The process of Brexit: what comes next?

me 2015 (large)

In a new report published jointly by the Constitution Unit and the UCL European Institute, Alan Renwick examines what the process of Brexit is likely to look like over the coming weeks, months, and years. Here he summarises five key lessons.

wp2_arenwick_front_coverThe phoney war around Brexit is almost over. For months, two immediate questions have dominated discussions: How can Article 50 be triggered? And what sort of deal will ministers seek? The Supreme Court’s ruling on 24 January answered the first question. We know much more now about the second through Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech and last Thursday’s white paper. The Article 50 bill is being debate in parliament. By the end of March – if the government gets its way – we will be entering a new phase in the process.

The question is: What comes next? Can the government deliver on its wish list? Can parliament provide effective scrutiny?  Will the courts intervene again? How is Brexit likely to play in the devolved nations? Is a second referendum at all likely?

In a new report, I offer answers to these and related questions. Here I summarise five key points.

1/ The UK government is very unlikely to get what it says it wants.

The government has set out highly ambitious goals. It wants not just a divorce agreement, but also a complex, deep, and bespoke deal on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, encompassing a comprehensive free trade agreement, a novel form of customs association, and ongoing cooperation in areas including policing, security, and research. Furthermore, it wants all of this to be both negotiated and ratified within two years.

Whether such a deal will emerge is impossible to say; but achieving it within two years certainly looks very unlikely. First, EU leaders (so far at least) have said they will not negotiate on these terms. Rather, they initially want a divorce deal only; once that has been negotiated, they propose a transitional period that preserves many features of EU membership while detailed negotiations on future relations are conducted. Thus, the first round of the negotiations will be a discussion of what the negotiations are actually about.

Second, even if the UK government gets its way in this opening round, the negotiations thereafter will be immensely complex and difficult. They will range across most policy areas. Not only will the UK be negotiating with the EU: in addition, there will be intense negotiations among the twenty-seven remaining member states and between the European Council, European Commission, and European Parliament. Whitehall’s resources for all of this are very tight, and experienced negotiators with relevant expertise are thin on the ground.

Third, a deal such as the Prime Minister proposes will have to be agreed by the European Parliament and ratified by every member state. As the troubles faced in the Walloon parliament by the Canadian free trade agreement show, there is no guarantee that ratification will be smooth. Indeed, in some countries ratification could be subject to a citizen-initiated referendum, as occurred in the Netherlands last April for the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement.

If no deal has been done and ratified within two years, the UK government will have three main options: press for an extension to the negotiation window (which would require unanimous agreement of the member states); accept the EU’s proposed transition phase; or decide that the UK is leaving without any deal. Ardent Brexiteers dislike the first two options. But most observers think the hard and disorderly Brexit implied by the third entirely unpalatable. A government that pursued it could well be forced from office, triggering deep political turmoil.

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Town Hall Transparency?

Our new report on FOI and local government concludes that the FOI Act has made councils more open and transparent. Each year more and more questions have been asked with request numbers rising from around 60,000 a year in 2005 to nearly 200,000 in 2010.

Underneath the media headlines about senior officials’ salaries,  investments and the cost of dying, FOI is being used more quietly, day-to-day, by the public to find out about things that matter to them; allotments, parking, speed bumps etc., as you can see in these records of requests  here and  here (this one also lists requesters by type). Businesses are using it to keep one step ahead of the competition and national and local pressure groups are making FOI requests on all sorts of topics from zoo licences to libraries. It may even have helped to uncover a murder.

Some councils are more open and more at ease with FOI than others. A few have resisted and played games. Many are concerned it’s being ‘abused’ by businesses and journalists. Most of all officials are worried about how they will cope with rising request numbers with fewer resources.

Since January 2011 councils have published all their spending over £500 on their websites (see here). The government hopes this will give transparency an extra push and also motivate ‘armchair auditors’ to check where and how councils are spending and misspending our money. The response has been mixed. Some councils have had no interest in their data, while elsewhere local newspapers have exposed controversial spending on string quartets or libraries , as have a  few national newspapers . One official said the benefits are internal, as it has allowed councillors to understand their own budgets.

