PCRC: all this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has published its report on the lessons of the 2010 general election government formation process. The verdict: it’s a little bit unfocused. There’s a lot covered, but not really in the depth that one would like. I don’t feel the need to cover all the points, but here are a few.

The Committee argued that the government formation process went generally well, giving grudging acknowledgment to the draft elections chapter. The PCRC noted the Manual was a “crucial explanatory document” (para 8) but are clearly saving their critical comments* for their current inquiry. The Committee discussed the role of the PM in some detail—again, perhaps in preparation for another inquiry,** reflecting the Chairman’s concern about executive government. In particular, the Committee agreed that the incumbent Prime Minister does have the first opportunity to continue in office and form an administration. Gordon Brown was right to resign when he did, but there needed to be clarity on when an incumbent PM should resign—when there was an alternative in the form of a person, or a government? In 2010, it appeared to be the former.

The Committee wavered on the idea of an investiture vote. As with life, so with parliament: in theory, the idea is a good one; the problem is practice. When would an investiture vote be held, and could it be held sooner than two weeks after the election, which would mean a delay of two weeks before the new govt could take up office?

The Committee was critical of the status of the Coalition Agreement(s), as it had not been approved by the electorate. This suggested two things: first, pre-legislative scrutiny and proper consultation became more important; and second, the Committee thought that peers need not feel bound to apply the Salisbury-Addison convention (which very crudely states that the Lords should not obstruct any bills which were on the government’s election manifesto). The first proposition yes, but the second—adventurous. But perhaps it shouldn’t be, considering the composition of the PCRC. At least two of the regular Conservative members are quite critical of the formation of the Coalition; and there are at least three regular Labour members.

One comment bugged me. It’s a throwaway passage (para 90):

During our inquiry we and our witnesses have raised questions about not only the content of the Manual but its use and constitutional status. For instance, in countries internationally, arrangements for government transitions might be expected to be provided for in a codified constitution, an entity that the UK lacks.

Not really. Actually very few countries set out the government formation process in their codified constitutions. Take a look at the constitutions of the US, Canada, Australia and Germany. In fact, most*** countries do not set out the government formation process in their constitution. In Westminster countries, the mechanics of government formation are more often spelt out in executive guidance documents.

* And they are not alone in this.

** Yes, the PCRC is holding a lot of inquiries. A common phrase in the report is “we will return….”. Another is “(un)/codified constitution”.

***Alright, not every country. Sweden does it. But it’s Sweden. Jokes aside, one reason the Swedes probably do it is because they have proportional representation, making hung parliaments**** common.

**** Swedes don’t call them hung parliaments, however.

The Cabinet Manual—the PCRC strikes back

Yep—the Cabinet Manual again. Today Professor Hazell appeared before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee along with Iain McLean and Lord Hennessy of Nymphfield to talk about the constitutional implications of the Manual. A fun time was had by all, although the session was far too long at two hours. Lord Hennessy really is the poet of constitutional history—he talked of the “magical mystery tour” of the Manual, the chapter on Cabinet procedure as the “herbivores’ charter” and the “velcro of [his] fading memory”.

The experts all agreed: the Manual was a great step forward. Here was greater transparency, which could only be a Good Thing. The PCRC, however, were disturbed by the Manual. Was it in fact a constitution? It was not, was the collective answer from the experts, although it might be considered constitutional. There seemed to be some confusion on the part of the PCRC about the status of the Manual (which Sir Gus O’Donnell has insisted is not law).

The Manual’s content, argued Graham Allen MP (PCRC Chairman) and Eleanor Laing MP, was not merely limited to the Executive but involved Parliament as well. So the Manual should be subject to parliamentary consent. They grilled the experts, and particularly Robert Hazell, about this. Hazell was perhaps the most executive-minded of the experts, insisting the Manual was for the Executive—it was more in the nature of an operating manual. Lord Hennessy thought that Parliament could give the Manual greater legitimacy. Only Iain McLean explicitly shared the PCRC’s concerns. But all thought it was better to have something published than to engage in uninformed speculation about the Executive.

Most of the hearing was devoted to the general legitimacy of the Manual—which seemed reduced to the elections chapter (note the Manual actually consists of 11 chapters and a rather curious introduction). There was some discussion about Cabinet procedure, and how the coalition and its programme of political and constitutional reform might impact on the content. Allen liked Lord Hennessy’s idea of an annual review of the Manual.

It’s unclear if this is to be a once-off hearing or not. Will the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell appear, since he already has appeared once before the PCRC to talk about the Manual? To what extent will the Cabinet Office and Coalition Government take into account legitimate criticisms made in the consultation process? And instead of examining ‘the big picture’ as the PCRC have, will any of the other select committees actually examine the detail contained in the draft Manual? I hope so.