The Constitution Unit Blog

Should the government be able to suspend parliament?

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Petra Schleiter and Thomas Fleming examine the power to prorogue parliament. They outline the legal basis of prorogation, survey how it is used in the UK and other Westminster systems, and discuss how the UK could reform its prorogation process.  

The UK government has the power to suspend parliament, in a process known as prorogation. Prorogation is usually a routine measure, used to schedule gaps between sessions of parliament. But it became highly controversial in 2019, when the government tried to prorogue parliament for five weeks shortly before the scheduled Brexit date of 31 October. This decision caused uproar, and was ultimately quashed by the Supreme Court.

This controversy prompted discussion of whether the UK’s prorogation rules should be reformed. In particular, some have asked whether this power should be considered as part of the forthcoming review of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which is legally required to take place this year. Here we outline the consequences of the current rules, showing that they are unusual, and suggesting possible ways for them to be reformed. Fuller versions of our arguments can be found in our recent articles in Political Quarterly and Parliamentary Affairs (forthcoming).

What are the consequences of the current prorogation rules?

Prorogation ends a parliamentary session. It means that neither House of Parliament may sit, and parliamentary business is almost entirely suspended. Though prorogation is formally a prerogative power of the monarch, she acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. In practice, therefore, the timing and length of prorogation are decided by the government. Parliament has no power to insist on sitting once it has been prorogued: only the government can shorten or prolong a prorogation. This situation makes it possible for the government to use prorogation for political purposes when its interests conflict with those of parliament.

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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

Can Dominic Cummings defy the political laws of gravity?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgRecent news has been dominated by Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Durham. As a serial rule-breaker, he seems intent on flouting the maxim that ‘when the adviser becomes the story, the adviser must go’. But with MPs returning today, other fundamental political rules may not be so easily broken, writes Meg Russell. All Prime Ministers depend on their backbenchers for support and, with Conservative MPs in open revolt over Cummings, Johnson’s backing for him may yet become untenable. In the Westminster system MPs are ultimately in charge, and there are ways in which they could assert their position.

The Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings doesn’t like to follow the rules. That’s not necessarily a statement on his lockdown-breaking trip to Durham – disdain for established rules, and specifically for conventional wisdom that can’t be directly enforced, is what Cummings has long been known for. For some, it’s seen as part of his ‘genius’. From flying a giant inflatable white elephant over the north-east during a referendum that destroyed Labour’s plans for English regional devolution, to the audacious ‘£350 million a week’ for the NHS on the Vote Leave battlebus, to the long-planned ‘people versus parliament’ election of 2019, his boundary-stretching has often proved a winning formula, and delivered for Boris Johnson.

Cummings has long shown particular disdain for traditional political institutions, and their old ways of doing things. He’s well-known for wanting to pursue radical reform of the civil service. Conservative Brexiteer MP Steve Baker, who was among the first to call for him to quit, credits Cummings with Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament for five weeks, which was overturned in the Supreme Court. That move, like several others associated with Cummings, indicated his view that conventions, or the ‘accepted way of doing things’ count for nothing, while all that matters is the letter of the law. Other examples include suggestions to ‘pack’ the House of Lords with hundreds more Brexit-supporting peers, or to advise the Queen not to sign a rebel bill into law. Indeed ‘Downing Street sources’ went even further late last year, suggesting that Johnson might refuse to abide by a law passed by parliament. Continue reading

Parliament and Brexit: what do the public think?

IMG_20181213_223144Almost four years have passed since the 2016 EU referendum delivered a mandate for Brexit. However, as John Curtice explains in the latest extract from our joint report on Parliament and Brexit, the views of the public on the role of referendums in the Brexit process is heavily influenced by their views on whether Britain should leave the European Union or remain a member.

Though they have been used various times on constitutional matters in the UK, referendums are often thought to challenge traditional notions of representative parliamentary democracy. In the UK’s version of such a democracy, MPs are sent to Westminster to deliberate and exercise their judgement on their constituents’ behalf. Referendums seemingly usurp this traditional role, in an attempt to ascertain ‘the will of the people’.

Nonetheless, survey research has long suggested that referendums are popular with voters – as indeed was the June 2016 EU referendum. A fortnight beforehand, 52% told YouGov that David Cameron was right to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, and only 32% said he was wrong. On the very eve of polling, Ipsos MORI reported that 66% of voters felt the Prime Minister was right to hold a ballot, while only 24% reckoned he was wrong.

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Yet, underneath the surface there were already important differences of opinion. As the first chart shows, Leave and Remain backers had rather different views. According to YouGov, 83% of Leave supporters supported Cameron’s decision, and only 9% thought it wrong. In contrast, 60% of likely Remain voters disliked the decision and only 26% approved. Of course, in calling the referendum Cameron had opened up the possibility that the UK might indeed leave the EU, a prospect that Leave voters were more likely to
embrace. Continue reading

The government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission: what, why and how?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgalan.jfif (1)The Conservative Party manifesto promised a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’, but as yet little is known about the government’s plans. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on what such a Commission might look at, and how it might go about its work. They conclude that a long-term perspective is important, so that the Commission is not just ‘fighting the last war’ over Brexit. Given the fundamental nature of the questions that may be asked, citizens should be fully involved.

Page 48 of the Conservative Party manifesto committed the government to establishing a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ within its first year. This could have a far-reaching remit, covering ‘the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people’, plus the operation of the Human Rights Act. Creation of such a body is clearly an ambitious enterprise, with potentially long-lasting effects – but, as yet, very little is known about the government’s plans for the Commission. This post first explores the ‘what and why’ of the Commission: which issues might it need to address, and what is the motivation behind it? Second, we consider the ‘how’: specifically, in terms of how the public could and should be involved.

What will the Commission review, and why?

The list of topics potentially ascribed to the new Commission is long, and covers some absolute fundamentals of the constitution. While the UK has seen much constitutional change in recent decades – most obviously Labour’s post-1997 programme, which included devolution and Lords reform, and the subsequent Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which established the Supreme Court – these developments involved no formal review of the core relationships between different constitutional branches. Indeed, Labour’s programme was often criticised as piecemeal, and for failing to go back to first principles. In some ways, a review of these fundamentals is therefore refreshing. But questions such as the proper balance of power between government, parliament and courts, and the role of the monarchy are also extremely big, complex and delicate.

So why are such challenging questions being asked now? This is where the Commission’s potential role gets more troubling. The UK has recently witnessed an exceptionally turbulent period in constitutional terms, with the referendum vote for Brexit followed by a significant struggle over its implementation. Particularly during 2019, tensions ran very high between government and parliament, with the Supreme Court becoming involved via the prorogation case. That these tensions helped motivate the proposed Commission seems clear from other words in this section of the manifesto, which suggest that ‘The failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit… has opened up a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people’. Leaving aside the question of which parliamentarians exactly were responsible for blocking Brexit, this statement highlights how concerns about the most recent period (including the Supreme Court’s role) have driven some on the Conservative side to seek reform.  Continue reading