Monitor 82: achieving a new normal for the constitution?

Today the Unit published Monitor 82, containing reporting and analysis of recent constitutional events, covering the period from 1 August to the debates on the Counsellors of State Bill earlier this week. Even by the standard of recent years, the last four months has been a period of constitutional turbulence that has seen the ousting of two Prime Ministers and the death of a monarch who had sometimes seemed a constitutional constant. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick argue, in this piece, which is also the lead article for Monitor, that the new Prime Minister and monarch face significant challenges if they wish to rebuild stability and faith in the UK’s institutions.

Recent months have seen unprecedented turbulence in UK politics. This blogpost, like the current issue of Monitor, covers developments over just four months, yet reports on a change of monarch and two changes of Prime Minister, plus remarkable churn in ministerial positions, and much else.

As reported in the previous issue of Monitor, in early July Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to announce his departure following a wave of ministerial resignations. Concerns about propriety and integrity were central to his removal. Yet these topics played disappointingly little part in the leadership contest which unfolded over the summer, including in a series of hustings meetings for Conservative Party members between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. The primary focus of the contest was understandably the cost of living, with contention between the candidates over their economic approaches – Sunak warned against the dangers of Truss’s proposed unfunded tax cuts.

Truss won the contest, becoming Conservative Party leader on Monday 5 September, and she was appointed Prime Minister the following day by Queen Elizabeth. Cabinet positions began to be filled the day after that. But on 8 September, the day of the new government’s first major statement on the energy crisis, news emerged that the Queen was unwell. Her death was announced that evening. The end of a reign lasting over 70 years was a major moment for the United Kingdom’s national and constitutional self-understanding. The country entered a period of national mourning during which the funeral was held. Prince Charles immediately became King. Within days, he delivered a televised address, gave an oath at the Accession Council, addressed MPs and peers in Westminster Hall, and spoke at the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd, and Hillsborough Castle.

This delayed the new government’s activities, but a shock of a different kind occurred on 23 September, when Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng announced his so-called ‘mini budget’ to the House of Commons. Including ambitious tax cuts beyond those that Truss had pledged during the campaign, it resulted in grave instability for the financial markets. Ultimately Truss sacked Kwarteng on 14 October, but was forced to announce her own resignation just six days later. This triggered a further Conservative leadership contest, which saw Sunak appointed to the role of party leader and Prime Minister.

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Northern Ireland: dangers and opportunities for London

Northern Ireland is again governed by civil servants. Alan Whysall argues that London’s self-interest requires it to give Northern Ireland serious attention in coming months. But success may require more effort and time than is currently envisaged, and a return to the approach that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Not making this commitment could have grave consequences for the entire Union, not just Northern Ireland.

This blog draws on the Unit’s report on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, published in May (hereafter referred to as the Report).

No government again

Northern Ireland has had no functioning Executive since the DUP’s withdrawal of its First Minister, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, in February. The party declined to appoint a deputy First Minister following Assembly elections in May – when, for the first time, Sinn Féin emerged the largest party, entitled to the First Minister post (the DUP deny their refusal to appoint has anything to do with this, but Sinn Féin and others are sceptical). Government was carried on by ministers on a caretaker basis, unable to make controversial or crosscutting decisions, amid social and economic challenges often (as in the NHS) worse than in England. There is no budget and a £660 million overspend (exacerbated by the absence of an Executive). The DUP also blocked meetings of the Assembly.

On 28 October, with no Executive formed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, came under a duty to hold further Assembly elections, before mid-January. By law, the caretaker ministers have now lost office, and civil servants are in charge.

Few wanted the elections, however, and either by his own decision or the Prime Minister’s, the Secretary of State announced emergency legislation on 9 November to put them off for 6, potentially 12 weeks. They could be avoided by the DUP agreeing to appoint an Executive by 8 December (19 January if extended). The legislation would also underpin civil servants’ powers, set a budget and enable the Secretary of State to reduce the pay of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs).

Political prospects

The issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol remains intractable. The DUP refuses to return to devolution until it changes fundamentally; it appeared unimpressed by the threat to reduce MLA pay. The EU is willing to discuss implementing the Protocol more flexibly, but not to rewriting it.

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Can muscular unionism save the Union?

