The last Prime Minister of the Union?

Last week, Boris Johnson was elected leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, but concerns have been voiced about the potential consequences of his premiership for the Union. Michael Kenny assesses the validity of those concerns and how they might be alleviated.  

‘The last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’. This damning, but also hopeful, judgement of the implications of a Boris Johnson premiership from the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford, expresses a sentiment that is widely held in UK politics, and is not confined to Scottish nationalist circles.

In fact, this particular outcome is very unlikely given how long – as we are currently learning – it takes countries to leave unions of which they are members. But it is undoubtedly true that his tenure in office will have a very significant impact upon the increasingly strained internal politics of the union, and could well ignite major political crises about the constitutional positions of Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is highly unlikely that Johnson will be the PM who oversees the break-up of Britain; but he may well go down in history as the catalyst for its dissolution.

So what does Johnson have to do to make sure that he does not become the leader who sends the UK to the brink?

In his election campaign he joined some of the other contenders in signalling his awareness of the need for the Union to be given a much higher priority in the thinking and policies emanating from Whitehall and Westminster. And this is certainly not a bad place from which to start. But there is a real risk that the kind of ‘hyper-unionism’ which, as our research shows, has emerged in official and political circles as an assertive response to heightened anxieties about the prospects of the UK, could well — if done without strategy or sensitivity — rebound on its author, deepening an ingrained scepticism about UK politicians and the central state in the outer parts of the UK. Continue reading

175 not out: the new edition of Erskine May and eight years of constitutional change

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgIn March, Sir David Natzler retired as Clerk of the Commons after over 40 years in the House. Now, he is the co-editor of Erskine May, the 25th edition of which is the first new edition in eight years, and is freely available to the public: a significant change. Here, Sir David discusses some of the key changes to the text after what can only be described as an eventful eight years for the Commons. 

The years since the last edition of Erskine May in 2011 have been pretty turbulent by any standards. We have had three types – coalition, majority and minority – of government, two general elections, three national referendums and numerous constitutional statutes of real significance. So it was plainly time for a new edition of this timeless work, which is often referred to but rarely read.

The new Erskine May is exciting to me because, as its co-editor, I had the happy task of reading through the chapters as they emerged from the efforts of many of my former colleagues. We all had to ask ourselves: is this a clear and honest account of parliamentary procedure and practice, and if not, how far can we go in recasting it? It is not a new book; but nor is it merely a historical text with minor amendments for the benefit of a modern audience. New content has been added, but nothing has been asserted without due authority, and we also recognise that some assertions of the past are too precious to be excised. Paragraph 21.4 on the rule against reading of speeches is as good an example as any: the principle remains valued by some MPs but it would be idle to pretend that it is rigorously observed in practice. There has to be some wishful thinking.

Who is this edition of Erskine May for? Plainly for practitioners, meaning the occupants of the Chair (such as the Speaker and Deputy Speakers), those who advise them, MPs and officials. But it is not just for them. Recent controversy over decisions by the Speaker on procedural issues related to Brexit and threats of early or extended prorogation by some candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party have served to remind all of us that parliamentary procedures are not some sort of secret masonic ritual to be understood only by a priestly caste of clerks and a handful of others, but are as integral to a parliamentary democracy as electoral rules. And it is not just for Westminster: one of my great pleasures as Clerk was to receive emails from colleagues around the Commonwealth seeking elucidation of a procedural – and usually political – issue where their knowledge of what was said in Erskine May was far in advance of my own!

Fortunately this edition has been preceded by two very different works which help set it in context. In 2018 the Commons authorities published a Guide to Procedure which is intended to help those involved in its day to day work, set out in plain English. It is of course available online. And secondly, at the end of 2017 Hart Publishing produced a book of essays – edited by current Clerk of Committees Paul Evans, entitled Essays on the History of Parliamentary Procedure: In Honour of Thomas Erskine May, to mark the great man’s 200th birthday in 2015. Continue reading

The next PM’s territorial challenges

jack_sheldon.1The next stages of Brexit are now set to happen under a new Prime Minister. The chosen candidate will have to work with governments in Wales and Scotland that are openly critical. Northern Ireland may be without a government and the English regions may lack a unified voice, but neither can be taken for granted, especially as the new PM will rely on the DUP for confidence and supply. Leaving the European Union therefore cannot be separated from the challenges of maintaining the domestic union, as Jack Sheldon explains.

