How did parliament get into this Brexit mess, and how can it get out?

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Some, controversially including the Prime Minister, have accused parliament of failing on Brexit. Last week’s Article 50 extension hands parliament responsibility for solving the crisis. Here, Meg Russell reflects on why parliamentary agreement has thus far been difficult, and what parliament now needs to do.

This week’s Brexit events have been fast moving. Following a series of House of Commons votes on 12–14 March, the Prime Minister travelled to Brussels to negotiate an extension to the Article 50 period. Beforehand she made an extraordinary – and widely criticised – statement to the nation, seeking to lay the blame for the UK’s Brexit impasse at parliament’s door. Following many hours of discussion, the EU27 offered a limited extension: to 22 May if parliament approves the existing Withdrawal Agreement, else to 12 April, before which the UK government should ‘indicate a way forward’ for the EU’s further consideration.

This gives parliament (and specifically the House of Commons) an urgent task of resolving matters, to avoid the UK ‘crashing out’ without a deal in just under three weeks. To date, parliament has been unable to resolve the Brexit dilemma. This post explores why, before turning to what should happen next.

How did we get here?

As explored in a previous post, various factors have combined to make parliament’s Brexit dilemma unique. The most important is the context provided by the June 2016 referendum. By voting for ‘Leave’, the British public issued an instruction to government and parliament, which went against the prior views of most MPs. Politicians pledged to honour the referendum result, but as pointed out by various key actors (including the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, chaired by a leading Brexiteer, and the Independent Commission on Referendums), the instruction was far from clear. As we now know, there are many different competing visions of Brexit from which MPs could choose. To complicate matters further, Theresa May’s snap general election of 2017 delivered a hung parliament and minority government, making it far more difficult than usual for parliamentary majorities to form. Continue reading

Punch & Judy Politics? The roles and functions of Prime Minister’s Question Time

ruxandra.serbanIn their recently published book, former Labour advisers Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton explore the backstage machinery behind Prime Minister’s Question Time. Drawing on her PhD research, which focuses on parliamentary mechanisms for holding prime ministers accountable in parliamentary democracies, Ruxandra Serban reflects on how the book informs wider debates in legislative studies.

Prime Minister’s Question Time does not have a particularly good reputation. Designed as a weekly opportunity for MPs to question the Prime Minister, it is criticised for being noisy, excessively theatrical, scripted, and confrontational. But to what extent does it fulfil its role in holding the Prime Minister to account? What other roles does it perform for parliament and for the political system?

As PMQs provides a forum for the head of government to be questioned publicly and routinely by MPs, its implications for politics and for the workings of democracy are very important. In the recently published Punch & Judy Politics: An Insider’s Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton offer useful insights into the procedures and practices for holding Prime Ministers accountable. Drawing on interviews with key players at the centre of politics, as well as on their experience as advisers to several Labour Party leaders, the authors expose the machinery behind the weekly duel between party leaders. In what is a thorough and insightful overview of PMQs, they trace the development of the procedure from its introduction in 1961, document the extensive preparation that goes on both in No 10 and in the Leader of the Opposition’s office, and describe the strategies underpinning questions and answers. In providing such a detailed account, the book in part sets out to understand the roles and functions of PMQs, and contributes to a wider conversation in legislative studies about the functions of parliamentary questions, and of parliaments more generally. Continue reading

We need clearer reporting on the 2015 election

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The 2015 election is one of the most unpredictable in decades. But last Monday’s dissolution of parliament was the most predictable event of the year and still large parts of the media got it wrong. This does not bode well for how the post-election period will be reported, writes Akash Paun.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), passed in 2011 and amended in 2013, Parliament was automatically dissolved last Monday, 25 working days before the first Thursday in May, when the country goes to the polls. Nonetheless, several major news outlets managed to confuse their readers and viewers by reporting that David Cameron had to request a dissolution from the Queen (as was the case before the FTPA was passed).

There are more important parts of our constitution than the precise mechanism used to dissolve parliament. But this is just one of a number of misconceptions likely to confuse voters in the run-up to and days following the election, particularly if there is another hung parliament. Even the Government’s Cabinet Manual, created expressly to clear up confusion about such matters, has not been kept up to date and incorrectly states that the election occurs 17 (rather than 25) days after dissolution (at page 96).

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How should parliament decide who will be the next Prime Minister: by a nomination vote, or the Queen’s Speech?

