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Reshuffles are a chance to revive the fortunes of a Prime Minister by changing the faces of their Cabinet and Government. January’s offered much but delivered less; the occupants of key Cabinet positions remained in place after all. May’s big beasts stood their ground, seemingly immovable; Justine Greening was the most prominent and the only woman to exit the Cabinet. The optics of Theresa May’s reshuffle became, at this point, about increasing diversity. But this neither told the real diversity story of the reshuffle, nor made an adequate case for diversity in the executive. Increasing diversity in their Cabinets appears to be of increasing importance to leaders and has been shown to have beneficial impacts on both policy outcomes and political participation. However, Theresa May missed her chance to make a lasting impact on diversity at the highest echelons of British government.

The PR: 

Theresa May overtly framed her reshuffle around the appeal of increasing diversity in her refreshed administration. The image that captured this most explicitly was Theresa May surrounded by an all-female group of government whips. It was tweeted by No. 10, and the Prime Minister stated she wanted a government that “looks more like the country it serves”.

These optics are familiar. Remember the ‘Downing Street catwalk’ in 2014 when David Cameron said he had created a Cabinet that “looked like modern Britain”? Such repeated imagery shows how gender – i.e. women – is now a salient representational criterion in choosing Cabinets; descriptively in terms of the numbers of women; and symbolically, for what it ‘says’ about the Prime Minister, the Government, and the party of government. This is not unique to the UK. Both Trudeau and Macron have made headlines in recent years with their gender parity Cabinets. It suggests that increasing the number of women in Cabinets is regarded as beneficial by political leaders. And rightly so. There is a strong and positive symbolic impact of having more women, at least in the initial post-election Cabinet. It can ‘stand for’ a feminist, modern, and ‘in touch’ Prime Minister. A higher proportion of women in Cabinet has also been found to increase women’s conventional political participation – and this effect is stronger than the effect of more women in Parliament.

That said, increasing the numbers of women in government (as in the parliament) does not go uncontested. Positive optics around diversity can lead to a backlash. If the new ‘women Whips’ was the positive image, the negative one was the Daily Mail’s front page decrying the ‘massacre of the middle-aged men.’

 

Tweet screenshot from UK Prime Minister account 9 Jan 2018. Public domain via Twitter.

The underlying argument of this headline is the ‘merit’ argument – of course we must have more women in government but they must be there on merit alone not as ‘token women’ promoted simply because of their sex nor at the cost of ‘more talented’ men. This is a familiar trope against any equality measures designed to increase the representation of women in politics. However, the gender and politics literature on Parliamentary quotas refutes the bases of this argument. There is little evidence of any qualification gap between quota and non-quota men and women – less qualified women are not being promoted at the expense of more talented candidates. Moreover, women elected by quotas are as effective as men once in office. In fact, there is some evidence that quotas can enhance merit as more qualified candidates are selected.

The reality

If the merit argument has little basis for understanding Cabinet appointments, the ‘demise of the middle-aged man’ was also massively overstated. It was a misrepresentation: it simply didn’t happen. The May optics around diversity do not translate into reality, nor did we end up with a government that “looks more like the country it serves.” After January’s reshuffle, the number of female Cabinet ministers remained the same at six out of 23, although two more women now sit at the Cabinet table (an increase from 8 to 10). At 26% we are far from achieving a gender parity Cabinet as they have in countries like France, Canada, Spain, and Chile. May’s Cabinet is little different from David Cameron’s 2014 reshuffle, when only five out of 17 Tory Cabinet members were women, just shy of his promise of one third of Conservative Cabinet ministers being women.

If we broaden out to the government overall, there is some evidence of positive gender change: the number of women jumped from 19 to 38, out of a total of 120. But as The Times showed this is no more diverse than Gordon Brown’s was when he reshuffled his government 10 years ago. Women now make up 32% of May’s government, compared to 34% of Brown’s; however, Brown’s included seven BME ministers whereas May’s has increased BME representation from five to nine.

Had there been a massacre of white middle-aged men, as the Daily Mail suggested, May could have instigated a step change in British politics at Westminster. Karen Beckwith, Susan Franschet, and Claire Annesley in their research on gender and cabinets have found an informal ‘concrete floor.’ To avoid criticism, succeeding prime ministers or presidents match or surpass the number of women appointed by their successor thus creating a ‘concrete floor’ of a minimum number of women in Cabinet. And these floors are not always set by leftist parties. So, had Theresa May followed through on her rhetoric and appointed a more diverse Cabinet she might have been able to effect change beyond her own administration. Her appointment of junior women does suggest the potential to have some ‘floor’ effect. But this will require a certain steadfastness in the face of the expected backlash from the dinosaurs in British politics and the media.

