The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, was published today. Since the last issue, a new Prime Minister has been appointed, a new Speaker has been elected, a new Brexit deal has been negotiated, and a new parliament is imminent, as a general election campaign gets into gear this week. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick review the last four months of constitutional events in what is also the lead article from Monitor 73. The full edition can be found here.
With a general election scheduled for 12 December, the UK could be at a crucial turning point. Or, of course, not: with the polls uncertain, another hung parliament is a real possibility. The UK appeared closer to agreeing terms for leaving the EU in late October than previously, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson negotiated a revised deal and the House of Commons backed his Withdrawal Agreement Bill at second reading. But when MPs refused to accept Johnson’s demand that they rush the legislation through in three days, he refused to accord them more time, and demanded – as he had twice in September – a general election. A further extension of the Article 50 period – which Johnson had previously suggested he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than allow – was agreed on 28 October – just three days before the 31 October deadline. That being in place, Labour reluctantly agreed to an election, which it is fighting on a pledge to hold another Brexit referendum. The Liberal Democrats want to revoke Article 50 in the unlikely event that they secure a majority, or otherwise hold a referendum.
In recent months much in British politics has already felt close to breaking point. While Theresa May fared badly in navigating parliament as the leader of a minority government (only in the final stages seeking agreement with other parties), Johnson seems actively to have sought confrontation with parliament. This is, to say the least, an unorthodox strategy in a system where the government depends on the Commons’ confidence to survive. It is the very reverse of what would normally be expected under a minority government. Such an approach lasted, at least briefly, due to MPs’ fears of triggering a vote of no-confidence – which might have delivered Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn to Downing Street, or indeed allowed Johnson to ‘crash’ the UK out of the EU on a ‘no deal’ basis. There were even suggestions that he would refuse to resign, and ‘dare’ the Queen to sack him (see page 15), if parliament sought to put an alternative prime minister in his place.
In his short time in office, Johnson has faced very limited parliamentary scrutiny, including just three sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions. He made and cancelled no fewer than three arrangements to appear before the Commons Liaison Committee, much to the frustration of its chair. Most controversially, of course, he sought to prorogue parliament for five weeks – an action ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court (see page 14). Despite the ruling, scrutiny was curtailed by the summer recess, the time lost due to this ‘prorogation that wasn’t’, plus a further short prorogation to facilitate a Queen’s Speech (described as a ‘sham’ by the Unit’s Robert Hazell, given Johnson’s evident desire for an election). The attempted prorogation, and loose talk about refusing to resign, have left many people alarmed that a constitution heavily dependent on convention has suddenly appeared fragile, when faced with players who show little regard for unwritten rules. Continue reading