An early general election?

Ballot-Paper-300x150What have John Humphreys, Frank Field, and friends of Boris Johnson got in common?  They all believe that a new Prime Minister could call an early general election.  John Humphreys raised the prospect of the PM going to the Palace to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament.  ‘The new Prime Minister’, wrote Frank Field in The Times this morning ‘will call an immediate general election.’  The new Prime Minister, whoever is chosen to succeed David Cameron, may be wonderful, but he or she is unlikely to be able to perform miracles.  The Prime Minister can no longer call an early election.  The power disappeared in September 2011 when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act came into force.  The Queen retains no residual powers in respect of the dissolution of Parliament.

The title of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is something of a misnomer.  It is essentially a Semi-fixed Parliaments Act.  It stipulates that there will be a general election every five years, on the first Thursday in May.  However, an early election may take place if either of two conditions is met:

(1) If the House passes the motion (and, if divided on, is supported by two-thirds of all MPs, not just two-thirds of those voting) ‘That there shall be an early general election’.

(2) If the House passes the motion ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ and if, after 14 days, a new or reconstituted government has not achieved a motion of confidence from the House.

The first of these ensures an early general election, but imposes a high threshold: basically both main parties have to vote for it.  The second is achievable through a simple majority, but does not automatically trigger an election: there is the 14-day delay, to allow time for a different government to be formed and gain the confidence of the House.

If a Government wished to engineer an early election and do so without the support of the Opposition, it would have to get its own supporters to vote for a motion expressing no confidence in their own Government.  (If the Opposition voted against, necessitating all MPs on the Government benches voting for it, this would entail ministers expressing no confidence in themselves.)  The Government could then use its majority to ensure that the 14-day period passed without a confidence motion being carried in any alternative Government.

A number of people have asked if Parliament could not simply repeal the Act.  Some appear to assume a repeal could take place by a single vote.  The Act can only be repealed by Parliament passing an Act of repeal.  The new measure would state what would replace the 2011 Act.  It could be a reversion to what existed before 2011 or it could be a new system.   The provisions would be embodied in a Bill which would have to go through all the usual legislative stages in both Houses.  Unless there was agreement between the parties, this could not be rushed.  If there was agreement between the parties, then introducing a Bill would seem unnecessary, since one could use the procedure under the 2011 of passing  a motion stating that there would be an early general election.

In short, an early election is possible, but is not straightforward – and is not in the sole gift of the occupant of 10 Downing Street.

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Why was there a referendum?

indexIn the post-war era, the issue of European integration has been a fault line of British politics.  Both main parties have been divided internally  and both have changed their stance on the issue.  However, there has been no formal requirement for a referendum on the issue.  Harold Wilson used a nation-wide referendum, a constitutional innovation, in 1975 in order to resolve conflict within the Labour Party.  David Cameron moved to initiate one in response to conflict within Conservative ranks.  The roots are to be found in the last Parliament.  Details can be found in the chapters by Phil Cowley and me in Seldon and Finn’s The Coalition Effect.

There was no commitment in the Conservative 2010 manifesto to a referendum on continued membership of the EU.  The crucial development was the decision of the newly-formed Backbench Business Committee to schedule a debate, initiated by Conservative MP David Nuttall, in October 2011, calling for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.  Had the Committee not come into existence the previous year, with responsibility for scheduling debates (which it did on the basis of proposals from private Members), there would almost certainly not have been a debate – the Government would not have found time for it.   Despite a heavy whipping operation against the motion, 81 Conservatives voted for it.

The size of the rebellion clearly alarmed No.10.  Having worked to keep his Liberal Democrat allies on side, David Cameron now moved to keep his own backbenchers on side.  He made the case for negotiating reform within the EU and putting the terms to the people in a referendum.  However, committed Eurosceptic backbenchers wanted legislation to provide for a referendum in the next Parliament.  They took the remarkable step of moving an amendment to the Queen’s Speech in 2013 regretting the absence of any mention of a referendum Bill.   To assuage the rebels, the leadership changed tack and offered support for a Private Member’s Bill on the subject.  Despite this, the rebels divided the House on the amendment.  Although defeated by  277 votes to 130, a total of 114 Conservatives voted for it.  This spurred No. 10 to further action, producing a draft Bill, which backbencher James Wharton, successful in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills, introduced.  A Conservative, but not a Government, three-line whip was issued in support of the measure.  (Contrast this with a three-line whip against Nuttall’s motion.) The PM held a barbecue for Tory MPs and peers and tried to do what he could to facilitate the Bill’s passage.  He was, in effect, committed.  There was little likelihood of the Bill getting through – a combination of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers saw to that – but the PM had little option but to pursue the issue.  It became a commitment in the party’s 2015 manifesto (an in-out referendum by 2017), the party won the general election and the rest is now, well, history.

