Why Rishi Sunak should take the initiative on standards reform

Rishi Sunak has appointed a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, but there is still a need for the role to be strengthened to ensure the new Adviser has genuine independence and freedom to act. Concerns have also been raised about the standard of recent appointments to the House of Lords. Peter Riddell argues that Sunak should follow the example of John Major and take the initiative on standards reform.

Rishi Sunak has so far been stronger on aspirations to improve standards in public life than on his actions, which have largely continued the approach of his predecessors. Ministers have reaffirmed limits to the role of independent regulators and scrutiny by reasserting executive prerogatives.

On the positive side, in his first comments on entering 10 Downing Street, Sunak promised that his government would have ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level’. Trust, he said, is earned. And in his personal foreword to the Ministerial Code issued just before Christmas, he referred to upholding the Principles of Public Life (commonly known as the Nolan principles), which Boris Johnson had omitted from the May 2022 version. At the same time, Sunak appointed Laurie Magnus as the new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, six months after the resignation of predecessor Lord (Christopher) Geidt.

The role of the Independent Adviser

The remit of the Adviser has not, however, been strengthened since the compromise changes of last May, which attracted criticism at the time. The government adopted some of the package proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in its Upholding Standards in Public Life report of November 2021, which recommended a graduated system of sanctions solely in the hands of the Prime Minister, combined with greater independence for the Adviser in launching inquiries and determining breaches of the Code. As Lord (Jonathan) Evans of Weardale, the committee’s chair, commented in June 2022, the government accepted the former but not the latter in the form proposed.

The Adviser will now be able initiate their own investigations but only after ‘having consulted the Prime Minister and obtained his consent’. The requirement for prime ministerial consent is justified on the grounds that the Prime Minister is constitutionally responsible for appointing and dismissing ministers. As Boris Johnson said in a letter to Lord Evans in April 2021, this meant that, ‘I cannot and would not wish to abrogate the ultimate responsibility for deciding on an investigation into allegations concerning ministerial misconduct’. Moreover, the Prime Minister will also continue to have the right to decide when any report by the Adviser is published – risking lengthy delays, as has happened in the past – and on the significance of any breach of the Code, as well as on the form of any sanctions. Parliament is still left with no role in approving the Code or its implementation.

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The problem(s) of House of Lords appointments

Lords appointments are back in the news, with rumours of resignation honours from Boris Johnson, and even possibly Liz Truss. The current unregulated system of prime ministerial patronage causes multiple problems, and new Constitution Unit polling shows widespread public demand for change. Meg Russell reviews the problems and possible solutions, in the context of a bill on Lords appointments due for debate tomorrow. She argues that small-scale changes are now urgently required, and urges party leaders to embrace them – whatever their longer-term aspirations for Lords reform.

Recent weeks have seen revived controversies about appointments to the House of Lords. These include concerns about Boris Johnson’s long-rumoured resignation honours list, now joined by concerns that Liz Truss may want resignation honours of her own after just 49 days as Prime Minister. While the personalities may be different, controversies over Lords appointments are nothing new. The central overarching problem is the unregulated patronage power that rests with the Prime Minister. As this post highlights, a series of other problems follow: regarding the chamber’s size, its party balance, the quality of candidates appointed, the chamber’s reputation and widespread public dissatisfaction with the system.

An end to the Prime Minister’s unfettered appointment power is long overdue. Tomorrow a bill will be debated in the Lords aiming to tackle some of the problems, but as a backbench bill it is unlikely to succeed. Its contents nonetheless provide a useful (though incomplete) guide to the kind of important small-scale changes needed. Both main party leaders now need urgently to propose short-term packages of their own.

The problem of the size of the Lords

Much attention has focused in recent years on the spiralling size of the House of Lords. The current system places no limits whatsoever on the number of members who may be appointed to the chamber by the Prime Minister. Most – though not all – prime ministers have appointed unsustainably. Particularly given that peerages are for life, over-appointment drives the size of the chamber ever upwards. This is a historic problem, visible throughout the 20th century. The Blair government’s reform of 1999 brought the size of the chamber down (from around 1200 to just over 650). But since then it has risen again. Two reports from the Constitution Unit – in 2011 and 2015 – analysed this problem, calling for urgent action. In 2016 the Lord Speaker established a cross-party Committee on the Size of the House, which made recommendations the following year. Centrally these included restraint by the Prime Minister based on a ‘two-out-one-in’ principle – so that only one new peer would be appointed for every two who left, until the chamber stabilised at 600 members. These principles were endorsed by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and respected by Theresa May. But Boris Johnson ignored them. In 2021, the Lord Speaker’s Committee lamented how he had ‘undone progress’ achieved by his predecessor.

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The UK’s constitutional norms and standards took a severe battering under Johnson: Labour should pledge to restore the system

There is no guarantee that the Johnson government’s dismal record on safeguarding our democracy will be improved upon by the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss. This creates big opportunities for Labour to offer a real alternative by restoring integrity and accountability to politics, writes Meg Russell.

Concerns about honesty and integrity and the erosion of constitutional norms were central to Boris Johnson’s dramatic downfall. The new Prime Minister’s attitudes in this area remain largely untested – though the omens during this summer’s leadership contest were not good. Meanwhile, public opinion research suggests that voters really care about these questions. That presents significant opportunities for Labour.

The charge sheet against Johnson was remarkably long. The journalist Peter Oborne, formerly political editor of the Spectator and a Telegraph columnist, dedicated both a website and a book to chronicling Johnson’s uneasy relationship with the truth. This trait was well known before he assumed the premiership and to an extent ‘priced in’. But the difficulties under his leadership went far wider, covering multiple aspects of integrity in politics and respect for the essential rules and norms that underpin UK democracy. This often put him at odds with regulators and non-political figures holding responsibility for maintaining the system, as well as with senior figures in his own party.

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Boris Johnson’s constitutional legacy

Boris Johnson’s premiership is expected to end on 6 September, when it is anticipated that he will offer his formal resignation to the Queen at Balmoral and make way for the winner of the Conservative Party leadership election. Lisa James demonstrates that his time in office has been marked by an impatience with constitutional checks and balances and a willingness to depart from convention. She argues that his legacy risks being the normalisation of such behaviour.

What have been the major issues and challenges during Johnson’s premiership? 

Constitutional controversy has been a consistent feature of Boris Johnson’s premiership. His first months in office, amid the turmoil and acrimony of the late-2019 Brexit deadlock, were marked by the unlawful prorogation of parliament, suggestions that he would defy the law, and briefings from allies that if the Commons withdrew its confidence he would ‘dare the Queen to sack him’.

Thankfully, the monarch was not dragged into Johnson’s resignation this summer. But the Prime Minister stepped down only after a tense standoff with his own party, as it forced him from office over a series of standards-related scandals. The most prominent of these, partygate, will outlast Johnson’s premiership – with the Privileges Committee’s investigation into whether the Prime Minister misled parliament ongoing.

Though the intervening years perhaps lacked such obvious constitutional fireworks, these topics were never off the agenda. The Johnson government’s reform programme, and behaviour, often provoked controversy; the COVID-19 pandemic raised questions about how the country should be governed in times of crisis; and the fallout from Brexit heightened tensions over the territorial constitution, as discussed elsewhere on this blog – particularly in Northern Ireland.

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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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