FOI and Open Data are working more and more closely with new online innovations, that allow data to be ‘mashed’ and sifted, and hyper local sites that serve as a platform for residents to talk about local issues. However, it remains to be seen if new technology and further local government reform helps or FOI or if it will be undermined by dwindling resources’.

Shining a light or keeping us in the dark?

Letting the light shine out

When it comes to FOI and Parliament, a bit of both really, though more of the latter than you’d expect: that’s the conclusion from our report on the impact of FOI on Parliament, published today. (The two year study also looked at the use parliamentarians have made of the Act, covered in a previous blog post here).

Our main findings are:

  • The focus of FOI requests has always been on the House of Commons, and on MPs (much less so on the Lords)
  • Parliament has released much corporate material about itself through FOI, in contrast to assertions that it is a secretive organisation

Freedom of Information legislation was not originally intended to cover Parliament, but the Act’s greatest impact has been on its oldest institution.

No one expected some of the most important case law around FOI and personal data would come from Parliament, but it did. MPs thought Parliament was open, and it was (and is continuing to get more open). But they didn’t see the collective blind-spot that was the Additional Costs Allowance (expenses) system. The MPs expenses scandal is a classic case of FOI searching out secrecy while the rest of an organisation is open.

So can FOI achieve its democratic goals in an institution like Parliament? MPs divided into competing teams, where officials may be subordinated, where every move covered by an increasingly vociferous press, many decisions protected by Parliamentary Privilege?

We think yes, at least regarding FOI’s main goals of increasing transparency and accountability. While most requests have focussed on individuals of Parliament, both Houses have revealed ‘corporate’ information previously not public through FOI and have had this publicised via the media. Topics include CO2 emissions of its buildings, policies relating to pest control, the costs of construction of the Visitors Centre and the use of parliamentary facilities by outside organisations. Parliamentary Privilege has protected the things that should be protected, and not protected those things that shouldn’t.

FOI has prompted organisational change too: Since last year, MPs and peers have to be domiciled for tax purposes to remain in either House, and is the only way non-bishop peers have been able to leave the House of Lords (apart from death). This is because Lord Ashcroft’s non-dom tax arrangements were revealed through FOI. MPs can’t run up large tabs at parliamentary restaurants anymore, after an FOI request revealed some owed thousands for months.

Most officials and parliamentarians we spoke to (we interviewed 46 people for this project) agreed  that FOI has made Parliament more transparent and accountable albeit for matters that some consider minor or narrow. But the influence of the media means FOI’s other goals like increasing trust or public understanding are difficult to achieve, and may even be negatively impacted. We found many negative headlines when we sampled press stories about Parliament, even when Parliament had handed over information through FOI without fuss or delay.

But the Commons has learned a ‘bunker’ mentality towards FOI isn’t the way to go. The House of Commons Commission agreed last year to begin to publish its own papers and agendas proactively, reversing decades of secrecy. The lessons from the expenses scandal are being learned, and we know more about Parliament and its people today than ever before, in part because of FOI. Its been another step in the openness process Parliament has gone through since the first publication of Hansard in the 19 century. What’s left to find out…?

Strange Love: Or, How Conservatives and Lib Dems Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Coalition Government*

We published our interim report on coalition government Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works [1] a couple of weeks ago, and it behooves me to be grateful for the press our interim report, received. Thus: “How David Cameron and Nick Clegg decide policy – by phone”! and “Lib Dems and Tories get on better than Blair and Brown”!

Alas—that is not quite what the report says. What we say is that formal cabinet government has returned; but that coalition issues are mostly dealt with through informal mechanisms, of which the Cameron-Clegg weekly bilaterals are but one mechanism—to be sure, the most important, but not the only one. None of this means policy is ‘decided on the hoof’: just that coalition issues are decided in informal channels. That’s slightly different.

Do Tories and Lib Dems get on better than Blair and Brown? Well, yes and no. Yes, there are strong relationships within the executive. Yes, it is true that Cameron and Clegg, Letwin and Alexander, work well together. And that makes executive government much smoother. But, but… in Parliament, the parties operate as they always have. The relationship between the parties is cordial at best. And it is at the parliamentary level where problems may emerge.

