Brexit and parliament: where did it all go wrong?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary arguments over Brexit may now feel far behind us, but the bitterness of those arguments has left scars on our politics. Meg Russell examines four factors which contributed to the parliamentary ‘perfect storm’ over Brexit, concluding that ‘parliament’ largely got the blame for divisions inside the Conservative Party. This was fuelled by the referendum, minority government and the inability of parliamentary rules to accommodate a minority situation. The populist anti-parliamentary rhetoric which resulted was potentially damaging, with implications for the current Covid-19 crisis, when public trust in political decision-making is essential.

Amidst the current Covid-19 crisis, last year’s Brexit clashes already feel a long time ago. But at the time, they pushed Britain’s politics and constitution to their limits. Parliament was frequently at the heart of these conflicts – with angry headlines suggesting that parliamentarians were seeking to ‘block Brexit’, and branding them ‘wreckers’ or ‘saboteurs’. Twice questions of parliament’s proper role in relation to government ended up in the Supreme Court. Boris Johnson sought a lengthy prorogation of parliament, after which the Attorney General told MPs that they had ‘no moral right to sit’. How on earth did the UK, traditionally the most parliamentary of all democracies, get into such a mess? I dissect this question in a newly-published paper, ‘Brexit and Parliament: The Anatomy of a Perfect Storm’, in the journal Parliamentary Affairs. This post summarises the article’s key arguments. The full version is freely available to read online.

I suggest that four key political and constitutional features, all unusual in the UK context, contributed to this ‘perfect storm’. It was accompanied by a rise in populist and anti-parliamentary rhetoric – of a kind which would be destabilising and dangerous in any democracy, but particularly one based on a core principle of parliamentary sovereignty – as returned to at the end of this post. The four factors were as follows:

The referendum

As charted by the Independent Commission on Referendums, referendum use has grown in UK politics, but can sit awkwardly with traditional parliamentary sovereignty. Arguments for referendums on matters concerning EU powers were made over a long period (somewhat ironically) on the basis of protecting that very sovereignty. The 2016 EU referendum – eventually conceded by David Cameron, under pressure from Conservative Eurosceptics and UKIP – was very unusual, in two important ways. First, it was what the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (chaired by senior Brexit supporter Bernard Jenkin) criticised as a ‘bluff-call’ referendum: where the government’s purpose was not to seek approval for a change that it supported, but to shut down its opponents’ demands. Second, the referendum was held on a broad proposition (to leave the EU), rather than a detailed prospectus. Hence when the result came in, and was not the one the Prime Minister or most MPs (even on the Conservative benches at that time) wanted, parliament was left to decide how to put it into effect. Such circumstances generated clear tensions between parliamentary and popular sovereignty. Continue reading

Commons select committees and Brexit

wager.150x150This week, the Constitution Unit co-published a new report, Parliament and Brexitin which some of the UK’s leading academics look at how parliament has managed Brexit to date, and how it might seek to handle the issue in future. Here, Alan Wager argues that select committees in the Commons proved their worth at a time when the public perception of parliament was at a low point, but that future Brexit challenges will see them come under pressure.

The House of Commons select committee system is a parliamentary success story. But it is a success story about to come under a period of sustained pressure. The influence and public profile of the committee system has been boosted by a reputation as a generator of agenda-setting policy discussion, and a vehicle for genuine cross-party scrutiny. The new political environment since the 2019 general election provides a test of whether these factors can be sustained. In an environment where the government is explicitly setting out to reduce the level of parliamentary scrutiny around Brexit and its consequences, select committees face the challenge of maintaining the levels of influence they enjoyed during the 2017-19 parliament.

Some government decisions that inhibited select committee scrutiny at the start of Boris Johnson’s tenure are temporary. The attempted prorogation, actual prorogation, dissolution and the slow start after the general election, combined with the distraction of the Labour leadership contest, have disrupted committee activity. The Liaison Committee has yet to question Boris Johnson, who cancelled an agreed appearance in October, having postponed twice previously. All this at a critical time when negotiating mandates and opening positions are being fleshed out.

