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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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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Lord Geidt’s resignation is a fresh reminder of the government’s restrictive approach to scrutiny of its actions

After barely a year in post, Lord (Christopher) Geidt resigned yesterday as the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. As Peter Riddell demonstrates below, his resignation is a further example of the battles of constitutional watchdogs to remain independent of the executive, and reflects the increasing presidentialism of the current administration, dismissing scrutiny not only by regulators but also by parliament, the courts and the media.

The immediate and pressing question raised by Lord (Christopher) Geidt’s resignation is whether the role of Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests is doable at present. This is only partly a matter of rules but more one of political culture and attitudes. That has been implicitly acknowledged in the response of a Downing Street spokesman that there will not be an immediate replacement and that the Prime Minister is ‘carefully considering’ the future of the role.

As often with resignations, the background and the run-up to the decision to go matter as much as the specific reason for departure. Lord Geidt’s frustrations have been increasingly clear in his correspondence with Boris Johnson, in his annual report last month (as I discussed on this blog last week) and in his evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) on 7 June. Johnson and his team failed to supply relevant information over the decoration of the Downing Street flat when initially sought and the PM did not take account of his obligations under the Ministerial Code over the ‘partygate’ allegations, for which he received a fixed penalty notice. Lord Geidt felt that Johnson’s eventual comments still did not address criticisms by Sue Gray about his adherence to the Nolan principles of public life.

Nonetheless, despite ‘inconsistencies and deficiencies’, Lord Geidt said in his resignation letter that he ‘believed it was possible to continue credibly as Independent Adviser, albeit by a very small margin’. He apparently told Boris Johnson on Monday that he would be content to serve until the end of the year. This followed the government’s concession last month that the Adviser could initiate his own investigations but only after having consulted the Prime Minister and obtained his consent, and with greater transparency over a refusal. Lord Geidt has described this as a ‘low level of ambition’ and his discomfort over the ambiguities of his relationship with the Prime Minister was evident in some robust questioning by PACAC. He was clearly seen by the MPs as not truly independent, not least when he said he was one of the PM’s assets, and, in practice, inhibited from advising a Prime Minister on his own conduct and obligations under the Code.

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