Brexit and parliament: where did it all go wrong?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary arguments over Brexit may now feel far behind us, but the bitterness of those arguments has left scars on our politics. Meg Russell examines four factors which contributed to the parliamentary ‘perfect storm’ over Brexit, concluding that ‘parliament’ largely got the blame for divisions inside the Conservative Party. This was fuelled by the referendum, minority government and the inability of parliamentary rules to accommodate a minority situation. The populist anti-parliamentary rhetoric which resulted was potentially damaging, with implications for the current Covid-19 crisis, when public trust in political decision-making is essential.

Amidst the current Covid-19 crisis, last year’s Brexit clashes already feel a long time ago. But at the time, they pushed Britain’s politics and constitution to their limits. Parliament was frequently at the heart of these conflicts – with angry headlines suggesting that parliamentarians were seeking to ‘block Brexit’, and branding them ‘wreckers’ or ‘saboteurs’. Twice questions of parliament’s proper role in relation to government ended up in the Supreme Court. Boris Johnson sought a lengthy prorogation of parliament, after which the Attorney General told MPs that they had ‘no moral right to sit’. How on earth did the UK, traditionally the most parliamentary of all democracies, get into such a mess? I dissect this question in a newly-published paper, ‘Brexit and Parliament: The Anatomy of a Perfect Storm’, in the journal Parliamentary Affairs. This post summarises the article’s key arguments. The full version is freely available to read online.

I suggest that four key political and constitutional features, all unusual in the UK context, contributed to this ‘perfect storm’. It was accompanied by a rise in populist and anti-parliamentary rhetoric – of a kind which would be destabilising and dangerous in any democracy, but particularly one based on a core principle of parliamentary sovereignty – as returned to at the end of this post. The four factors were as follows:

The referendum

As charted by the Independent Commission on Referendums, referendum use has grown in UK politics, but can sit awkwardly with traditional parliamentary sovereignty. Arguments for referendums on matters concerning EU powers were made over a long period (somewhat ironically) on the basis of protecting that very sovereignty. The 2016 EU referendum – eventually conceded by David Cameron, under pressure from Conservative Eurosceptics and UKIP – was very unusual, in two important ways. First, it was what the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (chaired by senior Brexit supporter Bernard Jenkin) criticised as a ‘bluff-call’ referendum: where the government’s purpose was not to seek approval for a change that it supported, but to shut down its opponents’ demands. Second, the referendum was held on a broad proposition (to leave the EU), rather than a detailed prospectus. Hence when the result came in, and was not the one the Prime Minister or most MPs (even on the Conservative benches at that time) wanted, parliament was left to decide how to put it into effect. Such circumstances generated clear tensions between parliamentary and popular sovereignty. Continue reading

Parliament, politics and anti-politics

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThis week, the Constitution Unit and UK in a Changing Europe publish a new report, Parliament and Brexit, which contains expert analysis how parliament has handled Brexit in the near four-year period since the 2016 referendum victory for the Leave campaign. It also includes discussion of parliament’s future scrutiny functions, as Brexit continues to take shape in increasingly difficult political times. In this, the first excerpt from the report to appear on our blog, Unit Director Meg Russell outlines how the tussle between parliament and government over Brexit harmed the former’s reputation, to the detriment of our parliamentary democracy.

Parliament sits at the heart of the UK’s democracy, with core functions of holding the government to account, scrutinising and legitimising its actions. Through local representation and the representation of political parties, it links citizens to the key political decisions that are taken in their name.

In all democracies parliaments are central – it’s impossible to be a democracy without a parliament. But this centrality is particularly so in the UK, for two fundamental reasons. First, as a ‘parliamentary’ (rather than presidential) democracy the government ultimately depends on the confidence of the House of Commons for its survival. Second, the UK puts the principle of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ at the core of its constitution (as discussed in Barnard and Young’s contribution to the report). Challenges to the authority of parliament are thus challenges to UK democracy, and potentially to our constitution itself. Yet such challenges occurred, increasingly, during the Brexit process.

