of Brexit? Answering this question depends on three things: how many options are voted on, how the votes are counted, and the extent to which MPs engage in strategic voting. All three elements interact in complex ways.

To understand the basic logic, consider a simplified version of the various options that are likely to be proposed. With no abstentions, a majority on a motion in the Commons requires 320 votes to pass. In Figure 1, I have shown five possible motions that could be put to an indicative vote. Other things being equal, the more alternatives there are, the harder it is to obtain a majority for any one of them. Continue reading