Parliamentary scrutiny of international agreements should not be limited to legally binding treaties

Last week, the Constitution Unit published a blogpost which posed five key questions for the Conservative leadership contenders, one of which focused on rebuilding parliament’s scrutiny role. In this post, David Natzler and Charlotte Sayers-Carter argue that such scrutiny should include telling parliament about politically significant international agreements it has made and allowing for oversight and the expression of dissent.

On 11 May Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed bilateral security agreements with Sweden and Finland. At that time both countries were actively considering applying for membership of NATO, which they did together a week later, on 18 May. Once objections by Turkey to their membership had been dealt with, NATO agreed to these applications at its June meeting in Madrid. Now they have been admitted, the necessary amending Protocols to the North Atlantic Treaty will be laid before parliament. Under the terms of Part 2 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRaG), it is usual practice that the government can ratify a Protocol unless there has been a parliamentary objection within 21 sitting days. NATO expanded to include the Baltic states in 2004, Montenegro in 2016 and North Macedonia in 2019. On none of these occasions was positive assent given by parliament; in the absence of dissent within 21 days of their laying, the Protocols were duly ratified. However, viewing the current circumstances as an ‘exceptional case’ to which the 21 day requirement can be disapplied under section 22 of CRaG, the government intends to proceed with ratification before parliament breaks for summer recess.

The 11 May agreements may have looked like stopgap measures, an interim bilateral version of the regime of multilateral mutual protection offered under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, but the Prime Minister explicitly said that they were not, and the leaders of both countries went out of their way to assert that the agreements would make their countries more secure. Although appended to both agreements were confirmations that they did not give rise to legally binding commitments under international law, they have been described as ‘solemn declarations’. While the UK might very well have been expected in any event to have come to the assistance of either country in an emergency if a request had been made, the situation following the signing of these agreements was different, in that there was a real prospect that British armed forces could have been actively engaged in coming to the assistance of these hitherto neutral countries as a fulfilment of these agreements.

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What Happens if Boris Johnson loses the confidence of his Cabinet, or his MPs?

Boris Johnson’s time in Downing Street appears to be in its final days, but how it will end remains unclear. Robert Hazell examines the possibilities. How long will a leadership election take? Could there be a caretaker Prime Minister? What happens if Johnson tries to call a snap general election?

If Boris Johnson loses a confidence vote among Conservative MPs, he is not able to stand again. Any other Conservative MP can then stand for the party leadership. How long it will take for the party to elect a new leader will depend on the number of candidates standing, and whether the vote goes to a second stage ballot of all party members.  Party rules prescribe that Conservative MPs vote initially in a series of ballots to select two candidates, who then go forward to a postal ballot of all party members for the final decision. In 2005 it took two months for David Cameron to be elected leader, defeating David Davis in the postal ballot. In 2019 it took six and a half weeks for Boris Johnson to be elected, defeating Jeremy Hunt. It therefore seems unlikely that we will know who is the new Conservative leader (and Prime Minister) until September. But when Cameron announced his resignation in June 2016, it took just 17 days for Theresa May to emerge as the new leader, because Andrea Leadsom stood down as the second candidate in the postal ballot.

Time is being finally called on Boris Johnson’s premiership.  The initial trickle of ministerial resignations has become a steady stream; a delegation of Cabinet ministers has reportedly called on him to resign; if he doesn’t take the hint, the 1922 Committee seems likely to hold an early second confidence vote in his leadership.   But what will happen if he does resign, or if he loses the confidence of a majority of Conservative MPs?  How long might it take for the Conservative party to elect a new leader, and how will the country be governed in the meantime?

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What happened to the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission?

The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto promised to appoint a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to conduct a wide-ranging constitutional review. In practice, this promise has not been delivered. Tom Fleming and Petra Schleiter discuss this by summarising their recent article about the Commission, Radical departure or opportunity not taken? The Johnson government’s Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, as published in ‘British Politics’.

What did the government promise?

At the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party’s manifesto promised to appoint a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’. This body would be tasked with reviewing various aspects of the constitution and producing proposals ‘to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates’.

The Commission’s proposed remit was very broad, encompassing many of the central elements of the UK’s constitution. It would be asked to examine: ‘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’, as well as the Human Rights Act, administrative law, and judicial review. However, the manifesto was decidedly vague about how the Commission would be organised. There was no information about its proposed membership, format, or timeline, beyond a commitment that it would be established within a year of the election.

The manifesto’s language suggested that this proposal stemmed in part from the government’s experience of the Brexit process. This was most obvious from the manifesto’s controversial description of ‘the way so many MPs have devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people in the 2016 referendum’ creating ‘a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people’. This led some observers to warn against the dangers of the Commission ‘fighting the last war’ rather than crafting durable constitutional reforms.

Whatever its motivation, the proposed Commission had the potential to be a radical departure from previous investigations of constitutional reform in the UK. In particular, it held out the prospect of a joined-up review of multiple interconnected constitutional issues. Such joined-up thinking is vital for ensuring a coherent reform agenda, but has been conspicuous by its absence in recent decades.

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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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The effects of early elections on satisfaction with democracy

As the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill makes its way through parliament, Edward Morgan-Jones and Matthew Loveless report on the results of their recently published comparative study, which explores the impact of the rules surrounding the dissolution of parliament and early election calling on citizen satisfaction with democracy.  

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and returns to the UK Prime Minister the right to call early elections at any time, without the approval of parliament. This is a return to the to the UK’s traditional constitutional practice for dissolving parliament. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act changed this practice by limiting early election calling to occasions when either two-thirds of MPs vote for a parliamentary dissolution or the government fails a confidence vote and no alternative government can be found.

Returning to the prime minister the ability to call early elections whenever they wish increases the likelihood that early elections will be called for partisan and strategic reasons, that these elections will be called in conditions that favour the incumbent, and also makes it more likely that the prime ministers’ party will win such elections.

Our comparative analysis of constitutional rules governing early election calling in 26 European countries sheds light on the extent that we might be able to expect returning prime ministerial discretion to call elections to be associated with higher or lower degrees of democratic satisfaction.

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