That process saw unprecedented levels of conflict between government and parliament, and perceived conflicts between ‘parliament and people’, precipitated by a unique chain of events. The 2016 referendum handed voters the in-principle decision over the UK’s membership of the EU, at a time when most MPs supported Remain (see contributions in the report from Philip Lynch and Richard Whitaker). This already promised tensions, given that parliament and government were left to navigate the more detailed questions about the form that Brexit should take. The Conservatives were highly divided on Brexit, while most Labour MPs instinctively opposed it. Delivering such a controversial policy with the narrow parliamentary majority that Theresa May inherited from David Cameron looked risky, so she gambled on a general election in 2017 to improve matters; but this resulted in an even weaker minority government. Her authority was undermined, and parliament more divided than before. Continue reading

Why the new Speaker may not always be able to play a straight bat

NGQojaZG_400x400 (1)On 4 November, the House of Commons elected Lindsay Hoyle to serve as Speaker, following the resignation of John Bercow. It has been treated as accepted wisdom that a different approach to the Speakership is called for. However, Bercow has taken decisions about the Commons’ handling of Brexit in circumstances where several – or all – of the available choices were potentially controversial. Jack Simson Caird argues that his successor might therefore find that trying to ‘play a straight bat’ is not as easy or appropriate as it might appear.

Lindsay Hoyle is the new Speaker of the House of Commons. Hoyle, like many of his fellow candidates for the role, sought to emphasise that he would be very different from John Bercow. One of the main narratives around the election was that the Speaker should be, in the words of Chris Bryant, ‘an umpire and not a player’. All the candidates, including Hoyle, pledged to follow Bercow in standing up for backbenchers, but at the same time suggested that he had made procedural decisions in the 2017 parliament that were problematic. It is in that context that this post seeks to revisit some of the major decisions taken by Bercow during the last parliament. In the narrative established by the media and several of the candidates during the election for his successor, Bercow’s major Brexit decisions were portrayed as the product of his personality, and a desire to be the focal point of political debate. However, when the Speaker’s key decisions are examined in context, that narrative seems rather simplistic. If, after the general election, Lindsay Hoyle is faced with a minority government that is seeking to push through constitutional reforms in the face of opposition from large numbers of MPs, then he may find himself in the political spotlight. The analysis below suggests that in that context, balancing a commitment to be a champion of backbench MPs and the desire to play procedural decisions with a ‘straight bat’ may prove to be difficult in practice.  Continue reading

Parliament, spin and the accurate reporting of Brexit

lisa.james.resized.staff.webpage.jpg (1).pngmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliament has been the site of many of the key Brexit battles, and political journalists play a vital role in reporting such developments and holding politicians to account. But unfamiliarity with the workings of parliament can leave them vulnerable to spin. Lisa James and Meg Russell argue that when it comes to key aspects of parliamentary procedure, the present climate of anonymous briefings and counter-briefings may make reporters’ traditional sources less trustworthy than usual. But there are other sources to which they can, and should, be turning.

Parliamentary reporting has rarely been more exciting or important. From the ‘meaningful votes’ on Theresa May’s Brexit deal to the first Saturday sitting since 1982, parliament has been the site of ever-more suspenseful Brexit episodes. These have been narrated and analysed by reporters in real time – and followed by record audiences.

Recent weeks have seen a growing chorus of concern about the relationship between the Johnson government and the media, with the perceived misuse of anonymous briefing and spin coming under pointed criticism from senior journalists and former Conservative MPs. In this environment, parliamentary battles and controversies pose particular challenges for journalists. The more politics is played out in parliament, rather than around the cabinet table or in TV studios, the more important an understanding of parliamentary procedure becomes.

Raw politics of course is important in driving parliamentary outcomes. But parliamentary procedure sets the framework within which political questions are negotiated and resolved. It can determine which actors will have most influence and when. Hence if journalists misunderstand procedure, or are deliberately misled, they risk misrepresenting which political outcomes are likely to happen, and indeed which are even possible. Continue reading

Which MPs are responsible for failing to ‘get Brexit done’?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgToday Boris Johnson will give his leader’s speech at Conservative Party conference, doubtless with a central argument about the need to ‘get Brexit done’. MPs have been blamed for the failure to achieve this. But which MPs precisely are responsible? Meg Russell argues that opposition parties cannot normally be expected to deliver government policy. Instead, government backbenchers usually have that role. It is resistance from Conservative backbenchers – including Johnson himself and others promoted to his Cabinet – to supporting Theresa May’s deal that provides the most obvious reason for Brexit not having been agreed.

