The Fixed-term Parliaments Act did not cause the Brexit impasse

Next week MPs debate the government’s bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. One argument frequently deployed for scrapping the Act is that it generated gridlock over Brexit. But, Meg Russell argues, no clear counterfactual to support this claim has ever been presented. In fact, when considering the possible scenarios, it seems likely that the situation would have been made worse, not better, had the Prime Minister retained an untrammelled prerogative power to dissolve parliament in 2017–19.

Next week MPs debate the remaining stages of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). It proposes to reinstate the pre-FTPA position, whereby the Prime Minister would effectively control general election timing using prerogative power. A key argument deployed by those seeking repeal of the FTPA is that it helped to cause the Brexit deadlock of 2019: that the FTPA, as the Conservative manifesto put it, ‘led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’. But to what extent is this really true?

While suggestions that the FTPA created the Brexit deadlock are commonplace, most experts who contributed to the three parliamentary committees that have considered FTPA repeal (the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Lords Constitution Committee and Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) argued that the deadlock resulted from other factors. Most obvious were the post-2017 combination of a minority government, the need to deliver on a contested referendum result, and deep divisions within the governing party. These problems were clearly serious, and it is very far from clear that the FTPA could have resolved them.

A careful reading of the evidence presented to the three parliamentary committees, and of the Commons second reading debate on the bill, finds that most claims against the FTPA over Brexit are distinctly vague. No clear counterfactual is offered. This particularly applies to events during Theresa May’s premiership, when the most intractable problems arose. The situation did change in the autumn of 2019 under Boris Johnson (as discussed below), but the FTPA’s targeting as a causal factor dates back far earlier than this. Likewise, during interviews with a series of senior figures for a current book project on parliament and the Brexit process, I have asked several critics of the FTPA how, if Theresa May had been able to trigger an early general election without parliament’s consent, things would have turned out differently. I have yet to receive a convincing reply.

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The public policy challenges facing Northern Ireland

Following the report of its Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, the Unit will in the coming weeks publish a discussion paper on the wider political options for Northern Ireland. In the first part of this blog, Alan Whysall, the author of the paper, sets it in the current political context, and discusses the public policy challenges facing Northern Ireland. The second part, which will be published later today, considers longer term destinies, and what can be done to encourage more realistic debate, and ultimately constructive politics, in Northern Ireland.

Introduction

Politics will resume in Northern Ireland after the summer in deep conflict. But much of the political debate is totemic, neglecting the realities of public policy in Northern Ireland now.

The unreality of the debate reflects the unwinding of constructive politics, such as was seen in the better days following the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998.  

And the increasing talk of broader constitutional destinies is cast in vague and general terms, reminiscent of the Brexit debate; on one side, it often obscures serious issues that constitutional change would raise; on the other, it takes little account of the changing nature of Northern Ireland society.

The discussion paper

The discussion paper will aim, in a neutral spirit, to point up pressing immediate issues that need to be analysed and acted on; and key aspects of the debate about potential destinies.

And it will ask how a spirit of constructive political endeavour can be restored.

Is it practical to think of a renewed Agreement?

The paper will offer some tentative answers to the questions it raises, but it really does need to spark a discussion. Political tensions may once again reach breaking point before very long: and answers to the questions may be needed.

Finally, the paper asks who is to drive the effort towards changed debate and politics. The British and Irish governments have often sought to keep the Northern Ireland political system on the rails, and to impart new impetus. But at present their differences may mean they are challenged in doing so.

So the paper also asks whether others in Northern Ireland can help.

Dealing with the here and now

The Northern Ireland Protocol

The Northern Ireland Protocol looms over Northern Ireland politics. Brexit has been profoundly disruptive. It was the first major change in the arrangements established after the Good Friday Agreement that lacked the cross-community support by which the Agreement was reached – indeed Northern Ireland voted Remain. Hard Brexit inevitably meant more borders somewhere in or around Ireland. The Protocol is the outworking.

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The House of Lords is too large: party leaders must put aside short-term interests and agree plans to reduce its numbers

Five years after its creation, the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House has called for firm, fast action on reducing the number of peers in the legislature. Chair of the committee, Lord (Terry) Burns, argues that it is essential that party leaders have the courage to come together and agree the necessary measures. 

To mark the retirement of Lord (Norman) Fowler as Lord Speaker, the committee he set up to make recommendations on reducing the size of the House of Lords recently published its fourth report. I have had the intriguing task of chairing the committee, which was ably advised by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Meg Russell.

The House of Lords has too many members

There have been over 1,500 life peers appointed since the enactment of the Life Peerages Act 1958. Of those, just over 800 have now died or retired. The net result is a House today consisting of some 700 life peers, 92 hereditary peers (there are currently vacancies because several by-elections were postponed due to the pandemic) and 26 bishops. The numbers for hereditary peers and bishops are both set by legislation, and it follows that changes to the overall size of the House are now determined almost entirely by increases or decreases in the number of life peers – which is not limited by statute or convention.

