Northern Ireland: dangers and opportunities for London

Northern Ireland is again governed by civil servants. Alan Whysall argues that London’s self-interest requires it to give Northern Ireland serious attention in coming months. But success may require more effort and time than is currently envisaged, and a return to the approach that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Not making this commitment could have grave consequences for the entire Union, not just Northern Ireland.

This blog draws on the Unit’s report on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, published in May (hereafter referred to as the Report).

No government again

Northern Ireland has had no functioning Executive since the DUP’s withdrawal of its First Minister, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, in February. The party declined to appoint a deputy First Minister following Assembly elections in May – when, for the first time, Sinn Féin emerged the largest party, entitled to the First Minister post (the DUP deny their refusal to appoint has anything to do with this, but Sinn Féin and others are sceptical). Government was carried on by ministers on a caretaker basis, unable to make controversial or crosscutting decisions, amid social and economic challenges often (as in the NHS) worse than in England. There is no budget and a £660 million overspend (exacerbated by the absence of an Executive). The DUP also blocked meetings of the Assembly.

On 28 October, with no Executive formed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, came under a duty to hold further Assembly elections, before mid-January. By law, the caretaker ministers have now lost office, and civil servants are in charge.

Few wanted the elections, however, and either by his own decision or the Prime Minister’s, the Secretary of State announced emergency legislation on 9 November to put them off for 6, potentially 12 weeks. They could be avoided by the DUP agreeing to appoint an Executive by 8 December (19 January if extended). The legislation would also underpin civil servants’ powers, set a budget and enable the Secretary of State to reduce the pay of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs).

Political prospects

The issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol remains intractable. The DUP refuses to return to devolution until it changes fundamentally; it appeared unimpressed by the threat to reduce MLA pay. The EU is willing to discuss implementing the Protocol more flexibly, but not to rewriting it.

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How Sunak can restore integrity, professionalism and accountability

Meg Russell, Alan Renwick, Sophie Andrews-McCarroll and Lisa James argue that for Rishi Sunak to keep his promise to put integrity, professionalism and accountability at the heart of his government, he must strengthen the standards system, enhance parliamentary scrutiny, defend the rule of law, abide by constitutional norms and defend checks and balances.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak promised to put integrity, professionalism and accountability in government at the heart of his premiership. This promise is to be warmly welcomed – commentators and experts have raised consistent alarms about slipping constitutional standards in recent years, and research shows that the public care deeply about honesty and integrity in their politicians.

But what might such a pledge look like in reality? Against the backdrop of Boris Johnson’s resignation this summer, precipitated by concerns about his approach to standards, integrity and accountability, an earlier post on this blog issued five questions for the then leadership candidates to address on rebuilding constitutional standards and restoring integrity. The subsequent premiership of Liz Truss aptly demonstrated these questions’ continuing relevance. This new post returns to the five core tasks, links them to Sunak’s stated goals, and suggests what his government might do to meet them. It demonstrates close agreement with proposals by respected experts from other bodies in response to Sunak’s pledge.

1. Strengthening the standards system

The system for maintaining government and parliamentary standards was placed under great stress during the Johnson premiership. Successive Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests resigned, ministers unwisely attempted to derail a House of Commons Committee on Standards investigation, and a Privileges Committee inquiry into whether Johnson himself misled parliament is ongoing. Truss’s subsequent claim that her personal integrity was a sufficient bulwark against standards breaches fell far short of the serious commitment to institutional arrangements needed to safeguard integrity.

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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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Must a caretaker government be a zombie government?

During the recently concluded Conservative leadership contest, the government appeared to be in a holding pattern, taking little or no action of substance until the election of Boris Johnson’s successor. But did the government, which had a substantial parliamentary majority and an electoral mandate, need to act as if it was merely a ‘caretaker’? Robert Hazell explains that the rules around a ‘lame duck’ PM remain fuzzy, and argues that steps must be taken to clarify the position as soon as possible.

Something very strange happened at Westminster over the summer: a government which enjoyed a comfortable working majority of 71 seats was declared to be a caretaker which could not take any major decisions. It was variously accused of being a ‘zombie government’ ‘asleep at the wheel’, and incapable of taking urgent decisions required by the energy crisis. In its defence the government might have responded that as a caretaker it was precluded from taking such decisions. But the Whitehall rules on this are far from clear. So, what are the Whitehall rules about caretaker governments, and the principles underlying them? And given the confusion this summer, do the rules need clarifying or updating?

‘Caretaker government’ is not a term to be found in any UK government guidance. The Cabinet Manual talks instead about ‘restrictions on government activity’. A leadership election in the governing party is not one of the circumstances when the Cabinet Manual says government activity must be restricted. It envisages just three such circumstances when governments are restricted:

…governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character in the period immediately preceding an election, immediately afterwards if the result is unclear, and following the loss of a vote of confidence.

Paragraph 2.27.
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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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