Maggie and Boris: polar opposites

I have no idea how Margaret Thatcher would have voted in the current Conservative leadership contest, had she been alive.  Given that she is not with us, no one knows for sure, though I doubt if that will stop some claiming they know.  My purpose here is not to speculate on that, but rather to reflect on how, if he becomes Prime Minister, Boris Johnson will be the polar opposite of the longest serving premier in modern British history.

Margaret Thatcher was raised as a Lincolnshire Methodist.  She was conscientious in fulfilling commitments.  John Whittingdale has spoken of the occasions when the PM’s motorcade had to wait in lay-bys because she had insisted setting off so early that they had to kill time before their scheduled arrival.  She was concerned for those around her.  Anyone ill or in trouble would be comforted in person or receive a personal message.

She was frugal with finances and applied her approach to home budgeting to the national budget.  As a political leader, she had clear future goals and pursued them with vigour.  (In my typology of prime ministers, she was an innovator.)  The motivation was essentially one of public, not self, service and pursuit of her goals gave rise to an eponymous philosophy.  She was devoted to politics.  She had no real hinterland.

She embraced the puritan work ethic and was always on top of her brief and expected her ministers to be as well.  A workaholic, she famously survived on only four hours of sleep a night.  She spent hours preparing for Prime Minister’s Question Time.  To quote one of her Cabinet colleagues, ‘She did not understand Parliament, though she thought she did, but she took it seriously’.  Woe betide any minister or official who had not supplied adequate material needed for PMQs.

What is notable is how none of the foregoing applies to Boris Johnson.  Substitute his name for that of Margaret Thatcher and it doesn’t work.  Take each point and the opposite applies to him.

Who then does he resemble as party leader?  It is possibly an unfair question in that, like Margaret Thatcher, he is a one-off.  The closest parallels are possibly Disraeli in terms of showmanship and exploiting opportunities and Arthur Balfour in terms of detachment and political flexibility.  From a party point of view, the hope must be that he is more of a Disraeli than a Balfour.  Disraeli saved the Tory party by making it a national party.  Balfour was prone to develop cunning plans, with about the same success as Baldrick.

Is there another leader I have missed that he resembles?

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The need for more pre-legislative scrutiny

Before the end of the last century, parliamentary scrutiny of bills was generally found wanting.  It was the area in which Parliament was arguably in greatest need of reform.  As the 1993 report of the Hansard Society Commission on the Legislative Process noted, ‘As a result of inadequate or defective consultation, it is argued, bills are too often introduced to Parliament “half-baked” and with lots of the detail insufficiently thought out’.

One way of improving legislation is through pre-legislative scrutiny, the government publishing a bill in draft and submitting it for consideration by a departmental select committee in the Commons or, for bills that are especially complex or of constitutional significance, a joint committee of both Houses.  Pre-legislative scrutiny enables the committee to take evidence and make recommendations before the government has become rather set in terms of what it wants enacted.  Once a bill is formally introduced, government tends not to be too keen on seeing changes during its passages.  Some ministers can be especially proprietorial.  Pre-legislative scrutiny can also produce a more bipartisan approach, especially in the case of joint committees.

When I chaired the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords, we produced a report, Parliament and the Legislative Process, recommending that pre-legislative scrutiny should be the norm and not the exception.  That was in 2004.  The government appeared sympathetic to our proposal.  It appeared likely that pre-legislative scrutiny would become more prevalent.  In the event, performance has been patchy.  Some ministers are reluctant to have ‘their’ bills submitted for such consideration – they are either too grand and/or insecure – and government appears unwilling to commit the resources necessary for the exercise.

To see how many bills have been referred for pre-legislative scrutiny in recent years, I tabled a question to the Leader of the House, asking ‘how many Government Bills since May 2015 have been published in draft and referred for pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee or committee of either House; and what proportion these constitute of all Government Bills introduced in that period’.  The answer, on Wednesday (3 July), was:

‘Since May 2015, 13 Government Bills have been published in draft and referred for pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee or committee of either House; this constitutes 14.43% of all Government Bills introduced in that period.’

In other words, only one in six government bills has been subject to such scrutiny.  This is disappointing, both in absolute and comparative terms.  In the 2010-15 Parliament, a total of 31 bills were submitted for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Pre-legislative scrutiny is not simply an issue for parliamentary scholars.  Its use can improve the quality of law in this country.  Law affects everyone, so ensuring better quality legislation is a public good.  Not devoting resources to it is a false economy.

This is something I shall be pursuing.  It is important that government recognises that it is in its own interest to get the detail of legislation right.