During the first 30 or so years of life peerages, there were an average of 20 appointments per year, which has since risen to 30 per year. The average age at appointment has been reasonably steady at 60, with a small decline in recent years.

There were relatively few leavers in the early years owing to the small size of the group of life peers, but over the past 30 years the average number has been close to 20 per year. The average age of leavers has risen over time, reflecting increased life expectancy, and has stood at a little over 80 in recent years.

The House was greatly reduced in size by the 1999 reforms, which removed hundreds of hereditary peers, but concerns have been raised during the past 10 years about its increasing size as the number of life peers rose above 700 and the total number of members moved back above 800. Several relatively small legislative changes have been introduced allowing for retirements and excluding members after a period of non-attendance – but all attempts to change the composition of the House have foundered.

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Northern Ireland on the brink, again: the responsibility of London

As political tensions rise and riots erupt, or are provoked, on the streets of Belfast, the suggestion is now widely heard that the Northern Ireland institutions may again collapse before long. But London appears at present to have a limited grip of the Northern Ireland situation, suggests Alan Whysall, and if it does not change its approach markedly, it – and others – may face great grief soon.

Lessons of history

London governments were hands off in Northern Ireland until the late 1960s. Meanwhile conditions developed there that provoked protest, which was then hijacked by terrorism. Over several decades they painfully learned again about Ireland, the need to give its affairs at times a degree of priority, and the importance of working with Dublin. That approach led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and an intensive cooperative effort between the governments to implement it and keep it on the road.

Since 2016, matters have changed. In settling the UK’s approach to Brexit, it has generally been regarded as a side issue, to be resolved once the grand lines of the withdrawal plan were settled. The May government, under much pressure from Brussels, Belfast and Dublin, eventually recognised that the architecture of Brexit must accommodate Northern Ireland concerns. In 2019, however, policy shifted from the May backstop to the Johnson Protocol, and there is a strong perception that Northern Ireland has chiefly been valued as a battleground for the government’s trench warfare with the EU.

The build-up to the recent violence

Brexit is of course not the sole cause of what is now going wrong. In various ways, the underpinnings of the Agreement have been weakening for eight or nine years; and a number of factors led to the Executive collapsing in early 2017. But the tensions that Brexit has provoked, and the necessity to create a border somewhere – across the island, around the two islands, or between Great Britain and Ireland (the inevitable choice, because the other two are unfeasible) have seriously envenomed matters.

Nevertheless, Julian Smith, the last Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, developed a strong rapport with all the main Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish government, and was able to reach the New Decade, New Approach agreement to bring the institutions back early last year. But he was promptly sacked, apparently for having offended Number 10, a step widely seen in Northern Ireland as indicating the government’s general lack of concern for its affairs. He was replaced by Brandon Lewis.

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Boris Johnson and parliament: misunderstandings and structural weaknesses

On 21 January Unit Director Meg Russell appeared on a panel with two former Conservative Chief Whips, reflecting on Boris Johnson’s troubled relationship with parliament as Prime Minister. In this post she presents her central arguments – that the Johnson government in its early months has seemed to demonstrate some basic misunderstandings about parliament and its role; but also the government’s behaviour has highlighted some of parliament’s key weaknesses.

In early September 2020 I wrote a blogpost on Boris Johnson and parliament, which documented 13 unhappy episodes in 13 months. I had originally aimed at producing a list of 10 such episodes, but found that there was just too much material. Some of the incidents were obvious – such as the attempted prorogation the previous September, ultimately ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Others have continued to bubble along unhappily in the subsequent months – including the persistent refusal by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to provide time for MPs to debate and agree proposals from the Procedure Committee to allow them to work virtually during the pandemic (frequently covered on this blog – see here and here), and the sporadic suggestions from government sources that the House of Lords should move to York. Some incidents were more obscure, but worth recalling for the record – such as Downing Street’s attempt to impose Chris Grayling as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (which rather dramatically backfired).

Of course that post was written five months ago, and the list continues to gets longer. It predated, for example, the dramatic showdown with former Conservative leaders over the government’s Internal Market Bill. It predated the announcement of the new Christmas lockdown rules during Commons recess, and the government’s refusal to allow a recall to debate them – despite protests by numerous Conservative backbenchers. It noted Johnson’s excessive first round of Lords appointments, but not his second within six months – both in clear breach of the Lord Speaker’s hardfought attempts to control the size of the chamber. It predated Johnson’s overruling of the House of Lords Appointments Commission’s recommendations on propriety, for the first time by any Prime Minister in the Commission’s 20-year existence.

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