Yet there are other substantive and long-term problems for scrutiny, resulting directly from government decisions, which will continue to impact throughout the transition period. As discussed in Lisa James’ contribution to the Parliament and Brexit report, government revisions to the post-election EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (WAB) reduced MPs’ ability to scrutinise the next steps on Brexit on the floor of the House of Commons – including the negotiating mandate and updates on negotiations. This means that MPs (and watchers of BBC Parliament) will be denied those pinch points of high drama – and, more importantly, high scrutiny – that shaped government strategy throughout the last parliament. The question is whether select committees – with their proven capacity to generate moments of scrutiny and expose the government of the day – can partly fill the gap. Continue reading

An ‘extraordinary scandal’: looking back at the 2009 MPs’ expenses crisis and its consequences

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More than ten years on from the 2009 expenses scandal, Andrew Walker and Emma Crewe have published a book that seeks to offer fresh insight into the origins and legacy of the crisis. David Natzler, a former Clerk of the Commons, offers his own take on the book, and the crisis it seeks to shed light on.

Over a decade has passed since the Westminster expenses scandal of 2009. It is widely regarded as one of the factors, together with the banking crisis and the absence of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which led to popular contempt for the political class, the growth of UKIP, and thus the outcome of the 2016 referendum. There have been useful books and articles on the scandal’s effect as well as accounts by the journalists involved, and last year there were several TV and radio programmes looking back to what seemed at the time to be a momentous series of events. 

Now there is a book by Emma Crewe and Andrew Walker, An Extraordinary Scandal: the Westminster Expenses Crisis and Why it Still Matters, published late in 2019 by Haus. Andrew Walker was the senior Commons official responsible for the administration of the expenses regime; Emma Crewe is an academic anthropologist who has specialised recently in looking at parliamentary culture. I should declare an interest as it was at my suggestion that Andrew approached Emma with the prospect of working together on this project.

The basic story is familiar. A disc (or discs) containing at least a million documents was bought by the Daily Telegraph, who through May and June 2009 published daily exposés of the claims made by MPs. The information was on the discs in preparation for the major clerical task of responding to a court ruling under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requiring the publication by the House of Commons of much more detailed information than hitherto on payments made to members under the expenses scheme. The Act’s final incarnation included within its statutory ambit both ‘the House of Commons’ and ‘the House of Lords’, although neither appeared in the bill as first drafted. Jack Straw, the minister in charge of the bill, added them to the list of public authorities in Schedule 1 to the Act, and is said to have regretted it ever since. Individual MPs and peers were not then – and are not now – regarded as public authorities. But the House authorities were subject to the Act, and since they administered the expenses system and held the information on MPs’ claims, it became disclosable.

The Act did not come into force until 2005, giving anybody that would be affected five years to prepare. One obligation was to prepare ‘schemes of publication’, which would list what information would be published proactively. The House of Commons made similar preparations to other public authorities: they appointed specialist staff to oversee the effort and discussed what they would proactively publish. The House of Commons eventually decided in late 2004 to publish details of MPs’ expenses broken down into several headings, for each of the previous three years, and to then issue quarterly updates. Crewe and Walker recount the vain attempt to prevent the press from creating ‘league tables’ of MPs by publishing only a locked pdf, which the press had little difficulty in cracking. Various MPs were appalled and angry at being ‘exposed’ as the UK’s or Lancashire’s most expensive MP. One external PR adviser had to resign when it emerged that he had been secretly encouraging one party to make more of a meal of the other party’s record. Continue reading

Celebrating 40 years of departmental select committees

involve_portraits_may18_029b (1)download.jpg.pngForty years ago, the House of Commons revolutionised the way in which it scrutinises government by creating departmental select committees so that each section of government now receives continual and detailed scrutiny by MPs. In June, a two-day conference was held to explore the past, present and future forms and functions of these committees. Rebecca McKee and Tom Caygill summarise some of the event’s key themes and contributions. 

Almost 40 years to the day since the debate to establish the first departmental select committees in late June 1979, the House of Commons and the Study of Parliament Group held a two-day conference in parliament. The conference showcased the work of the committees, reflecting on changes since 1979 and looked forward at emerging challenges and how committees may need to evolve for the future.