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Post-legislative scrutiny in the House of Lords

At the end of last year, I gave a paper at a conference on committees in comparative perspective, held in Brussels.  My paper addressed post-legislative scrutiny in the House of Lords.  It was a productive gathering and as a result of the deliberations I was able to revise and substantially strengthen the piece.  The conference papers are now to be published in a special issue of The Journal of Legislative Studies this autumn.  My article has already been published online.  (You can read it here.) Here is the abstract:

‘Legislatures appoint committees for different purposes.  Both Houses of the UK Parliament separate legislative committees from non-legislative, or select, committees.  Each is unusual in that it utilises select committees to engage in post-legislative scrutiny.  We examine why each engages in this type of scrutiny, given competing demands for limited resources.  Distributive and informational theories are utilised to explain the difference between the two chambers, identifying why the form of asymmetrical bicameralism to be found in the United Kingdom facilitates scrutiny that would otherwise not be undertaken.  The genesis and impact of post-legislative scrutiny committees are considered, with a focus on the House of Lords and why the use of such committees plays to the strengths of the House.’

The focus is explaining the difference in approach between the two Houses.  Departmental select committees in the Commons are used by MPs as part of their profile raising (‘look at me’) activities.  It is in their political interests to be seen.  This influences their choice of select committee when seeking election to a committee and the committee’s choice of topic for inquiry.  In the Lords, select committees serve the House rather than the members.  Whereas MPs through being elected to the Commons can take legitimacy as given (input legitimacy), members of the Lords cannot and so focus on ensuring the House fulfils the tasks expected of it (output legitimacy).  Failing to do so may prove an existentialist threat to the House, so members commit themselves to the work of whatever committee to which they are appointed by the House.

These differences are beneficial in that the approach to post-legislative scrutiny ensures a greater range of scrutiny than would otherwise be possible.  With departmental select committees, it is not consistent, but tends to go for the more high-profile and salient issues, whereas the Lords appoints a committee each year to review a specified Act or legislation in a particular field, doing so in a way that differs from that of the Commons.

To explore this further, just read the article….

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More on referendums

Last week, I was speaking in the chamber on successive days.  On Wednesday, I introduced motions to take note of two reports from the Constitution Committee on the legislative process and the following day spoke in a QSD (Question for Short Debate) on referendums and representative democracy.  The latter debate was time limited.  So many peers had signed up that backbench speakers only had three minutes each.  I kept within time and my contribution was sufficiently short so that I can repeat it in full here.  Lord Soley’s motion referred to referenda, but in his speech he referred throughout to referendums, so I did not need to take up time explaining why it is referendums and not referenda.  Regular readers will know that referendum as a Latin gerund has no plural.  The Latin gerundive referenda, meaning things to be referred, connotes a plurality of issues.  Anyway, here is the speech.  The same regular readers will also be familiar with some of the points, given more recent posts.

‘My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on raising this important issue.  I wish to raise two problems with referendums.

The noble Lord raised the issue in the context of representative democracy.  In a representative democracy, electors choose those who will govern on their behalf and can then hold them to account for their actions.  The problem with a referendum is that there is no accountability.  Electors cannot hold themselves to account for the outcome of a referendum.  A referendum is thus, strictly speaking, an irresponsible act.

Once a decision is taken, it is left to others to implement.  This leads to the second problem.  We know how people vote in a referendum, as there is a formal, recorded outcome.  We do not know definitively why they voted as they did.  Politicians may think they know.  The EU referendum is a case in point.  We hear politicians claim that people did not vote for a hard or a soft Brexit, when what they mean is that they think electors voted in a way that aligns with their preference.  They cannot prove it.

The result is that it leaves those who are responsible for acting on the outcome in a difficult, if not impossible, situation.  I have previously likened the UK’s membership of the European Union to a marriage, a marriage of convenience, arranged late when the previous preferred relationship was not proving fruitful. Now electors have voted for a divorce.  That is the starting point.  How do you divide the assets? Who gets custody of the children?  Those responsible for negotiating the terms of the divorce know definitively only that a divorce has been agreed.

I have previously expressed opposition to referendums on grounds of principle, but we are now faced with referendums as a part of our constitutional architecture.  We cannot undo their use, but we need to think through how we handle them in future, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, indicated.  We need to learn from not just the EU referendum but earlier ones as well.  Will the Minister tell us what thought has been given to a generic referendums Bill?  We need such a measure before we embark on another referendum.’

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Effective prime ministerial leadership?

Some years ago, I published an article analysing prime ministerial leadership in terms of purpose, skill and circumstance.

Prime ministers need certain skills to navigate an increasingly pluralist political environment.  As I wrote, ‘The individual in the office will largely determine the skills that are available.  Circumstance will determine which are needed.’  The occupant of No. 10 needs basic, and enduring, skills of impression management as well as having a feel for the office, understanding what is required.  He or she require specific skills of selection, leadership and the ability to anticipate and react.  Prime ministers have the strategic options of command, persuasion, manipulation and hiding.  A good prime minister selects effective ministers, knows when to give a lead, when to leave it to others, and when on occasion to hide.  At times, the power to persuade is more important than the capacity to command.  On occasion, one may need to manipulate and use lobby briefings or even backbench MPs to fly a policy kite.  The ability to adapt is also important.  Margaret Thatcher had clear goals, but as one of her Cabinet colleagues put it to me, ‘she recognised a brick wall when she saw one’.  She could bide her time, or tack, if necessary.

