Boris Johnson and parliament: misunderstandings and structural weaknesses

On 21 January Unit Director Meg Russell appeared on a panel with two former Conservative Chief Whips, reflecting on Boris Johnson’s troubled relationship with parliament as Prime Minister. In this post she presents her central arguments – that the Johnson government in its early months has seemed to demonstrate some basic misunderstandings about parliament and its role; but also the government’s behaviour has highlighted some of parliament’s key weaknesses.

In early September 2020 I wrote a blogpost on Boris Johnson and parliament, which documented 13 unhappy episodes in 13 months. I had originally aimed at producing a list of 10 such episodes, but found that there was just too much material. Some of the incidents were obvious – such as the attempted prorogation the previous September, ultimately ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Others have continued to bubble along unhappily in the subsequent months – including the persistent refusal by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to provide time for MPs to debate and agree proposals from the Procedure Committee to allow them to work virtually during the pandemic (frequently covered on this blog – see here and here), and the sporadic suggestions from government sources that the House of Lords should move to York. Some incidents were more obscure, but worth recalling for the record – such as Downing Street’s attempt to impose Chris Grayling as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (which rather dramatically backfired).

Of course that post was written five months ago, and the list continues to gets longer. It predated, for example, the dramatic showdown with former Conservative leaders over the government’s Internal Market Bill. It predated the announcement of the new Christmas lockdown rules during Commons recess, and the government’s refusal to allow a recall to debate them – despite protests by numerous Conservative backbenchers. It noted Johnson’s excessive first round of Lords appointments, but not his second within six months – both in clear breach of the Lord Speaker’s hardfought attempts to control the size of the chamber. It predated Johnson’s overruling of the House of Lords Appointments Commission’s recommendations on propriety, for the first time by any Prime Minister in the Commission’s 20-year existence.

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The Supreme Court ruling in Cherry/Miller (No.2), and the power of parliament

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThis week’s Supreme Court judgment against Boris Johnson on parliament’s prorogation has shaken British politics and will be looked back on as a landmark case. Yet at the same time, Meg Russell argues, it simply reinforces the core principle of parliament’s centrality in our constitution. There has long been a myth of executive-dominance in the British system. Perhaps after this case, the fact that the government gains its power and authority from parliament will be better recognised – by those both inside and outside the system.

The Supreme Court’s judgment in the prorogation case was damning. Short of deciding that Boris Johnson had misled the Queen (which would be difficult to know, given private conversations) the court issued the strongest possible condemnation on all counts. The government had argued that prorogation was non-justiciable: i.e. not a matter in which the courts could get involved. The justices instead ruled it justiciable. Having established that, they then ruled it to be unlawful. Then, rather than leaving any loose ends regarding remedies, they explicitly quashed the prorogation, declaring that ‘Parliament has not been prorogued’. To cap it all, the decision was a unanimous one by all 11 justices who sat in the case. The prorogation was hence not just ‘improper’, as argued previously on this blog, and in a letter to the Times signed by 22 constitutional experts, but also found to be unlawful in the most powerful possible terms.

In some respects this feels like a constitutional earthquake. Few at the outset expected such a resounding result. On the basis of the High Court’s judgment, the first hurdle of justiciability was in doubt. Many who watched the proceedings, and the careful forensic analysis by Lord Pannick, representing Gina Miller, will soon have started thinking otherwise. This can only have been reinforced by watching the presentations by the government’s lawyers, who claimed that the issue of prorogation should be resolved politically rather than through the courts. Their suggestion that parliament could somehow defend itself, when the very point of the case was that parliament had been shut down, rang hollow.

The court’s judgment confirmed that advising the monarch to prorogue ‘will be unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive’ (para 50). That flows, the judgment suggested, from two principles at the very core of the UK constitution: the sovereignty of parliament, and the accountability of the government to parliament – exercised, for example, through questions and committees. Continue reading

Rethinking Democracy: three routes to majority government

albert_weale (1)After 65 years of single-party government in the House of Commons, the last three general elections have led to three differently constituted governments: a two-party coalition, a Conservative majority government and a Conservative minority government reliant on a confidence and supply agreement for its parliamentary majority. Albert Weale argues that if a rethinking of British democracy is required, that we must start from first principles and consider how to create ways of institutionalising political negotiation among different groups in a way that embraces an incentive towards encompassing different interests and opinions.

A UK trio

2010 – 2015 – 2017. Three elections; three results; three parliaments varying in their party balance: three types of government. Three types of majority rule.

2010 produced a hung parliament with no one party holding an overall majority of seats in the Commons, leading to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, the first UK government formed by a coalition of more than one party since 1945. In 2015 the UK reverted to its familiar type with one party holding a majority of parliamentary seats, and with the Conservatives able to form a single-party government. 2017 produced another hung parliament and the government exhibited yet another form: a minority government dependent on a small party, the Democratic Unionists, for confidence and supply, but without the assurance that it could carry the whole of its programme during its term of office.

These three examples illustrate the different ways in which the principle of majority rule can be interpreted. 2015 exhibits the typical pattern of government formation in the UK: one party gains a majority of seats in parliament on less than a majority of votes in the election, with the Conservatives holding just over 50% of the seats on the basis of 37% of the popular vote. On this view of majority rule, it means government by the party that can secure a majority of seats in the legislature whether or not it has secured a majority of votes in the country. No UK governing government since 1935 has secured more than a plurality of the popular vote. Continue reading

Reducing the size of the House of Lords: two steps forward, two steps back

downloadThere has for some time been an apparent consensus in parliament and government that the House of Lords has too many members, yet recent efforts to effect reform have made little progress. David Beamish explains how an apparent change of government position and the parliamentary tactics of a determined minority have slowed the pace of change.

There has long been concern, both within parliament and outside it, about the number of members of the House of Lords – currently over 780. The prospect of major reform seems remote. However, there have been two strands of activity to try to reduce the numbers: the proposals of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House (the Burns committee), and a private member’s bill to end by-elections to replace hereditary peers (the Grocott bill).

In November 2017 I wrote a blog post describing the publication of the report of the Burns committee as ‘a real opportunity for progress on reform’. In July 2018 I wrote another blog post on the continuing hereditary peer by-elections in the House, ending with the comment that, although other issues currently dominate the political and parliamentary agenda, ‘there may nevertheless be some prospect of real progress in relation to both the size of the House of Lords and the ending of the hereditary peer by-elections’. Subsequently there was heartening progress on both fronts, but last month saw two reverses. Continue reading