There were 15 panels over two days, with a range of speakers from academia, Whitehall, the House of Commons and civil society. In this post we consider themes from the conference, looking specifically at the past, present and future of departmental select committees. 

Looking back at 40 years of select committees

The history of select committees

With 40 years of departmental select committees to explore, the panel ‘History, origins and early days of select committees’ began by looking back to their inception in 1979. The panel heard contributions from Philip Aylett (clerk); Professor Gavin Drewry (Royal Holloway, University of London), Mike Everett (clerk), Sir David Natzler (former Clerk of the House), and was chaired by Oonagh Gay, (formerly of the Parliament and Constitution Centre). 

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The session began with a discussion of the work conducted by the Study of Parliament Group in helping to develop and monitor early select committees. It was noted that the group did not always speak with one voice. Bernard Crick, one of the group’s founders, initially argued against specialist committees. 

However, these committees were not a complete novelty. Committees have existed since the late 13th century, when the Committees of Triers and Examiners of Petitions were established. Their usage expanded over the centuries. A dramatic increase occurred in the 16th century following the designation (in 1547) of a special Committee Room in the House of Commons. 

The panel then turned to the 20th century. They argued that the 1960s were a dark age for select committees; the Estimates Committee existed but had a very narrow remit and committees avoided policy issues. In 1965 however, the Procedure Committee recommended a greater specialisation of select committee work and in 1966 discussions began between parties to develop specialist committees. Harold Wilson argued that select committees should expand their remit beyond financial questions to cover policy issues also. By the 1970s a different role started to emerge, similar to the Committees we recognise today. Continue reading

Pressures to recall parliament over Brexit during the summer seem likely – what if they occur?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgIMG_20190723_020219.jpg (1)A new Prime Minister is expected to be appointed tomorrow, the day before MPs break up for the summer recess. With just 14 weeks remaining before the current Article 50 deadline, the Commons is then not due to meet for almost six weeks. This creates some very obvious scrutiny gaps. Meg Russell and Daniel Gover suggest that pressures for a Commons ‘recall’ during the summer recess seem likely, but that this will revive difficult questions about who can, and should be able to, recall MPs.

On Thursday, MPs are due to leave Westminster for the summer recess. Yet, barring mishaps, a new Prime Minister is expected to be installed in Downing Street only the preceding day, making immediate parliamentary scrutiny of the new government’s key decisions all but impossible. An added pressure, of course, comes from the Brexit context. The current Article 50 deadline for the UK to depart the EU is 31 October, but parliament is due to remain closed for around half that time – for almost six weeks initially, until 3 September, followed by another break for the party conferences. During this period, calls for parliamentary scrutiny of the new government – most obviously over Brexit – seem very likely to grow. 

In this post we examine the pressures that may build for a recall of parliament during the summer, and what mechanisms exist for MPs if they do. Crucially, a formal Commons recall can only be initiated by the government – which may push parliamentarians towards innovative solutions. In the longer term, pressures for reform of the recall process may well be revived. 

Why there may be pressures for recall 

Demands for the Commons to be recalled from a recess are not unusual, as discussed below. However, they seem especially probable this year. MPs are set to break up just one day after the new Prime Minister takes office, while the tensions over Brexit and how he intends to handle this (particularly if the winner is Boris Johnson) are running high.

An initial challenge, raised in another recent post on this blog, is whether it will even be possible to know that the new Prime Minister and his government enjoy the confidence of parliament. The first action of a new premier is to appoint a cabinet, followed by junior ministers. Within the 24 hours available to the House of Commons, this process may not be complete. As the Commons’ confidence depends not only on the personality of the Prime Minister, but the personalities and balance of the whole government, this could well be brought into doubt. Additionally, there will be very little time under current plans for parliament to quiz the Prime Minister on his Brexit strategy. A statement on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday is possible, but not assured – and if MPs are dissatisfied there will be very little time to respond. The immediate start to the recess hence already looks problematic, and MPs may depart amidst claims that the new Prime Minister is dodging scrutiny. Continue reading

175 not out: the new edition of Erskine May and eight years of constitutional change

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgIn March, Sir David Natzler retired as Clerk of the Commons after over 40 years in the House. Now, he is the co-editor of Erskine May, the 25th edition of which is the first new edition in eight years, and is freely available to the public: a significant change. Here, Sir David discusses some of the key changes to the text after what can only be described as an eventful eight years for the Commons. 