The slogan for this year’s Conservative Party conference, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is to ‘get Brexit done’. Immediately following the Supreme Court ruling against the government last week, ill-tempered exchanges in the House of Commons saw the Prime Minister repeatedly blaming parliamentarians for failing to deliver Brexit. For example, Boris Johnson commented thatPoliticians of all parties promised the public that they would honour the result. Sadly, many have since done all they can to abandon those promises and to overturn that democratic vote’. In contrast he pledged thatWe will not betray the people who sent us here; we will not’, adding that ‘That is what the Opposition want to do’. Far stronger words, characteristically, have been ascribed to his chief adviser Dominic Cummings in blaming parliament for the Brexit impasse. Several papers have reported Cummings as suggesting that it was ‘not surprising’ that people are angry with MPs, as they have failed in their duty to get Brexit done. Given the risks that such comments further stoke such public anger against our democratic institutions, it seems important to consider exactly which MPs primarily bear responsibility for the failure to agree a Brexit plan.

First, a quick recap on what happened in the months before Johnson took office. His predecessor, Theresa May, pursued a lengthy negotiation with the EU27 – resulting in a withdrawal agreement that was signed off on 25 November 2018. Under the terms of Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, this deal was then put to an initial ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons on 15 January 2019. However, it was defeated by MPs by a whopping 432 to 202 votes. The Prime Minister subsequently brought the deal back for a second such attempt on 12 March. By this point various MPs had been brought round to supporting the deal; but it was nonetheless still heavily defeated, by 391 votes to 242. A third and final attempt at getting the House of Commons to agree the deal then occurred on the originally-planned Brexit day, of 29 March 2019. This was not a ‘meaningful vote’ under the terms of the Act, as Speaker John Bercow had hinted that such a move could be ruled out of order – on the basis that MPs cannot just repeatedly be asked to vote upon the same proposition – but it was again an in-principle vote on the deal. Again the gap between supporters and opponents narrowed, but the government was defeated by 344 votes to 286 – a margin of 58. Hence a further 30 MPs would have needed to switch from opposing to supporting the deal in order for it to be clearly approved. Continue reading

Article 50: two years on


Anand.Menon

On 29 March, The UK in a Changing Europe published Article 50 two years on, summarising what has happened during the Article 50 process, where we are now, and what might happen in the future. Here, its director Anand Menon offers his own view of how Brexit has been handled since Article 50 was invoked by the government, and offers an insight into some of the topics contained in the report.

Two years on. So little progress made. As metaphors go, watching parliament hold a series of eight votes and fail to muster a majority on any of them was not too bad at all.

And yet, and yet. For all the outward signs of chaos emanating from Westminster, things are moving. It was never going to be easy for MPs to ‘take control’ of Brexit, if only because all they control even now is the parliamentary diary. Parliament isn’t set up to make it easy for MPs to both set their own agenda and make decisions.

Moreover, it strikes me as slightly misguided to criticise the House of Commons for failing to come to a clear decision on Brexit. For on this if on nothing else, our MPs represent us faithfully. Like the public at large, they are deeply divided on the question of leaving the European Union, and therefore – again like us – it is not clear which if any of the possible outcomes a majority of them might agree on. Continue reading

Parliament and treaty-making: from CRAG to a meaningful vote?

Hestermeyer (1)Yesterday, the House of Lords debated three international treaties, in line with the process established by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (see here for the transcript of the debates). Holger Hestermeyer discusses how the process of treaty ratifaction works, how it has been affected by the meaningful vote mechanism created by Brexit, and what lessons can be learned from the way in which other countries and organisations ratify treaties.

There has hardly been a day in the last two years in which treaties have not taken centre stage in the public debate. From the Withdrawal Agreement to the future trade relationship with the EU, from discussions about leaving the European Convention on Human Rights to proposals to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) treaties have become essential for the future economic and political outlook of the UK. But as treaties have obtained a central role in the debate, the question of how treaties are made has also become a topic of discussion, in particular the role of parliament. In the UK, that role is limited: parliament can merely delay treaty ratification. It can also vote down implementing legislation, but it does not (or did not, before the Withdrawal Agreement) get a vote on the treaty itself. A separate system is in place for the scrutiny of EU treaties, but this is outside of the scope of this blogpost and will be coming to an end with Brexit.