But to what purpose are these skills deployed?  Some prime ministers may be effective politicians, but they have no clear goals.  Some may have clear policies, but they lack the skills necessary to deliver them.  To understand and explain prime ministerial leadership, it is necessary to look at why someone seeks the top job.  I developed a typology of prime ministers:

Innovators seek power to achieve some future goal, which they themselves have largely devised, and are willing to work to bring their party along with them, however willingly or unwillingly.  They tend to be driven by ideas. Margaret Thatcher is an obvious example.

Reformers seek power to achieve a future goal, but one previously formulated and agreed by their party; it does not bear their personal imprint.  Clement Attlee falls in this category, delivering the measures promised by the party’s 1945 manifesto.

Egoists seek power so that they may exercise and keep power.  Their motivating force is essentially that of self.  To maintain themselves in office, they are principally concerned with the present, not some future ideologically-inspired goal.  Examples would be Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson.

Balancers are concerned principally with ensuring the maintenance of peace and stability, both within the party and, more importantly, within society.  Hence, they are oriented to the present rather than the future.  Examples include Tory prime ministers such as Harold Macmillan, but also include Labour premier James Callaghan.

These are essentially preponderant types.  They are not fixed, nor mutually exclusive.  A prime minister may straddle categories and may change over time; Churchill in wartime was a very different premier than he was in peacetime.  They do, though, provide an analytic framework for understanding the occupants of No. 10 and how they compare with others.

Theresa May was constrained by circumstance.  She was a reformer, there to deliver on a goal set by a referendum.  In this respect, it was a unique circumstance.  Julian Amery observed that a good jockey rides a difficult horse.  Theresa May was not only a poor jockey, lacking the skill to adapt and to utilise informal space (the unclubbable prime minister), but also in effect changed horses (the 2017 House of Commons against that of 2015).  She was effectively unseated.

Looking at skills and purpose helps one distinguish candidates in the current Conservative leadership race in a way not possible by simply taking their stances on Brexit.  Boris Johnson and Michael Gove may not be poles apart on Brexit, but they differ in terms of purpose.  Gove is closest to an innovator, Johnson to an egoist.  The several candidates differ in skills, including in their oratorical skills.  I have addressed oratory in an earlier post and will return to it in the context of the current leadership contest.

One other dimension, relevant in the current contest, is that the skills necessary to win an election may be different to those required to be a good prime minister.  Some occupants of No. 10 have been credited with winning an election almost single-handedly (Ted Heath in 1970, for instance, and John Major in 1992), but this has not necessarily translated into an effective ministry.  Being both a good campaigner and an effective leader in government may obviously be desirable, but not always achievable.

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European disunion: ending a marriage

In a chapter I contributed to European Disunion: Between Sovereignty and Solidarity, published in 2012, I focused on Britain’s relationship to the European Union.  I used the analogy of a marriage: ‘… the UK can be characterised not so much as an awkward partner as a reluctant bride, delaying saying “yes” because her heart still yearned for others and unhappy in a domestic relationship that does not allow her to play the role she expected.’  The marriage has been one of convenience more than love and the relationship variously fraught, though so long as we have been in the marriage we have carried out our household obligations.

I think the analogy retains its utility now that we have served divorce papers.  In any marriage that has lasted more than forty years, a divorce can be messy.  Even if it were an amicable break, there would be the issue of what to do with the house and children (if any) and the assets acquired over that time.  Arguing over who gets what is not necessarily easy.  There is talk of a ‘clean break’ Brexit.  It is possible simply to walk away from a marriage, but that may mean that one side keeps the house and assets, but lose out on the alimony.

I think the analogy is valuable for drawing out the nature of what is entailed in leaving the EU.  It illustrates the problem of identifying what constitutes Brexit.  A divorce is a legal ending of a marriage, but the real tussle is over dividing the assets.  Divorce mean divorce. It remains a divorce whether amicable or acrimonious.  The amicable to acrimonious spectrum is a wide one.

I offer that as a possible aid to explaining the nature of Brexit, given that there is little else to assist, with no precedent to guide us.  I do so without prejudice to either side of the argument.  As I explained in a recent debate in the Lords, the discourse on Brexit is toxic and I associate myself with neither side.  There are proponents on each side that lack balance and self-awareness.  Being convinced that one is so obviously right and that one’s opponents are deluded does not always create a sound basis for persuading others to see the light.

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