Boris Johnson’s long-awaited list of new peerage appointments was published today, and includes 36 names. Instantly, by appointing such a large number of new members to the Lords, Johnson has undone years of progress in trying to manage the size of the chamber down – returning it to over 800 members. Here, Meg Russell, a leading academic expert on the Lords and adviser to two different parliamentary committees on the chamber’s size, analyses the numbers – showing the detrimental effects on both the chamber’s overall membership and its party balance. She argues that Johnson’s new peerages make it clearer than ever that constraints must be placed on the Prime Minister’s power to appoint to the Lords.
News reports about Boris Johnson’s first major round of Lords appointments have focused largely on personalities – the appointment of cricketer Ian Botham, the return to the fold of Conservative grandees such as Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond, who Johnson stripped of the party whip last year, and his reward of former Labour Brexiteers. But while some of these names may be notable, the bigger and more important issue is how Johnson’s new appointments will affect the Lords as a parliamentary chamber, and how they show up – yet again, and powerfully – the problems with the largely unregulated appointment process.
It is remarkable that in 2020 there are still no enforceable constraints on how many peers a Prime Minister can appoint to the second chamber of the UK legislature. Formally appointments are made by the Queen, but convention requires her to act on prime ministerial advice. The Prime Minister can choose when to appoint, how many to appoint, and what the party balance is among new members. A House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) was created in 2000, but has very limited power. It merely vets the Prime Minister’s proposed nominees for propriety (e.g. ensuring that their tax affairs are in order), and recommends an occasional handful of names for appointment as independent members. It can do nothing to police the numbers, or even the broader suitability of the PM’s own appointees. In theory, a Prime Minister could simply appoint hundreds of members of their own party (indeed, during the Brexit debates there were threats to do so both from the now Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and from Johnson himself). Appointees could even all be personal friends of the Prime Minister. The sole constraint is HOLAC’s propriety check (which is rumoured to have angered Johnson by weeding out some of his nominees) and any fear of media or public backlash. This unregulated patronage is one of the last vestiges of pure prime ministerial ‘prerogative’ power. Following last year’s Supreme Court case, even the previously unregulated power to prorogue parliament now exists within some legal constraints.
Aside from general concerns about patronage, there are two main interconnected problems caused by unregulated appointments on the House of Lords. First, the ever growing size of the chamber. Second, the lack of any rational basis for its party balance. Continue reading →
Tensions over Brexit have led some public figures to adopt a narrative of ‘parliament versus people’. Such comments can be seen in the words of Boris Johnson and his ministers, and risk becoming a frame for the general election period ahead. But, Meg Russell argues, this is the language of corrosive populism, designed to exploit dissatisfaction with the institutions of democracy – and points to a dangerous path. In troubled times, it is the job of responsible politicians to seek to rebuild, not drive down, public trust in politics.
In a general election campaign, language can get heated. But words matter in shaping people’s perceptions, and can alter the public mood. One worrying recent development is the move by some senior politicians and campaigners towards adopting a rhetoric of ‘parliament versus people’ in narrating the UK’s Brexit drama. For months, it has been suggested that Boris Johnson wanted a general election based on that narrative, to boost his support as the man who can ‘get Brexit done’. Now that an election is happening, politicians and journalists should resist cloaking it in a ‘parliament versus people’ narrative. First because such language is dishonest, and more importantly because it could have dangerous long-term effects.
To be fair on Boris Johnson, he did not single-handedly create this framing of events – it could be argued that his predecessor kicked it off. Having been defeated twice on her Brexit deal in the House of Commons, Theresa May made an ill-tempered statement from Number 10 in which she sought to distance herself from parliament, pledging to the public that ‘I am on your side’. This language was widely criticised as potentially inflammatory. But its tone was mild compared to some recent statements. For example, after Johnston’s attempt to prorogue parliament for five weeks (in itself a divisive and troubling move) had been ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox suggested to the House of Commons that ‘This parliament is a dead parliament… [that] has no moral right to sit’. On another occasion, Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that, by acting to block a ‘no deal’ Brexit, ‘parliament sets itself against the people’.Continue reading →
After over ten years as Speaker, John Bercow has announced his intention to stand down at the end of October. As for who will replace him, that is unclear and will be decided by an election amongst MPs, several of whom have already declared their candidacy. But how does that election work? Mark Bennister offers a guide to the process.
During yet another dramatic day in the House of Commons on Monday 9 September, the Commons Speaker John Bercow announced he would be stepping down either ’when this Parliament ends’ (if the Commons voted for an early election) or on 31 October. As the motion for an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act did not secure the required two-thirds majority, this means he will be in the Chair for some further drama until the end of October.
On 22 June 2019, John Bercow marked his tenth anniversary as Commons Speaker. He was the first Speaker to be elected under the new system of secret ballots (SO No. 1B). He is the longest serving Commons Speaker since Edward Fitzroy, who died in office in 1943, having served since 1928. John Bercow is therefore the longest serving post-war Speaker. He had at one point let it be known that he would serve no more than 9 years, however the snap election in 2017 and the aftermath of the EU referendum led to considerable speculation that he would alter his position and continue as Speaker for the full parliamentary term.
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 conventional political analysis of the “cat flap” between Home Secretary Theresa May and the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor Ken Clarke is that by criticising a cabinet colleague in public Ken used up another of his nine lives and may be heading for the chop in next spring’s reshuffle. The political world likes to have it both ways: to encourage speaking openly but when anybody actually does, they get hammered for ill discipline.
Siding with Theresa and defending her conference speech flourish (I am not making this up), David Cameron rebuked Ken at least twice and has since promised to tighten up immigration rules.
Looked at differently however Ken was only doing his job as the defender of the judiciary in government, as he explained to his local paper the Nottingham Post.
“It’s not only the judges that all get furious when the Home Secretary
makes a parody of a court judgement, our commission who are helping us form our view on this (a British Bill of Human Rights) are not going to be entertained by laughable child-like examples being given,” said Mr Clarke.
“We have a policy and in my old-fashioned way when you serve in a
Government you express a collective policy of the Government, you don’t go
round telling everyone your personal opinion is different.”
As later reports made clear, the reference to Maya the cat was lighthearted (“the cat need no longer fear having to adapt to Bolivian mice” – always dangerous when judges try to get funny) and was part of a much fuller description of the stability of the immigrant appellant’s life in this country.
As for the prime minister, between pushing the popular cause of tighter immigration controls and defending (or at least not distorting) a judicial ruling, is there any contest? If Ken is sacked, what does it say about the coalition’s respect for judicial independence?