Parliament must act quickly to exert influence if it wishes to prevent a ‘no deal’ Brexit

NGQojaZG_400x400 (1)In four months’ time, the extension to the Article 50 period agreed in April will expire. The UK will have a new Prime Minister by then, although it remains unclear what position they will take if the Commons continues to refuse to approve the Withdrawal Agreement. Jack Simson Caird analyses the legal and political mechanisms available should parliament seek to prevent the next Prime Minister taking the UK out of the EU without a deal.

Boris Johnson has said that if he is the next Prime Minister the UK will leave the EU on 31 October with or without a deal. Theresa May, made the same pledge before the original Article 50 deadline on 29 March. However, after coming under significant pressure from MPs, she did not follow through and sought two extensions from the EU (resulting in the current exit day of 31 October).

Since Theresa May said that she would step down, there has been significant debate over whether the House of Commons could prompt Prime Minister Johnson to avoid ‘no deal’. In this post, I argue that MPs could stop a Prime Minister determined to deliver ‘no deal’ by putting the new leader under extreme pressure to reveal his position on Brexit from the very beginning of his premiership. There is no guarantee that steps taken by parliament to prevent ‘no deal’ would be legally effective, but the events in the first half of 2019 have shown that parliamentary pressure can result in a shift in the government’s position. It is constitutionally unsustainable for a government to pursue a policy which does not have the support of a majority of MPs. This fact will be front and centre from the very moment the new Prime Minister takes over.

Commanding the confidence of the Commons and ‘no deal’ Brexit

When the Conservative Party appoints a new leader, the next natural step is for Theresa May to go to the Queen and recommend that the MP chosen – likely to be Boris Johnson – is best placed to command the confidence of the Commons and should be appointed Prime Minister. This is usually a constitutional formality. However, unlike when Theresa May was appointed, the next Prime Minister will take over a minority administration. Furthermore, Theresa May resigned after it became clear that there was no prospect of her being able to get a majority for the Brexit deal in the Commons (and because she was not prepared to leave without a deal in the face of opposition from a majority of MPs). In fact, some Conservative MPs have already indicated their potential willingness to vote down a Johnson government if the new Prime Minister sought to pursue ‘no deal’. Should such claims become louder in the coming weeks, Theresa May might struggle to give the necessary assurances to the Queen that the person she recommends can command the confidence of a majority of MPs. Even if she does, the new Prime Minister will clearly be in a delicate constitutional situation. 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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The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill and constitutional impact assessments

NGQojaZG_400x400 (1)At an evidence session with the Minister for the Constiution in March, the Lords’ Constitution Committee discussed introducing constitutional impact assessments for government bills. Here, Jack Simson Caird discusses the potential benefits of such a process on the forthcoming bill legislating for a Withdrawal Agreement, and how it might have affected the passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act.

On 24 July 2018, the government published its White Paper Legislating for the Withdrawal Agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. In the introduction Dominic Raab, the recently appointed Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, explained that the White Paper would outline the government’s approach to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (the Withdrawal Agreement Bill), which parliament must pass before exit day to implement the Withdrawal Agreement. Raab explained that the White Paper demonstrated the government’s ongoing commitment to ‘proper parliamentary scrutiny of our exit from the EU’.

Earlier in the year on 14 March 2018, Chloe Smith MP, the Minister for the Constitution, noted in evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee, another way in which the government could show such a commitment:

The second point your comment raises is the idea of whether there ought perhaps to be a constitutional impact assessment of every Bill, in the same way as we do an equality impact assessment, an environmental impact assessment or what have you.

This post examines how a constitutional impact assessment might enhance parliamentary scrutiny of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. In doing so, I look back at the lessons of the scrutiny of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (the Withdrawal Act), which received Royal Assent in June 2018, nearly a year after it was introduced to the House of Commons in July 2017. Continue reading

Parliament and the withdrawal agreement: What does a ‘meaningful vote’ actually mean?