Several UK politicians have been described as embracing a ‘muscularform of unionism, which includes taking a hard line against the possibility of constituent parts of the UK leaving the Union. As Iain McLean warns, muscular unionism can look like ‘know your place unionism’ and history has shown that such a muscular approach can backfire and hasten the very secession it seeks to prevent.

The phrase ‘muscular unionism’ is new but the concept is not. As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson called Scottish devolution ‘a disaster north of the border’. Liz Truss said while campaigning for the Conservative leadership that she would ‘ignore’ the ‘attention seeker’, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She was true to her word, never contacting Sturgeon or Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, during her premiership. Lord (David) Frost, who served as a member of Johnson’s Cabinet, recently wrote:

The Scottish “government” is not the government of a state in confederation with England. It is a subordinate entity within the UK, with powers granted to it by the UK government and Parliament, and ultimately subject to the supremacy of that Parliament.

It does indeed sound muscular, but it ended in tears and self-contradiction last time, and there is no reason to expect differently this time. The UK government would be well advised to become a little weedier than PMs Johnson or Truss. Rishi Sunak contacted Sturgeon and Drakeford on his first full day in office as Prime Minister. Is this a hopeful sign?

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How Sunak can restore integrity, professionalism and accountability

Meg Russell, Alan Renwick, Sophie Andrews-McCarroll and Lisa James argue that for Rishi Sunak to keep his promise to put integrity, professionalism and accountability at the heart of his government, he must strengthen the standards system, enhance parliamentary scrutiny, defend the rule of law, abide by constitutional norms and defend checks and balances.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak promised to put integrity, professionalism and accountability in government at the heart of his premiership. This promise is to be warmly welcomed – commentators and experts have raised consistent alarms about slipping constitutional standards in recent years, and research shows that the public care deeply about honesty and integrity in their politicians.

But what might such a pledge look like in reality? Against the backdrop of Boris Johnson’s resignation this summer, precipitated by concerns about his approach to standards, integrity and accountability, an earlier post on this blog issued five questions for the then leadership candidates to address on rebuilding constitutional standards and restoring integrity. The subsequent premiership of Liz Truss aptly demonstrated these questions’ continuing relevance. This new post returns to the five core tasks, links them to Sunak’s stated goals, and suggests what his government might do to meet them. It demonstrates close agreement with proposals by respected experts from other bodies in response to Sunak’s pledge.

1. Strengthening the standards system

The system for maintaining government and parliamentary standards was placed under great stress during the Johnson premiership. Successive Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests resigned, ministers unwisely attempted to derail a House of Commons Committee on Standards investigation, and a Privileges Committee inquiry into whether Johnson himself misled parliament is ongoing. Truss’s subsequent claim that her personal integrity was a sufficient bulwark against standards breaches fell far short of the serious commitment to institutional arrangements needed to safeguard integrity.

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The constitutional causes and consequences of the Truss-Kwarteng budget crisis

Within weeks, Liz Truss’s premiership was plunged into economic and political turmoil due to Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. But this crisis, suggests Meg Russell, has distinctly constitutional roots. Building on Boris Johnson’s legacy, Truss chose to sideline expert officials and regulators, and shut out her own MPs. The consequences that have since befallen her are a compelling advertisement for respecting – and rebuilding – appropriate constitutional checks and balances.

The Conservative Party conference, indeed the entirety of Liz Truss’s new premiership, has been severely destabilised by the market reaction to Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. Far from securing Truss her desired reputation for acting on the energy crisis and boosting the economy, and a positive bounce in the polls, Kwarteng’s 23 September ‘fiscal event’ saw the pound plunge, lenders withdraw mortgage products, and Labour achieve record poll leads. Faced with a mass rebellion by Conservative MPs, Kwarteng performed a U-turn on abolition of the top rate of income tax, while other parts of the package may face further such trouble ahead.

Fiscal policy is well beyond the usual scope of the Constitution Unit blog, or of this author. But the extent to which the unforced economic and political crisis built on foundations of poor constitutional and governance practice is striking. Boris Johnson played fast and loose with many constitutional norms, and Liz Truss seems quickly to have followed suit. But her now catastrophic position – with some Conservative MPs calling for the Prime Minister’s removal after less than a month in the job – demonstrates just how shortsighted and dangerous such behaviour can be.

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