It’s also important to address a couple of criticisms of our report. One: how can we claim that ‘the coalition is working well’ when a good part of the report is devoted to the problems that the Lib Dems are having? Two: it’s too process-based; too structural. These two criticisms merge into each other.

On the coalition working well: the problem is that there are two measurements of ‘success’ are being run together here. One measure is how well the two parties are working together; the other is the ability to implement party policy and/or the ability to project party distinctiveness. I take the point that perhaps we weren’t clear enough on what our measures of coalition ‘success’ were.

On the first measure, it’s worth bearing in mind that prior to May 2010 coalition government in Westminster was thought to be a recipe for unstable, unworkable or inefficient government: that two national political parties could not work together. But at least in the first year, that doesn’t seem to be so: there is no sign of imminent collapse; and decision-making hasn’t slowed down at all. That is what we meant by ‘working well’. (Yes, now there are the NHS reforms, but is this a coalition issue? There are differing schools: one school pointing to a Lib Dem response following the failure of the AV referendum; the other school suggesting a U-turn from the Conservatives themselves because of a fear of ‘retoxifying’ the Conservative party. And anyway, it’s not clear that this is a systemic problem—yet).

On success in implementing policy—how can we talk of success if the Lib Dems are doing so poorly? And are we not being myopic for simply looking at process over policy? We did say this was not a review of policy. And it seemed to us that there had already been plenty of discussion in the media about the Lib Dems’ failure to have a noticeable impact in government in terms of policy implementation, but very little discussion of some of the very substantial structural problems the Lib Dems have. We thought it worth stressing that the Lib Dems made some crucial choices at the formation of the coalition which continue to hamper their ability to push their policies within government—losing short money, accepting the cap on special advisers, and most of all going for breadth over depth in terms of the allocation of Lib Dem ministers.

But anyway—as I said at the beginning, I’m grateful for the comments and criticisms. We will try to address some of these issues in the next report.

*Next week’s post: Tainted Love: Or, “It’s not you, it’s me”

[1] Thank you to all the interns who have worked on the coalition government project so far. Thanks to Ruchi Parekh (aka: Ms Doubtful), Jessica Carter, Ian Jordan, Alex Jacobson, Patrick Graham, Andreas Kutz and Chris Appleby. Props to y’all—except maybe you, Ian!

Coalition Works! The Independent View

Article from Liberal Democrat Voice

The coalition is working well, but the Lib Dems could do better, is the overall message from the Constitution Unit’s first report on how the coalition works in Whitehall and Westminster. We are conducting a 12 month study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, with a research team of five, including two former senior civil servants, and one senior broadcaster. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have authorised access to all the key figures in Whitehall, and so far we have interviewed 90 ministers, special advisers, officials, parliamentarians, and external interest groups.

Everyone we interviewed in Whitehall says how much more harmonious the coalition is compared with the rivalries and infighting of the Blair/Brown years. After widespread fears that coalition government would be weak, quarrelsome and divided, in the first year the coalition has proved remarkably stable and united. Cabinet government has been revived; but coalition issues are mainly resolved in informal forums, with weekly meetings between Clegg and Cameron, and regular get togethers between Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin. The mutual trust and close working relations developed not just between Clegg and Cameron, but amongst all their top advisers, should help the government as it faces tougher times ahead.

And how could the Lib Dems do better? Read the full article at:

http://www.libdemvoice.org/the-independent-view-coalition-works-the-inside-story-from-the-constitution-unit-24357.html

The Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works–A Summary

The Coalition in Whitehall

  • Finding a balance between unity and distinctiveness is the key problem for coalition government. The current coalition has successfully ensured unity, and stability; but struggles to allow the two parties to express their distinctiveness.
  • Formal cabinet government has been revived: Cabinet and cabinet committees now meet regularly, but these are mostly forums for dealing with interdepartmental issues rather than specifically coalition issues.
  • The main forums for reaching agreement between coalition partners are informal. Coalition issues are often dealt with before they reach the formal machinery of government.
  • This informality of coalition decision making is based on high levels of trust between the leadership of the two parties. Trust, and the importance of compatible personalities, are essential for coalition government.
  • However, this informality has one drawback: it means that the Lib Dems are often unable to demonstrate their influence in government.
  • Some machinery has surprisingly not been effective in coalition brokerage—in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, special advisers, and Liberal Democrat junior ministers.

