Is a second referendum on Brexit possible? Seven questions that need to be answered

jess_sargent.000alan_renwick.000Meg.Russell.000 (1)Two years on from the Brexit vote, the benefits of a second referendum are being hotly debated. In this post, Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell identify seven questions that should be considered before parliament decides whether a second Brexit referendum will take place.

Last week a Sky poll suggested that 50% of the public would favour a three-way referendum on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. This follows calls from key figures including Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, and Tony Blair, as well as a campaign launched by The Independent for the public to be allowed a vote on the final deal. Number 10 has categorically rejected these calls, stating that there will be no further referendum on Brexit ‘in any circumstances’. Nonetheless, talk of a second referendum is likely to continue. Whether you are a supporter or an opponent of that proposal, there are some big important questions about the practicalities of such a referendum that need to be explored. This post sets out some of the most crucial questions. In further posts over the coming weeks, we will begin to explore some of the answers. Those posts will appear as a collection on our project page, which can bew viewed here.

1. Would it be possible to hold a referendum in the time available?

To hold a referendum in the UK, parliament must first pass primary legislation, which clearly takes time. To complicate matters, during the bill’s passage through parliament, the Electoral Commission must assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the proposed referendum question – which usually takes ten weeks. There are then other key steps after the bill has received royal assent. The Electoral Commission and the local authorities that must run the poll need sufficient time to prepare. Campaigners on both sides must be designated, and the current legislative framework – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) – sets out a ten-week regulated campaign period.

The time taken to go through these steps in actual referendums has varied. The legislation for the 2016 EU referendum was introduced 13 months before polling day. For the 2011 AV referendum this was nine and a half months, with only 11 weeks between royal assent and the poll. If the UK is to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 (exit day), such long timescales clearly are not feasible. A big question is therefore, in the current exceptional circumstances, whether the time needed for each step can be compressed – and if so, by how much and with what consequences? For a new referendum to have public legitimacy, these are crucial questions demanding careful answers. Continue reading

How often do prime ministers bow to the will of parliament? Actually, all the time

30th August 2013

David Cameron‘s defeat last night in the Commons on his motion on military intervention in Syria has been met with shock, and correctly seen as a very visible assertion of parliamentary power. But, although such confrontations are unusual, it would be wrong to assume that parliamentary checks on government ambitions are the exception. In fact, they happen all the time.

Two things are unusual about yesterday’s events. First, and most widely commented upon, they address the difficult and high-profile question of peace and war. Historically, the ability to deploy troops has been seen as part of the ‘royal prerogative’ – whereby the executive can act without explicit parliamentary consent. This came under particular pressure in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, when Robin Cook (Leader of the House of Commons) and Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary) persuaded Tony Blair that he should not proceed without the clear support of MPs. The result, on 18 March 2003, saw ‘the largest [vote] against the whip by government MPs since the beginning of modern British politics‘ – 139 Labour MPs defied the whip – but the Prime Minister still managed to win the vote with Conservative support. Subsequently there has been pressure to entrench a convention that parliamentary consent is required for the deployment of troops, with reports from one parliamentary committee and then another . Gordon Brown, and subsequently the coalition, have been sympathetic to such calls, but – as the second of these reports explores – the issues are complex. In 2011 David Cameron sought parliamentary approval for action in Libya, which was forthcoming – but only after the event. This sparked calls from a third committee to clarify the situation. But in short, a rejection by the Commons of such a proposal is unprecedented in recent times – at least because it has so rarely been asked the question. A useful briefing by the House of Commons Library documents how Commons debates on earlier conflicts – including Suez and the Falklands war – were generally taken without a substantive vote.

The other thing that is unusual is for a government to have to back down so publicly, on any kind of policy, in the face of parliamentary opposition. But this is not unheard of, including under the coalition. Most obviously, Nick Clegg’s Lords reform proposals were withdrawn when it became clear that he faced certain defeat in the Commons on the necessary programme motion. Earlier, the coalition’s Health and Social Care Bill had been withdrawn for a ‘pause’, due to resistance – particularly from the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair also faced problems, notably being forced to implement a ban on foxhunting that he did not himself support, and being pressured into a free vote on a total ban on smoking in public places, leading to a reversal of government policy. All of these events took place in the very public arena of the House of Commons. What is more routine is for government to withdraw proposals following defeat in the House of Lords . As I document in my recent book, a key consideration for ministers in deciding whether to accept a Lords defeat is what the Commons will bear. When there is clear resistance from government backbenchers (as Brown faced over his proposals to detain terror suspects without charge for 42 days), plans are usually dropped to avoid possible Commons humiliation.

