Monitor 74, the latest edition of the Unit’s regular news update on constitutional issues, was published this morning. Since the last edition in November, we have had a general election, a government reshuffle, a new parliament with new committee chairs, and the UK has left the European Union. The future does not look dull, either. The negotiations about the future relationship with the EU have only just begun, a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission has been promised, and both Labour and the Lib Dems face leadership elections that could alter the future course of both parties. Here, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick, the Unit’s Director and Deputy Director respectively, offer their take on the past four months – and what the future might hold for a majority government in uncertain times with as yet undefined opponents.
The result of December’s election was decisive – Boris Johnson’s Conservative government returned to power with a House of Commons working majority of 87. His election slogan of ‘get Brexit done’ helped cut through, including in many former Labour heartlands (although at the aggregate level more votes were cast for parties supporting a referendum than for those pledged to immediately deliver Brexit). The party’s renewed parliamentary strength has now allowed Johnson to deliver on that promise. His post-election European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill passed unamended, and the UK formally left the EU on 31 January.
In some respects the election result seemed to indicate a return to normality – the classic UK expectation of stable single-party majority government was fulfilled. After periods of coalition government between 2010 and 2015, a narrow and brittle Conservative majority between 2015 and 2017, and minority government from 2017 to 2019, ‘normal service’ could resume. There are 365 Conservative MPs to Labour’s 202, with the smaller parties that take their seats collectively on 75 (see page 5). Not only is Johnson’s parliamentary party larger than that in the previous parliament, it also seems likely to be more united – at least on the key issue of Brexit. The Conservative MPs that he stripped of the whip in September almost all either retired or were defeated. Former Conservatives running as independents or for other parties, including Dominic Grieve, David Gauke, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston were all swept away.
There is hence some scope for politics to settle down, and the high-profile clashes of the last three years have probably been left behind. The government will be keen to shift the focus from Brexit to its domestic agenda. Indeed, guidance has apparently been issued in Whitehall to discourage use of the term ‘Brexit’ at all. Furthermore, changes to the final implementing legislation (see page 4) mean that the new parliament will have little formal control over the shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The transition period seems unlikely to be extended beyond the end of the year.
Yet it would be an overstatement to suggest that parliament will now become boring. The UK–EU negotiations (see page 3) will certainly raise controversies. And discontent on the Conservative benches is already showing on matters such as the HS2 railway line, the role of Chinese tech giant Huawei in the UK’s 5G network, and levels of taxation and spending. A desire to retain the party’s expanded working class electorate may raise multiple tensions with its more traditional supporters.
At the same time, there are many big questions about the future of British politics and the constitution. The government was elected on a manifesto hinting at wide-ranging constitutional reforms. The now famous page 48 suggested a need to review ‘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’, and promised a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to do so. It also made various more specific commitments, including scrapping the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (the topic of the Unit’s next public seminar), and changes to electoral rules (see page 9).