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The government has repeatedly assured MPs that they will get the opportunity to have a meaningful vote on any agreement reached with the EU related to the UK’s withdrawal as part of the Article 50 process. This post by Jack Simson-Caird examines the role of the House of Commons and the House of Lords when it comes to approving and implementing that agreement. 

Since the UK government began negotiations over the withdrawal agreement under Article 50, questions have been raised about how parliament will approve and implement the final agreement.

The government’s stated position has long been that parliament will have the opportunity to approve the final agreement through a motion ‘to be voted on by both Houses of Parliament before it is concluded’. On 13 December 2017 David Davis MP, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, gave details of the procedures for both the approval and implementation of EU Exit Agreements. He explained that the approval process is separate from the process of implementing the agreement through primary and secondary legislation.

Approving the withdrawal agreement

David Davis proposed that the process of approving the withdrawal agreement will take the form of a resolution in both Houses of Parliament. This resolution will cover both the Withdrawal Agreement and the terms for our future relationship”. The Supreme Court noted in Miller in January 2017 that such a resolution does not have any legislative effect, but is nevertheless ‘an important political act’. Continue reading

The Constitutional Standards of the Constitution Committee: how a code of constitutional standards can help strengthen parliamentary scrutiny

The Constitution Unit has today published a third edition of its report on the Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Constitution Committee. The report contains a code of constitutional standards based on past Constitution Committee reports, which provide detailed guidance on the application of constitutional principles to legislative proposals. Robert Hazell and Dawn Oliver argue that such a code is particularly needed in the 2017 parliament and could have significantly improved the drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

Today the Constitution Unit has published a third edition of its report on the Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution. The report contains a code of constitutional standards based on almost 200 reports from the Constitution Committee, published between its creation in 2001 and the end of the last (2016–17) parliamentary session. The standards provide detailed guidance on the application of constitutional principles to legislative proposals, and cover a range of subjects, including the rule of law, delegated legislation, the separation of powers and individual rights.

The use of a code of soft law constitutional standards is particularly needed in the 2017 parliament. Standards of the type set out in our report could have significantly improved the drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Such a code could also be used by parliamentary committees of either House to enhance the scrutiny of the delegated legislation needed to prepare the statute book for Brexit.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is providing a showcase of parliament’s ability to scrutinise constitutional legislation. It is packed with provisions that raise matters of fundamental constitutional principle, from the rule of law to Henry VIII powers to devolution. A good number of the amendments reflect arguments made by the Constitution Committee, which unusually reported before the bill received its second reading in the Commons.

The government has been criticised by some, including Hannah White from the Institute for Government, for failing to engage meaningfully with parliament before the bill was introduced to the Commons. The government is now making concessions in order to avoid defeats. Engagement with an officially recognised code of standards could have enabled the government to avoid these difficulties. The Constitution Committee’s recommendations are rarely framed in absolute terms. Many of the standards demand forms of justification for departures from constitutional principles. Even when the committee’s standards go beyond justification, they often demand changes that relate to drafting or the inclusion of safeguards, neither of which normally frustrates the policy aims of a bill.

The basic case for the use of standards is that it can enable basic constitutional concerns to be addressed systematically at the earliest possible stage. This was a point made by the Constitution Committee itself in its recent report on the legislative process:

We continue to believe that there would be merit in producing a set of standards that legislation must meet before it can be introduced.

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The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill: constitutional change and legal continuity

The long-awaited ‘Great Repeal Bill’, to be known officially as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, was published last Thursday. The bill is a complex mix of constitutional change and legal continuity. Jack Simson Caird highlights some of its main elements.

Nine months after Theresa May first announced that there would be a ‘Great Repeal Bill’, and three and a half months after triggering Article 50, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (EUW Bill) was published on 13 July 2017.