The Coalition in Westminster

  • Flexibility within the executive is not always matched by flexibility in parliament. Compromise hammered out in government has led to excessive rigidity when policies are introduced into Parliament.
  • The informality and relatively close relationships in the executive are not matched by similar relationships within Parliament. In both houses, the coalition is tolerated rather than embraced.
  • Coalition governments often lead to a divide between the frontbench and backbench. Rebellions in this parliament are historically at record highs.
  • The parliamentary parties have begun to modify their backbench committees to prevent the divide between frontbench and backbench widening.

The Dilemmas for the Junior Partner

  • The Lib Dems are still reeling from the loss of their state funding, given only to opposition parties. This has led to the loss of many of their staff. It may help explain their under powered performance, particularly with the media.
  • By going for breadth over depth, the Lib Dems have spread themselves too thinly. They need to prioritise. Given the numbers they have, what can they realistically do which will have an impact with the public?
  • In a future coalition, the junior partner might seek to specify the support to be made available to them, in terms of special advisers, expanded Private Offices, and additional support for the parliamentary party.

Press Release: Coalition Works! The inside story from the Constitution Unit

What works, and what doesn’t in the new coalition? A first year report – full version pdf

Despite the political strains which have affected the coalition in recent months, the Constitution Unit’s research on how the coalition works shows that it has functioned very well in its first year. Viewed from inside, the ructions which have dominated the headlines have not destroyed the coalition’s effectiveness.

The Unit’s first year report, Inside Story: How coalition government works, is based upon 90 interviews with senior people in Whitehall and Westminster. The mutual trust and close working relations developed inside the government should help as it faces tougher times ahead.

“People feared that coalition government would be weak, quarrelsome and divided” said the Unit’s director Prof Robert Hazell. “But in the first year the coalition has been remarkably stable and united. Everyone we interviewed in Whitehall says how much more harmonious the coalition is compared with the rivalries and infighting of the Blair/Brown years”.

“Maintaining that unity in government while demonstrating the distinctiveness of the two parties is the key challenge going forward” Prof Hazell added. “This is particularly difficult for the Lib Dems as the junior partner. Instead of spreading themselves thinly across the whole of government, they need to prioritise their effort on areas where they can clearly have an impact”.

“An interesting development is the Lib Dems’ backbench committees” said the project’s lead researcher Dr Ben Yong. “It is a sign of how stretched the Lib Dems are for resources that these have been created. But it is also a way of preserving their distinct identity, and gives backbenchers regular contact with the frontbench. Conservatives we interviewed have been rather envious, and they have now started their own backbench policy committees”.

The report’s findings and recommendations include:

  • The Lib Dems did well in the coalition negotiations, with 75% of their manifesto items going into the coalition agreement compared with 60% of the Conservative manifesto. But in any future coalition, they should focus as much on the division of office as the division of policy. It is through ministerial leadership that coalition partners have visible impact.
  • By going for breadth over depth in their selection of ministerial posts, the Lib Dems risk spreading themselves too thinly. They may have achieved hundreds of small policy wins, but their influence is invisible to the public
  • Cabinet committees deal mainly with interdepartmental issues. Coalition issues are resolved in half a dozen informal forums, and are dealt with before they reach the formal machinery of government.

Notes for Editors

  • This is an initial report from a 12 month study of how the coalition works, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The project runs until December.
  • Access to Whitehall interviewees has been authorised by the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Sir Gus O’Donnell. So far the project team have interviewed 90 officials, ministers, special advisers, parliamentarians and outside groups.
  • Robert Hazell is available for interview this weekend, tel 020 7679 4977 (Friday), 020 7267 4881 (Sat and Sunday).
  • Browse the coalition government project pages