The UK constitutional setup is somewhat unusual. In many countries, the executive needs to obtain parliamentary consent for certain types of treaties to be able to ratify. Whether and to what extent the UK system of treaty scrutiny is in need of reform is now the subject of an inquiry in the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee, but treaty scrutiny has also played an important role in the discussions on the Trade Bill 2017-2019 and is the subject of EDM 128, which was tabled on 4 July 2017 has attracted 125 supporters. This blogpost will briefly describe how treaties are made with particular regard to the UK. It will then discuss why there is a call for reform. Finally it will turn to what such a reform could look like and what lessons can be drawn from other systems, such as the US, the EU, France or Germany.

How treaties are made

The treaty-making process can vary according to a number of factors, such as whether a treaty is formally concluded as a treaty or through an exchange of notes or whether a treaty is bilateral or multilateral. In general, the parties decide to try and negotiate a treaty with a defined partner, prepare internally (e.g. though consultations) setting their objectives, and then conduct the negotiations. Once the negotiators have reached agreement, the text is finalised and the parties can sign. Usually the signature does not yet bring the treaty into force – most treaties require another formal act expressing the consent of the state to be bound, referred to as ‘ratification’. Continue reading

The House of Commons and the Brexit deal: A veto player or a driver of policy?

pastedgraphic-1-e1494926560214With parliament set to vote on the government’s Brexit deal today, there is much speculation about what will happen if it is rejected. Here, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon analyses the potential scenarios, including whether or not the House of Commons could end up running the country directly.

A key concern for the House of Commons when voting on the proposed deal with the European Union will be not only the merits of the agreement itself, but what happens if it is defeated. In theory, parliament – and in particular the House of Commons – is the ultimate source of constitutional authority within the UK system. But, in this particular circumstance, if MPs reject what is on offer, will they be able to take the initiative and impose a different course of action, or will they simply have to wait for the government to act?

The key problem for MPs wanting to implement other solutions to the Brexit deal is time – not just 29 March but debating time on the floor of the House. The government has complete control of the business and time of the House – with the exception of specific time set aside for the opposition and backbench business. Furthermore, any solution which requires legislation could only get through parliament with the government’s support.

But is it possible to contemplate the House taking the initiative in finding a solution to Brexit? If the government’s deal does not pass in the House on 15 January, might the government really say ‘we want to hear what the House thinks of the various options’?

An ‘All-Options’ debate?

At this point many MPs will want – and the public might expect – a debate leading to a vote on a whole range of options. In procedural terms, there is a clear precedent from 2003 when the House voted on a variety of options for the composition of a reformed House of Lords – though the salutary lesson from that experience is that each option was rejected. One group of MPs will be solidly opposed to opening up the options like this: those who oppose the government’s deal and want a no-deal exit. Continue reading

Could an ‘indicative vote’ break the Brexit logjam?

albert_weale (1)An indicative vote on the government’s Brexit deal has been suggested as a means of determining which of the options available to parliament has the best chance of securing the support of the House of Commons. In this post, Albert Weale examines how an indicative vote process would work, and whether or not it offers a workable solution to what appears to be a parliamentary impasse.

Pressure is growing for an indicative vote in the Commons to break the Brexit logjam. Such a vote would allow MPs to vote on a number of alternatives to the government’s ‘deal’, as laid out in the Withdrawal Agreement announced in November. The purpose of such a vote would be to see whether there was significant support in the Commons for each of the specified alternatives. A similar exercise was tried in 2003 when the then Labour government was seeking support for reform of the House of Lords, and in particular what balance of elected or appointed members a reformed upper chamber should contain. It did not work then, but could it work in the case of Brexit? Answering this question depends on three things: how many options are voted on, how the votes are counted, and the extent to which MPs engage in strategic voting. All three elements interact in complex ways.

To understand the basic logic, consider a simplified version of the various options that are likely to be proposed. With no abstentions, a majority on a motion in the Commons requires 320 votes to pass. In Figure 1, I have shown five possible motions that could be put to an indicative vote. Other things being equal, the more alternatives there are, the harder it is to obtain a majority for any one of them. Continue reading