Following the announcement of Theresa May’s imminent resignation, the long-anticipated contest within the Conservative Party to succeed her has begun.

The campaign will inevitably be dominated by Brexit. But events over the past three years have shown that the future of relations with the EU cannot easily be separated from the future of the domestic Union. The candidates will thus need to give careful thought to how they will approach the major statecraft challenges presented by territorial politics across the UK if they become Prime Minister.

Renegotiating the Northern Ireland backstop will be popular with Conservative MPs – but a new Prime Minister might soon face the same dilemma as Theresa May

The Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ has been the main driver of opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement within the parliamentary Conservative Party and their confidence-and-supply partners the DUP. Consequently, there are strong short-term incentives for leadership contenders to commit to renegotiating it, in the hope that it might yet be possible to get a deal that doesn’t cut across Brexiteer red lines on the Single Market and customs union through the House of Commons. Pledges to this effect have already been made by Jeremy HuntBoris JohnsonEsther McVey and Dominic Raab.

In reality, substantive changes to the backstop will be extremely difficult to deliver. It remains the position of the EU27 and the Irish government that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.  Keeping an open Irish border has become highly salient in Ireland and the EU, and the new Prime Minister will need to appreciate that this means there is next to no chance that they will be open to trading the guarantees provided by the backstop for the loosely-defined ‘alternative arrangements’ envisaged by many Conservative MPs. The same dilemma Theresa May faced might thus soon confront her successor – whether, as an avowed unionist, to recoil from a no-deal scenario that would undoubtedly have disruptive effects at the Irish border and strengthen the case for an Irish border poll, or whether the delivery of Brexit trumps everything else.

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Is Tory unionism the greatest obstacle to Brexit?

image_normalAs the Brexit process continues, the Conservative Party is finding it hard to reconcile its desire to leave the EU with its longstanding commitment to maintaining the territorial and political union of the United Kingdom. Michael Kenny argues that, far from introducing a destabilising element to an otherwise sound constitutional set-up, Brexit has instead amplified and accelerated the debate about the UK’s territorial constitution.

‘I didn’t know it would break the United Kingdom’. This regretful rumination from columnist Peter Oborne – in a fascinating interview given in the wake of the recanting of his support for Brexit – touches on one of the key developments in the Brexit story. This is the gathering realisation in some Conservative circles that leaving the EU may well be incompatible with one of the foundational values of the Conservative party – the preservation of the integrity of the United Kingdom.

The painful discovery that these two goals are very hard – and maybe impossible – to reconcile is one of the great under-estimated political ironies of Brexit. For it has been those calling for the UK’s departure from the EU who have talked most confidently and directly about the distinctive character of Britain’s model of parliamentary sovereignty and the territorially differentiated unity expressed in in its constitutional arrangements. And whilst anxieties about whether Brexit might reignite the independence cause in Scotland were aired in the campaign leading up to the 2016 referendum, for the most part these remained at its margins.

But Prime Minister Theresa May has sounded a more anxious note ever since she entered office in July 2016. She has repeatedly – and a little mechanically – invoked the importance to her own politics of ‘our precious union’, a mantra that betrays a telling worry about the implications of a vote which accentuates a growing sense of political differences across the different nations and peoples contained with it, and also signals the salience in her own mind of the question of what implementing Brexit means for the domestic union. Continue reading

Understanding English identity and institutions in a changing United Kingdom

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133image_normaliainmclean200pxThe current devolution settlement has left England as the only UK country subject to permanent direct rule from Westminster, which has the dual role of governing both the UK and England. In their new book, Akash Paun, Michael Kenny and Iain McLean have been exploring some of the key arguments concerning the status of England within the Union, who speaks for England politically, and the concept of an English national identity.