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Robert Hazell weighs up options for establishing who can command the confidence of the House of Commons, which will be particularly significant in the likely event of another coalition. This is the fourth in a series of posts about government formation after the election.

The Cabinet Manual explains the rules as follows:

‘… the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House [of Commons] to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government’ (para 2.8)

In a hung parliament that appears to require the Queen to play a guessing game. But the Cabinet Manual goes on to say:

‘Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, political parties may wish to hold discussions to establish who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government. The Sovereign would not expect to become involved…’ (para 2.13).

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The Cabinet Manual and the caretaker convention

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In the second of a short series of posts about government formation after the election, Robert Hazell discusses the weaknesses of the Cabinet Manual in terms of offering guidance on role of the incumbent PM and the caretaker convention.

On 23 February I gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for their inquiry into government formation after the election. We discussed the inadequacy of the guidance in the Cabinet Manual about two things:

  • Whether there is a duty on the incumbent Prime Minister to remain in office until it is clear who can command confidence in the new Parliament
  • The caretaker convention, which requires a caretaker government to avoid actions or decisions which would bind the hands of a future government.

Duty on incumbent Prime Minister to remain in office

The draft Cabinet Manual published in December 2010 stated:

‘The incumbent Prime Minister is not expected to resign until it is clear that there is someone else who should be asked to form a government because they are better placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons and that information has been communicated to the Sovereign.’

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Lords appointments urgently need reforming: but how?

Meg-Russell The appointment of new peers last week has pushed the size of the Lords to its greatest since it was last reformed in 1999. Meg Russell highlights the issues behind having such a large and ‘unruly’ Upper House and argues the situation has now reached crisis point. Reform to both allow existing peers to depart and control new appointments is urgently required.

Recent weeks have seen renewed controversy about David Cameron’s appointments to the House of Lords, with announcement of 22 new peers. Various factors have contributed to frustration about these appointments, particularly among those in the Lords itself. First, they came on the back of the controversy about the Lords Leader being downgraded from Cabinet membership in the reshuffle – a matter that remains unresolved. Second, an August announcement during parliamentary recess necessarily arouses suspicion that Number 10 wanted to avoid this matter being debated (in fact 2014 is the second year in a row to follow this pattern – and while announcements in the so-called political ‘silly season’ may dodge parliamentary scrutiny, they probably exacerbate press attention). Third, the fact that several appointees have been major party donors has reignited concerns about ‘cash for peerages’. But the biggest problems are first, the effect that yet more new appointments will have on the size, and therefore the effective functioning, of the House of Lords, and second, the Prime Minister’s ability to manipulate the party balance in the chamber to favour his own side. Until the system is reformed, each new round of appointments is also destined to attract negative news stories that damage the reputation of parliament and that of the Prime Minister. It is important to begin with some objective facts. The latest set of appointments pushes the size of the Lords to by far its greatest since it was last reformed in 1999, as shown in the graph below:

Source: Figures published by House of Lords information Office (for January each year), updated to August 2014

Source: Figures published by House of Lords information Office (for January each year), updated to August 2014

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Defining the office of Prime Minister

The British Prime Minister has extensive and growing powers, yet the role is ill-defined in UK constitutional documents. Graham Allen argues in favour of clarifying the role of the Prime Minister. He also suggests it should become a directly elected office, to ensure that it is properly answerable to the UK public.

It is symptomatic of the British constitution that the more important something is, the more vaguely defined it is, and the harder it is to make it democratically accountable.

This principle certainly applies to the office of Prime Minister.

We do not know for certain when it came into existence. Historians tell us that the most important person in this process was Sir Robert Walpole, in the early eighteenth century. His reputation for corruption hardly makes for the most auspicious beginning for any great institution of state. Anyway, he did not actually officially create anything and always denied that he was a ‘Prime Minister’. The fact is that the most important job in British government has come about over a long period of three hundred years without anyone ever knowing precisely what it was; and without Parliament or the public ever having been consulted about it.

The House of Commons select committee of which I am the elected chair, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, has been looking at the office of Prime Minister for a number of years now, and we recently published a report on the subject. One of the surprising things we learned when investigating the subject was how little formal definition there is, even today, of the office of Prime Minister. The most that can be found is a few lines in a document published in 2011, The Cabinet Manual. Yet this text is – as the name suggests – an operational guide for government, aimed mainly at officials and ministers. It is not a full public definition of the prime-ministership, nor does it have proper legal force.

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