We may have ended up sooner or later with a referendum, but had the Backbench Business Committee not selected David Nuttall’s motion for debate when it did, then the course of history may have been different.  And don’t say what happens in the House of Commons doesn’t matter.

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Rules matter…

Ballot-Paper-300x150Institutions are not neutral in their effect.  They operate on the basis of processes and rules.  What those rules are can affect outcomes.  Had the Labour Party adopted the same rules for electing the  leader as the Conservative Party, Jeremy Corbyn would likely never have become party leader.  Under the Conservative rules, MPs reduce the number of candidates to two (assuming more than two are nominated) and those two names are put to the party membership.  Jeremy Corbyn is not likely to have been in the top two selected by Labour MPs.

The rules for electing the Conservative leader are about to be employed.  There is much talk of Boris Johnson as the successor to David Cameron as party leader.  However popular he may be among party members, he has first to make it to the last two selected by MPs.  There are other potential  candidates who have been busy building a parliamentary base.  Johnson may have built up support in recent months, but he did not appear to have much of a following last year.   There is talk of an ABJ (Anyone but Johnson) movement, which may mobilise behind a particular candidate.  It is always possible he may suffer the fate of Michael Portillo, just being squeezed out from being in the last two.  I am not saying that will happen, but rather emphasising the importance of the rules.

The same applies in the context of the EU referendum.  Parliament legislated for it and stipulated the question.  (I have previously commented on the significance of the wording.)  However, there were no rules laid down as to a threshold for turnout or what proportion of the electorate needed to vote for the result to take effect.  One could argue that formally no such rules were necessary, given that the referendum was advisory.  However, without any such qualifications, it is not politically feasible to act other than in accordance with how a simple majority voted.  Had there been a requirement, say, that a two-thirds majority was required for a major constitutional change (not unusual with some organisations) or that all parts of the United Kingdom had to vote to withdraw from membership of the EU, then the outcome would have been different.

Rules matter.

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MPs and constituency service

House of CommonsThe appalling death of Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen, generated considerable reflection on the role of an MP.   There was recognition that MPs are generally dedicated public servants.  Jo Cox was a remarkably able and dedicated Member.  She was one of many.  There has been a tendency to generalise from the unworthy few rather than the hardworking many.  MPs work long and unsocial hours and the demands of the job have got greater over time.  If there is one positive thing that may possibly come out of this tragedy (other than the amazing public response in donating to Jo Cox’s favoured charities) is a better public awareness of what MPs do.  It may provide some balance to the cynical and generally ill-informed view taken of MPs and the work they undertake.

The other reflection has been on the specific constituency work of the MP, not least casework undertaken through constituency surgeries.  Such surgeries are a post-war development.  They are taken now as a given part of an MP’s role.  Discussion in recent days has focused on whether or not security at surgeries should be stepped up.  Jo Cox was not the first MP to be physically attacked at a surgery, nor the first to be killed at a surgery.  MPs are reluctant to have too much overt security, as they don’t want to put up barriers between them and their constituents.

This discussion, though, is premised on the value and continued existence of such surgeries. Constituents look to MPs to put the constituency first.  Constituency work takes up an increasing volume of an MP’s weekly schedule.  However, there is a difference between pursuing constituency interests and the interests of particular constituents.  MPs are well placed to make the case for the economic, environmental and social benefit of their constituencies.  Constituents look to them also to take up their particular grievances, even if not related directly to matters for which government has responsibility.  Demand is matched by supply.  MPs are reluctant to say no to constituents.  They see casework as keeping them aware of the problems faced by constituents – it keeps them in touch with the real world.  However, most MPs are not trained social workers.  Many of the problems brought to them could be better dealt with by professional agencies or by individuals trained to deal with such issues.  Insofar as issues could still be pursued via Members, there may be a case for more resources to hire additional caseworkers or someone trained to refer the constituents to the most appropriate authorities.  As things stand, the more constituency casework an MP takes on, the less time there is to devote to the particularly important cases and to pursuing the interests of the constituency.  There is also an opportunity cost in terms of fulfilling the tasks which only MPs collectively can fulfil and that is calling government to account and scrutinising legislation.