Governing England, a new volume published today by the British Academy and Oxford University Press, explores whether, why and with what consequences there has been a disentangling of England from Britain in terms of its governance and national identity. The book concludes that the English have grown dissatisfied with their constitution and relationship with the wider world (as reflected in England’s decisive vote in favour of Brexit), and less content for their nationhood to be poured into the larger vessel of Britishness. But England’s national consciousness is fragmented and embryonic – unlike the other UK nations, it has yet to engage in a reflective national conversation about how it wishes to be governed – and, as Brexit unfolds, England is struggling to reshape its relationship with the other UK nations and the wider world without a cohesive national narrative to guide the way.

England, alone among the nations of the UK, has no legislature or executive of its own, and remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe. It is ruled directly from Westminster and Whitehall by a parliament, government and political parties that simultaneously represent the interests of both the UK and England. Correspondingly, at the level of identity, the English have historically displayed a greater propensity than the Scots and Welsh to conflate their own nationhood with a sense of affiliation to Britain and its state. As Robert Hazell noted in 2006, writing for the Constitution Unit on The English Question, ‘in our history and in our institutions the two identities [of English and British] are closely intertwined, and cannot easily be unwoven’.

As a result of devolution to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, Westminster and Whitehall frequently oversee legislation that applies entirely, or predominantly, to England. But the government and most politicians at Westminster tend to elide these territorial complexities, talking of setting policy or legislating for ‘the nation’ or ‘the country’, whatever the precise territorial application of the announcement in question. Governing England is rarely considered as an enterprise separate from the wider governance of the UK. Continue reading

Intergovernmental relations: a blueprint for reform

downloadSince the Brexit referendum in 2016, the case for an overhaul of the management of intergovernmental relations has become much stronger. Jack Sheldon explains that in a new report, he and his colleagues have advanced the first detailed proposals for reform of the existing arrangements. These include formalising and restructuring the current ad hoc system, implementing a method of consensus decision-making, and increasing the transparency of the system.

It is widely agreed that the ad hoc and under-developed arrangements for relations between the UK government and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in urgent need of an overhaul. Even before the vote to leave the EU, several parliamentary committees, leading politicians and a number of constitutional experts called for reform. Since 2016 the case has only become stronger. Brexit-related ‘IGR’ has been marked by sharp disagreement over policy and process, against the background of low trust between governments. And it is envisaged that IGR will assume greater importance in the coming years, given the need to implement, govern and review ‘common frameworks’ in devolved areas currently covered by EU law.

In a new report Professor Nicola McEwen, Professor Michael Kenny, Dr Coree Brown Swan and I advance proposals for reform of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) structure – the primary forum within which formal IGR takes place. While the need to renew the JMC has frequently been recognised in recent years, few detailed proposals have been made. We seek to fill this gap, setting out 27 conclusions and recommendations. Our report is also distinctive in drawing heavily on experience of IGR in five broadly comparable multi-level political systems – Australia, Belgium, Canada, Italy and Spain. We were invited to produce the report by officials in the UK and devolved governments who are currently working on a review of IGR commissioned by the JMC itself, and hope that our conclusions will help to shape thinking as the review proceeds.

Principles of IGR

Existing principles underpinning intergovernmental relations, as articulated in the Memorandum of Understanding on devolution, are broadly stated and prone to being interpreted very differently by the various parties involved. For example, what amounts to ‘good’ communication and what is ‘practicable’ with respect to information exchange are matters of (often diverging) judgement. Continue reading

Labour’s unavoidable English question

In 2015, the Conservative government implemented ‘English votes for English laws’ (or EVEL) in the House of Commons as a way of responding to the ‘English question’. Labour, by contrast, has had relatively little to say in this area – but were the party to form a government in the near future, it would be required to take some tough decisions. In this post, Michael Kenny assesses the possible routes forward for how Labour might respond to EVEL, in particular, and broader questions about English governance and devolution across the UK.