Constitutional change

The EUW Bill repeals the European Communities Act 1972 (ECA) (clause 1). The ECA provides the ‘conduit pipe’ through which EU law flows into the UK, and represents a central component of the UK’s current constitutional architecture. The key provisions of the EUW Bill replace the ECA with a new constitutional framework. The main constitutional changes in the EUW Bill include:

  • the creation of a new distinct body of law known as ‘retained EU law’;
  • broadly-framed delegated powers for government to alter this body of law;
  • new instructions to the courts on how to interpret retained EU law; and
  • amendments to the legislation that underpin devolution.

Legal continuity

The government’s position is that the primary purpose of the bill is to provide a ‘functioning statute book’, ensuring legal continuity after exit day. The bill’s most-far reaching provisions, in terms of their direct legal effect, are those which retain existing EU-derived law (clause 2) and convert most directly-applicable EU law (clause 3). However, the continuity provided by these provisions must be seen in context of the reality that leaving the EU will also require major constitutional and policy changes in a relatively short, and currently uncertain, time frame.

Balancing continuity and change

Since the announcement of the intention to convert the acquis (the entire body of EU rights and obligations) ‘wholesale’ through this bill, the government has claimed that the general rule is that the ‘same rules and laws’ will apply on the day after Brexit. While a significant proportion of EU law will be able to be preserved, this general position masks the complexity of legislating for Brexit:

  • the delegated powers in the bill will be used to amend retained EU law in significant ways, notably to reflect the withdrawal agreement;
  • a proportion of EU law will no longer apply once the UK is outside the EU;
  • the government is bringing forward a number of bills to make substantive policy changes in areas currently covered by EU law; and
  • preserved EU law will function differently as retained EU law than it did as EU when the UK was an EU member state and subject to the full force of EU law.

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Ask the Experts: Legal and Constitutional Implications of Brexit

On 13 June UCL Public Policy and the House of Commons Library jointly hosted an ‘Ask the Experts’ event on the legal and constitutional implications of Brexit. The panel consisted of specialists from both institutions. Marc Phoon reports.

The possible economic and social consequences of Brexit were central features of the referendum debate and continue to be discussed widely. However, of equal importance are the legal and constitutional implications of Brexit, which may very well underpin the long term outcomes of the Brexit negotiations. ‘Ask the Experts: Legal and Constitutional Implications of Brexit’, an event jointly hosted by UCL Public Policy and the House of Commons Library on 13 June, aimed to provide some clarity on this matter.

The panel consisted of staff from both the House of Commons Library and UCL. Vaughne Miller is the Head of International Affairs and Defence at the House of Commons Library and an EU law specialist. She was joined by two of her colleagues, Arabella Lang, a treaty specialist and Jack Simson Caird, a constitutional law specialist and UCL alumnus. Ronan McCrea, a Senior Lecturer from the Faculty of Laws and Christine Reh, Reader in European Politics from the Department of Political Science, both based at UCL, completed the panel. Meg Russell from the Constitution Unit chaired the event. In introducing the panel, she emphasised the high-quality, reliable and digestible briefings publicly available from the House of Commons Library, as well (of course) as the materials available from the Constitution Unit, the UCL Brexit Hub and other UCL experts.

Vaughne Miller

Vaughne Miller kick-started the discussion by offering an overview of the differing approaches taken by the EU and the UK government ahead of the Brexit negotiations. The EU, through the European Commission and European Council, has already set out its priorities for the negotiations. It is particularly concerned with issues related to EU citizens’ rights post-Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the so called ‘divorce bill’ – i.e. the financial settlement between the UK and the EU. She noted that the EU has a clearer position than the UK government because of the EU’s laws on transparency, which mean that the majority of the negotiation guidelines coming from the EU will be publicly available.

Miller went on to explain that it is not yet clear how the UK parliament is going to be kept informed about the progress of Brexit negotiations. The government has indicated that the UK parliament will be kept at least as informed as the European Parliament. Nevertheless, MPs have signalled their expectations on this matter through a report published by the European Scrutiny Committee. Furthermore, because of the general election and summer recess, there are concerns about whether there will be adequate parliamentary scrutiny of the early stages of the negotiations. Notably, select committees in the Commons which scrutinise government departments are not likely to be properly established until September this year.

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