I am not saying MPs should give up constituency casework.  (Many years ago I encountered an MP who argued that MPs should be statute-barred from undertaking constituency casework.  He was subsequently deselected.)  However, given the increasing pressures of such work, and the sheer demands it makes of Members, I think there is a case for a serious discussion as to whether MPs should simply continue on their present trajectory of dealing with all the matters brought to them by constituents.  We need to stand back and think about an MP’s role rather than simply plough on regardless.

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Views from the Vatican

20160603_21050120160604_203509I thought I would share with readers two groups of photographs taken from the Judges’ Summit on Human Trafficking and Organised Crime held at the Vatican on 3-4 June.  The first comprises photographs I took from within the grounds.  The second, which I will post later, are official pictures taken of the summit itself.

The Vatican City is a small city state – it is the smallest state in the world by both size and population.  My hotel was just beyond the northern wall of the Vatican and the entrance used for the summit was on the south side.  It took me about twenty minutes to walk round the exterior wall to get to the entrance.  There are fewer than 1,000 people who live within the Vatican.  Because it is a state in its own right, I had to show my passport in order to enter for the summit.

20160603_13282520160603_190311The first two pictures were taken at different times, as will be apparent.  The picture bottom left shows where lunch and dinner were served at the Casina Pio IV (see my earlier post with a picture of the exterior), which houses the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, under whose aegis the summit was organised, and the picture bottom right shows the Pope as he was leaving after delivering his paper.  It took him some time before he managed to get to his vehicle – a small (I presume electric) car – and be driven to his residence.

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Speaking at the Vatican

DSC_2591On Friday, I spoke at the two-day Judges’ Summit on Human Trafficking and Organised Crime held at the Vatican.  As readers will doubtless be aware, I am not a judge, nor am I an expert on human trafficking or organised crime.  I was invited to speak because of my expertise in the legislative process, especially post-legislative scrutiny.  I was the only political scientist to attend.

The UK has enacted the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the first of its kind in Europe.  Baroness Butler-Sloss, former Lord Justice of Appeal, who was centrally involved in the work leading up to, and passage of, the measure, outlined the provisions of the Act.  Christopher Prince, a circuit judge and honorary judicial recorder of Durham, detailed work being done by the courts in dealing with victims.  I then addressed the importance of evaluating the effects of the Act.  As such, my role at the summit was unique as I was the only one to raise the importance of having in place a structured means of assessing whether law to combat slavery and human trafficking was having the effect intended.

Our presentations were on Friday afternoon.  At the end of the afternoon, the Pope spoke, emphasising the importance he attached to the need to combat modern slavery.  The event itself drew judges and lawyers from around the globe.  It was valuable in identifying the nature and scale of the problem and what was being done to tackle it.

The picture shows those who attended from the UK.  From the left: Alison Saunders (Director of Public Prosecutions), Gillian Rivers (Co-chair, UK Anti-Slavery Commission, attending as an observer), Kevin Hyland (the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner), Christopher Prince, me, and Baroness Butler-Sloss.  I will include other pictures in later posts.

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Getting there – eventually..

20160603_133724I was in Rome on Friday and Saturday attending the Judges’ Summit on Human Trafficking and Organised Crime, held at the Vatican.  The picture shows the venue, the Casina Pio IV, in the Vatican grounds.  I spoke on the Friday.  I will write  in more detail about my paper in a later post.  This post is about the little local difficulty I encountered in actually getting there.

As regular readers will know, I prefer trains to planes.  I have travelled to Rome before by train.  It is a fascinating, and certainly scenic, journey.  I had arranged to do the same on this occasion.  That was before the French rail strike last week.  Though I could get to Paris, there was no guarantee I could get my onward connection.  Without being able to catch a particular connection, I would not make it in time.  I therefore devised a cunning Plan B.  That was to go round France and travel via Germany.  I know the route to Frankfurt and it was then relatively straightforward, if time-consuming, travelling to Milan.  However, that was then scuppered by the Belgian rail strike.  Although I could get to Brussels, the relevant connection to Frankfurt via Cologne was not running.  There was the prospect of a bus to Cologne, but that was not certain (and in any event would be a long road journey).  I therefore gave up and decided to fly after all.  However, the story does not end there.

I booked an early BA flight from Gatwick on Thursday.  I had to get up very early to get to Gatwick by 7.00 a.m.  I had been there an hour or so when they announced that the flight was cancelled (‘technical problems’).   BA initially tried to re-route me via Madrid.  When I made clear that was not my preferred route, they explored alternatives.  They eventually managed to get me a seat on a direct flight – from Heathrow.  I had to transfer to Heathrow for a late afternoon departure.  That flight was then delayed!

Suffice to say that I got to my hotel by 10.00 p.m.  The summit began the following morning at 8.30…  Of which, more anon.

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