But this leads to the key point – which is that the real power of parliament is primarily exercised behind-the-scenes, through ministers considering what MPs are prepared to accept, and only putting proposals that they know will achieve support. When it comes to legislation, which is the topic of one of our current projects, a huge amount of effort in Whitehall goes into developing parliamentary ‘handling strategies’ to think through what will prove controversial in both the Commons and the Lords. This is very explicit in the Cabinet Office’s own guide to making legislation which also states that if ‘the Government expects to be defeated on a non-government amendment, it may wish to pre-empt a defeat by tabling a concessionary amendment’ – in other words to avoid a defeat by changing its policy before the vote. It is through these subtle and private mechanisms of communication that parliament’s primary power is felt. Indeed among our case study bills there was one – the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill – that the Prime Minister was said himself not to want, but which was introduced due to pressure from Labour MPs. It is the whips’ job, in particular, to keep in touch with parliamentary opinion through informal chats in corridors and tearooms, and ministers do the same in private meetings with MPs. If these mechanisms are working confrontations can be avoided, but parliamentary power is being exercised nonetheless.

Returning to the events of yesterday, what therefore appears to have gone wrong is communication inside the Conservative party. It is obviously more difficult for whips to keep on top of opinion during a parliamentary recess, and this can only have exacerbated the problem. What is more surprising is that when things started to look difficult the government didn’t strike a deal with the opposition so that both sides could support one resolution – the words of the government resolution and the Labour resolution were strikingly similar. But does this mark the start of a new period of confrontation between government and parliament? Probably not. A smart government is in constant dialogue with parliamentarians, and when necessary trims its ambitions to avoid public splits. If Cameron didn’t know that before, he certainly knows it now.

Prime Ministers in Power: Political Leadership in Britain and Australia

New book by Dr Mark Bennister, Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University and Honorary Research Associate at the Constitution Unit (Palgrave, 2012) ISBN: 9780230273214

Tony Blair and John Howard appear to be incongruous choices for comparative analysis. Howard was from the ideological right of Australian politics, with a leadership style based on experience and an uncharismatic, cautious, bureaucratic persona. Blair was the charismatic, new progressive centre-left leader with an emotional, thespian style, stressing vision and moral imperatives. Yet, it is possible to identify both personal and institutional similarities. This book argues that both leaders stretched the institutional resources available to them and enhanced their own personal capital. Over time, the political capital generated by each inevitably fell away to the extent that they both (although for contrasting reasons) left office in 2007. Prime Ministers in Powerinvestigates prime ministerial predominance in Britain and Australia. It is a timely addition to the scholarly material on political leadership, adding a comparative dimension by using case study analysis of two prime ministers in similar political systems. How did these two prime ministers establish such predominant positions? How far can prime ministers stretch the institutions within which they work and how much of an impact does the office-holder have on the office? What conclusions can be drawn from the comparison of the two prime ministers? What are the consequences and costs of such predominance? This book addresses these questions, offering a comparative perspective on the nature of prime ministerial leadership.

Contents:

PART I

  • Introduction: Comparing Prime Ministers

PART II

  • Cabinet as a Resource
  • Prime Minster and Party
  • Controlling and Strengthening the Centre

PART III

  • Prime Ministers: Personal Capacity
  • Splendid Isolation: Personalisation and Autonomy

PART IV

  • Comparative Perspectives and Conclusions

Publisher and purchasing details:

Reviews:

‘Mark Bennister’s book will be essential reading for all students of prime ministerial power and executive governance. He moves the debate onto new territory, using a comparative approach (looking at Tony Blair in Britain and John Howard in Australia) and integrating analysis of institutional and party factors, personal skills and leadership styles. Bennister is a careful, systematic and forensic analyst. The book offers many insights into Blair and Howard’s long years of predominance but works successfully also as a primer on how to go about making sense in general of Prime Ministers as political leaders.’  (Kevin Theakston, Professor of British Government, University of Leeds)

‘This book makes a significant new contribution to our understanding of comparative political leadership. Through an exhaustive and clear analysis of the personal and political resources at their disposal, it reveals how two very different individuals working in distinctive political settings – former British prime minister Tony Blair and the ex-premier of Australia, John Howard – each found ways of stretching their power through personalized electoral appeals, although each was ultimately constrained by party colleagues. Mark Bennister has produced a valuable new study that deserves the attention of all serious students and scholars of political leadership.’  (Paul Webb, Professor of Politics, University of Sussex)

‘Mark Bennister’s comparative study of Tony Blair and John Howard is a revelation. Few are the books that allow us to see across national difference to recognise the core elements that empower or limit prime ministers. Rarer still are those that can overcome a narrow focus on institutions, or personalities, or the core executive to encompass all of those things and adroitly to demonstrate that only through understanding their interaction will we see how power is gained and sustained. This is a major contribution to prime ministerial studies and to leadership analysis at large.’ (James Walter, Professor of Political Science, Monash University, Melbourne)