The years since the last edition of Erskine May in 2011 have been pretty turbulent by any standards. We have had three types – coalition, majority and minority – of government, two general elections, three national referendums and numerous constitutional statutes of real significance. So it was plainly time for a new edition of this timeless work, which is often referred to but rarely read.

The new Erskine May is exciting to me because, as its co-editor, I had the happy task of reading through the chapters as they emerged from the efforts of many of my former colleagues. We all had to ask ourselves: is this a clear and honest account of parliamentary procedure and practice, and if not, how far can we go in recasting it? It is not a new book; but nor is it merely a historical text with minor amendments for the benefit of a modern audience. New content has been added, but nothing has been asserted without due authority, and we also recognise that some assertions of the past are too precious to be excised. Paragraph 21.4 on the rule against reading of speeches is as good an example as any: the principle remains valued by some MPs but it would be idle to pretend that it is rigorously observed in practice. There has to be some wishful thinking.

Who is this edition of Erskine May for? Plainly for practitioners, meaning the occupants of the Chair (such as the Speaker and Deputy Speakers), those who advise them, MPs and officials. But it is not just for them. Recent controversy over decisions by the Speaker on procedural issues related to Brexit and threats of early or extended prorogation by some candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party have served to remind all of us that parliamentary procedures are not some sort of secret masonic ritual to be understood only by a priestly caste of clerks and a handful of others, but are as integral to a parliamentary democracy as electoral rules. And it is not just for Westminster: one of my great pleasures as Clerk was to receive emails from colleagues around the Commonwealth seeking elucidation of a procedural – and usually political – issue where their knowledge of what was said in Erskine May was far in advance of my own!

Fortunately this edition has been preceded by two very different works which help set it in context. In 2018 the Commons authorities published a Guide to Procedure which is intended to help those involved in its day to day work, set out in plain English. It is of course available online. And secondly, at the end of 2017 Hart Publishing produced a book of essays – edited by current Clerk of Committees Paul Evans, entitled Essays on the History of Parliamentary Procedure: In Honour of Thomas Erskine May, to mark the great man’s 200th birthday in 2015. Continue reading

Looking forward, looking back: an evening with Sir David Natzler

IMG.2771On 19 March, the Unit held an event: ‘Challenges for Parliament: Looking Back, Looking Forward’, at which Sir David Natzler – who retired as Clerk of the House of Commons in February – spoke to Professor Meg Russell about his 40-year career in parliament. The discussion was both entertaining and informative; Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the key points.

Early days

Sir David first started working in the House of Commons in 1975, at what he called an ‘exciting time’, just two years after the UK had joined what was then known as the European Communities. His first assignment was as clerk to the European Legislation Committee, which was facing the novel challenge of sifting through the legislation passed by an unelected Council of Ministers sitting in the capital city of another country, and recommending which measures should be debated.

Parliament was unsurprisingly a very different place in the early years of Sir David’s Commons career. Talking of the key differences, he first spoke of how ‘expectations’ had changed significantly since then. For example, there were no limits on how long a Member could speak in those days. Whereas the Speaker (or one of the Deputy Speakers) can now impose relatively short time limits for MPs wishing to speak, that was not the case in 1975. Sir David considered this ‘almost one of the biggest changes’ of the past two or three centuries; that speaking for a long time can no longer be used to ‘destroy business’.

One of the other key differences between then and now is that the House of Commons lacked fiscal independence when he first started working there. It was instead reliant on the government for finance, thereby limiting its ability to take crucial decisions such as whether or not to recruit more staff. The Treasury hence had control of the Commons until the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978, at which point the Commons became fiscally independent. Continue reading