Rebuilding constitutional standards: five questions for the next Conservative leader

Boris Johnson yesterday fired the starting gun on a Conservative leadership race which should make the winner Prime Minister. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell pose five key questions which Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to ask the party leadership candidates, based on recent public, parliamentary and expert concerns.

Boris Johnson’s premiership has been marked by ever-growing concerns about the maintenance of various constitutional standards, which in recent days have reached fever pitch. These were echoed repeatedly in ministerial resignation statements and calls for him to go. Recent opinion polls meanwhile show strong public support for constitutional standards of integrity and accountability.

Conservative MPs now have an opportunity to choose among candidates to take Johnson’s place, which also creates an important constitutional responsibility. A high priority when picking the next Conservative leader should be to restore the standards essential to UK democracy, in order both to rebuild integrity in politics, and to work towards rebuilding public trust.

This blogpost sets out five key questions for Conservative leadership candidates, reflecting concerns raised by the public, independent expert organisations, and MPs themselves. Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to prioritise these questions, and raise them with the candidates when the party is making its choice.

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What is democratic backsliding and is the UK at risk?

Concerns about the health of UK democracy and the risk of democratic backsliding are rising. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James warn that MPs, who are the ultimate democratic safeguard, cannot afford to be complacent if we wish to prevent backsliding and safeguard our democracy.

Commentators, civil society groups, think tanks and academics are increasingly warning about the health of UK democracy. Such warnings often draw on the concept of ‘democratic backsliding’.

But what is democratic backsliding? And is there good reason to worry about a risk of it in the UK?

What is democratic backsliding?

Democratic backsliding is, in its simplest form, the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic over time. Scholars emphasise that no cataclysmic state collapse or overthrow is required for backsliding to take place; instead, it is a gradual process, coming about through actions of democratically elected leaders.

Democratic backsliding has been observed internationally, and extensively catalogued by scholars including Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, 2021) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die, 2019). Such accounts generally define backsliding as involving the reduction of checks and balances on the executive. This might include:

  1. breakdown in the norms of political behaviour and standards;
  2. disempowerment of the legislature, the courts, and independent regulators;
  3. the reduction of civil liberties and press freedoms; and/or
  4. harm to the integrity of the electoral system.

Backsliding has been identified in multiple countries, with frequently cited cases including Poland, Hungary and the United States. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has significantly reduced judicial independence, and put pressure on the independent media. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has repeatedly assumed emergency powers allowing him effectively to bypass the legislature, undermined press freedom, and – as in Poland – curbed judicial independence. Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the 2020 presidential election, as well as longer-term patterns of voter suppression, have shown how backsliding can affect even very well-established democracies.

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The Queen’s speech, the Johnson government, and the constitution – lessons from the 2021-22 session

As a new session of parliament commences, Lisa James discusses what constitutional lessons can be learned from its predecessor. She argues that the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms are fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership.

A new parliamentary session began last week, with a Queen’s speech that laid out a highly ambitious volume of new bills. Many of these are likely to prove controversial – including planned constitutional measures.

To assess how the government might proceed, and how this might play out in parliament, it is useful to look back at the 2021-22 session. This was the first of Boris Johnson’s premiership not wholly dominated by Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic – offering insight into both the government’s constitutional agenda, and its broader legislative approach. Since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has been accused of a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms. In earlier sessions, his supporters could blame the exigencies of Brexit and the pandemic – citing the need for rapid action in the face of fast-moving situations. But the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that these are more fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership. And whilst Johnson has thus far been successful in passing his constitutional legislation, his rocky relationships with both MPs and peers mean that he may face greater difficulties in the future.

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The House of Lords amendment to the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill returns appropriate power to MPs: they should accept it

The House of Lords has amended the government’s Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill to require House of Commons approval for early general elections. Tom Fleming and Meg Russell explore what MPs should consider when the bill returns to the Commons. They argue that the Lords amendment deserves support, as it provides an important limit on Prime Ministers’ power to call early elections, and avoids drawing either the monarch or the courts into political controversy.

Background

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill seeks to change how early general elections are called in the UK. Specifically, it aims to restore the Prime Minister’s control of election timing, by repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA).

Before 2011, general elections were required at least every five years. However, the Prime Minister could ask the monarch to dissolve parliament during that period, resulting in an earlier election. The FTPA removed this personalised power, and instead handed control to the House of Commons. Under its provisions, early elections would occur only if two-thirds of all MPs voted to support one, or if the Commons expressed ‘no confidence’ in the government and no government could regain confidence within two weeks. Subsequently, in 2019, the two-thirds majority was shown to be unenforceable, when Boris Johnson presented the Early Parliamentary General Election Bill. This temporarily overrode the FTPA requirement in order to stage the December general election, and both the Commons and the Lords supported it.

The government is now seeking to permanently reverse the FTPA with the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill. This bill passed through its Commons committee and remaining stages in little over two hours last autumn, with limited opportunity for detailed consideration, and was approved without amendment. However, it has since faced more extended scrutiny in the House of Lords.

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What can be done about the House of Lords?

More than 20 years has passed since the hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords in what was billed as the first phase of wider reform, and little has happened in the intervening decades. The Unit hosted a webinar to ask three long-serving parliamentarians what should change about the House of Lords, and how realistic is hope of major reform? Tom Fieldhouse summarises the discussion.

House of Lords reform is one of those issues that never seems to go away – in part because very little ever seems to happen.  

This perennial, complex, and often contentious issue was the subject of a Constitution Unit webinar, held on 13 January, entitled ‘What can be done about the House of Lords?’, where a distinguished panel of parliamentarians discussed the difficulties that hinder reform, whether new approaches are needed, and what those might be. 

The event was chaired by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Professor Meg Russell, herself an expert on the question of Lords reform. Speakers were Baroness (Angela) Smith of Basildon, Labour’s Shadow Leader of the House of Lords; Lord (Michael) Jay of Ewelme, Crossbench peer and former Chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission; and Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Conservative chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee and former chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which has reported on Lords reform

The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions. The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast.  

Baroness Smith of Basildon 

Baroness Smith began her remarks by suggesting that whereas most debates about Lords reform tend to focus on ‘form’ (namely, who is in the second chamber and how they get there), we should begin by focusing on ‘function’ (what we want the chamber to do, and how it can best achieve that).  

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