Brexit and its potential implications saturate British politics. But attention has lately shifted away from some of the complex constitutional questions which were aired in the days and months before the UK’s negotiations with the EU began. These include the thorny issue of how the UK government will handle the very different perspectives on Brexit which are held by the governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – which will move back to the foreground when the government formally requests the consent of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments for the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill currently passing through the Westminster parliament. Whether Labour in Wales and Scotland opt to oppose Brexit will be of particular importance in political terms.

A related, but distinct, issue which all of the main parties will have to consider soon is how those parts of the complex body of coming legislation which affect England in distinct ways, will fare. And this in a context where it is still taken as given, in Westminster at least, that the UK government can represent the interests of the entire UK and England at the same time, even when the current administration depends for its survival upon a small party that is based in Northern Ireland only.

The previous Conservative government introduced a complex and convoluted system – known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL) – to handle such legislation, and sought to make political capital out of its ability to answer the English question – one of the great Cinderella issues of British politics.

Whether these opaque rules will be enough to deal with the increasingly political character of English national identity is a moot point. But in EVEL and the patchwork model of metro mayors and newly created combined authorities it has created, the government at least has something to say on the subject of English devolution (even if what Theresa May herself thinks about these changes remains a well-kept secret).

Labour, in contrast, seems to have little to say in this area – aside from promising a constitutional convention which feels like a fig leaf, rather than a signal of intent.

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EVEL won’t worry the new government – but the West Lothian question may well do

Following the election result some pundits have suggested that English votes for English laws might be an obstacle to the government, given its reliance on support from non-English MPs, whilst others have suggested the procedures might provide the government with an enhanced English majority. In this post Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny explain that neither of these possibilities is likely to occur. However, the territorial balance of the new Commons could cause the West Lothian question to come back to the fore – though not solely in relation to England.

Amidst the swirl of punditry and opinion unleashed by this month’s general election result, attention has once again turned to the ‘English votes for English laws’ reform (otherwise known as ‘EVEL’) recently introduced in the House of Commons. EVEL aimed to address concerns about the capacity of MPs from outside England to exercise a determining vote on England-only legislative matters. Some pundits have suggested that it may well represent an acute obstacle, of the Conservatives’ own making, to the prospects of Theresa May’s minority government given its reliance on support from MPs outside England. Others, by contrast, have wondered whether EVEL might give her the enhanced majority she needs to govern England. In fact, neither of these possibilities is likely to occur.

Indeed, some of the more outlandish claims in circulation about EVEL supply yet more evidence of how poorly understood this set of procedures still is. In our in-depth analysis of its first year of operation – Finding the Good in EVEL, published in November 2016 – we argued that the EVEL procedures should be simplified, made more transparent, and be better explained by government. But, although EVEL itself is unlikely to greatly hinder this minority government in parliament, some of the wider issues underpinning the ‘West Lothian Question’ (to which EVEL was a very belated answer) may well resurface, and it is worth pondering those at this particular moment.

EVEL and the West Lothian Question

The arithmetic of the new House does mean that questions of territorial representation could well become divisive and difficult for Theresa May, and these may add to the formidable set of challenges ahead of her. But to understand these, we should first remind ourselves of the iconic West Lothian Question posed by the late Tam Dalyell in response to proposals for devolution in the 1970s. Dalyell raised two distinct issues. His central complaint was that, were devolution to be implemented in only certain parts of the UK, MPs who represented seats where devolution applied could, in principle, determine outcomes for those who lived in non-devolved parts of the UK, whilst MPs representing the latter could not do the reverse. Implicit within this, however, was a second observation: that devolution might legitimise the idea that any UK administration needed a ‘mandate’ to introduce legislation for territories where it was not the majority party.

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The government’s ‘English votes for English laws’ review: an assessment

Last Thursday the government published its technical review of the operation of the ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) procedures in the House of Commons. The review concluded against making ‘any substantive changes’. Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny argue that this is a missed opportunity. The decision to close down this chance for parliament to engage in meaningful debate about the EVEL system is regrettable, and may prove to be short-sighted.

Last week the government published the conclusions of its long-awaited technical review of the operation of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). This system, designed by the government and introduced in the House of Commons in October 2015, provides English (and sometimes English and Welsh) MPs with a veto over certain legislation that applies only in that part of the UK. (For a reminder of how the EVEL process works, see here.) The government’s review is 12 pages in length, and provides a fairly perfunctory response to some of the main criticisms made of this system. Ultimately, however, it concludes against making ‘any substantive changes’ to the procedures.

That the government has decided to stick with this largely unloved set of procedures is no real surprise, given the defensive stance it has consistently taken on the matter. But the decision to publish its review findings on 30 March – the morning after the triggering of Article 50, the day of the publication of the Great Repeal Bill white paper, and on the final day of Commons business before recess – ensured that its appearance was barely noticed by media and political parties, and suggests a desire to avoid reopening political debate about EVEL. The government’s unwillingness to commit to making even small adjustments, including those recommended by the cross-party Commons Procedure Committee, is also regrettable, and will do little to reassure those already suspicious of the Conservative Party’s motives on this score.

Ever since the idea of introducing special procedures to deal with English-only legislation emerged on the political agenda, in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, it has been the source of extensive debate and some controversy. Unlike other critics, we have ourselves set out the case for attempting to introduce measures of this kind. As we put it in our recent report, Finding the Good in EVEL, ‘the system introduced by the government can be regarded as a positive innovation’. We have also argued that many of the criticisms commonly made of this scheme are less persuasive than they first appear, in large part due to the specific way in which the government has designed the new system.

However, we also highlighted several weaknesses in the current scheme, including its complexity, its failure to give England a meaningful ‘voice’, and its lack of legitimacy. And the research we have undertaken leads us to conclude that the government’s review has not succeeded in rectifying these problems.

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English votes for English laws one year on: a critical evaluation

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On 28 November the Constitution Unit hosted a seminar in parliament to mark the publication of a major new report by Professor Michael Kenny and Daniel Gover evaluating the first year of the new English votes for English laws procedures in the House of Commons. Kenny and Gover summarised their findings before two respondents, Roger Gough and Oonagh Gay, offered their thoughts on the report and the EVEL system. Dominic Walsh reports.

In his speech in Downing Street following the Scottish independence referendum David Cameron drew attention to the ‘English question’. ‘We have heard the voice of Scotland’, the then Prime Minister said, ‘and now the millions of voices of England must be heard’. With this in mind a set of procedural changes to the workings of the House of Commons, known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ or EVEL, were proposed by the Conservatives at the last general election. These were implemented through changes to standing orders in October 2015.

There was great fanfare about the introduction of EVEL at the time. Over a year on, however, it appears to have faded almost entirely from the public view. How has the procedure worked in practice during its first 12 months? Has it been a success so far, or have criticisms of it been vindicated? These questions are addressed in a new report published jointly by the Centre on Constitutional Change, the Mile End Institute and the Constitution Unit, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. This was launched at a Constitution Unit seminar held at Westminster on 28 November. What follows is a summary of the event; the authors, Daniel Gover and Professor Michael Kenny have written a separate blog post outlining their report in more detail.

Overview of the report

Michael Kenny introduced the event by outlining the aims of the project. These were to evaluate EVEL’s first year of operation, to examine whether the evidence bears out the criticisms made of EVEL, and to explore options to make EVEL more legitimate and transparent. He also gave some background by summarising recent historical trends which gave rise to the adoption of EVEL as policy by the Conservatives.

By and large, Kenny argued, EVEL has worked as intended thus far. However, major issues of legitimacy remain. The partisan division in the Commons vote introducing the measure was stark: every single MP who voted in favour was a Conservative, and all who voted against belonged to an opposition party. This may raise concerns that EVEL will not survive a change of government – particularly as the procedure was introduced through changes to standing orders rather than legislation, meaning that it could be repealed or suspended through a single vote. Kenny also added the caveat that the current Conservative government has a larger majority in England than in the UK as a whole and so the system has not yet been ‘stress-tested’ in circumstances where different English and UK majorities on pieces of legislation are likely.

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