Featured image credit: Number 10 Downing Street is the headquarters and London residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom by Sergeant Tom Robinson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

American suffrage activist

by Professor Sarah Childs

The celebrations and commemorations are well under way: there are numerous seminars, conferences and workshops; [1] #Votes100 is trending on Twitter; and many of us are donning the colours of the suffragettes (purple, white and green) or the suffragists (green, white and red), and proudly displaying button pins and necklaces.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act is 6 February 2018. The Act granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification and gave the vote to all men over the age of 21.[2] Whilst we must wait until 2028 to celebrate women getting the vote on the same terms as men, it is definitely time to party – and drink our ‘Equaliteas.

Perhaps a lesser known fact is that November will mark the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP. Again, we should celebrate (and who wouldn’t mind another party?), but here we will need to be more circumspect. If democracy demands women’s enfranchisement there remains more to be done in respect of ‘Seats for Women’. The same is true in terms of realising ‘Parliaments for Women’ and ‘Politics for Women’.

Seats for Women
The 2017 general election saw the highest number of women MPs elected to the UK House of Commons, 208. At 32% of all MPs, Westminster remains far from parity – and the 2% increase last year was paltry: 45% of all Labour MPs are women (119 of 262); the Conservatives saw fall-back, from 70 to 67, flat-lining at 21%. The Liberal Democrats have four women (33%) and the SNP 12 (34%). With political parties acting as the gatekeepers to Westminster, all must do more – political recruitment is best understood as a verb – and some should do more than others. Until then the champagne should be left on ice.

The most effective strategy to increase the numbers of women MPs is quotas. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but follow the evidence: quotas deliver women into political office. The success of Labour’s All Women Shortlists and the Republic of Ireland’s quotas demonstrates this. In the Irish case, as Fiona Buckley has shown, the percentage of women candidates increased by 90% and the number of TDs elected – 35 (22%) – represents a 40% increase on the previous election.

As one of the two main political parties in the UK, the Conservatives have repeatedly resisted the logic of quotas and chosen not to make use of the legislation that permits their use until 2030. In government, they have also rejected the quota recommendations of The Good Parliament Report and the 2016 Women and Equalities Committee Report on Women in Parliament. This isn’t good enough: the Conservatives saw a decline in their number of women MPs in 2017 and stood still in percentage terms. Political change – the upward trajectory of more women in Parliament – does not just happen. Quotas have to be put back on the table in 2018, and at the very least, the government should commence Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 so that the public can hold the parties to account vis-a-vis the selection of parliamentary candidates. Let’s see which MPs sign Bernard Jenkin’s Early Day Motion, and which MPs choose to ignore the most minimal of requirements, namely, candidate diversity data transparency.

Parliament for Women
No-one, following the exposure of sexual harassment at Westminster, can be under any illusion that parliament is a gender equal institution. The Good Parliament Report documented its diversity insensitivities and made 43 recommendations. The Commons Reference Group on Representation Inclusion, established and chaired by Mr Speaker, has been working since autumn 2016 on taking this agenda forward. Only last week the House agreed to the ‘Mother of the House’, Harriet Harman’s motion on baby leave. The Procedure Committee will now undertake an inquiry on how to best implement this. Securing leave for new parent MPs would be a belated, but nonetheless symbolic and substantive rule change that really would be something new to celebrate in 2018. ‘Anti’ mutterings have already been heard, and so attention must be given to the possibility of backlash.

Politics for Women
Our politics should address the concerns and views of women as well as men. Questions of who can act for women, and what acting for women means, are, however, contested in academic circles and amongst MPs. For some, good substantive representation (acting for women) means feminist substantive representation. For some, it means representation by women. But beware not to confuse women’s bodies with feminist minds; women do not come in one political hue; and men make representative claims ‘for women’. Political debate over ‘good substantive representation’ is to be welcomed. It helps identify what is in the interests of women, has the potential to re-gender parties’ political programmes and to deliver a better politics for all.

Politics should be something that ordinary women think about and do, ordinarily, as part of their everyday lives. Votes for women in 1918, and more so in 1928, redressed a basic political inequality. Redressing the gendered democratic deficits in respect of seats, political institutions and politics, should be the ‘deeds’ of 2018; nice ‘words’ by political parties and by the government will not suffice. Both should act, and it is not as if there isn’t a ‘shopping bag’ of reforms out there, ready to be picked up… and acted upon.

Notes

[1] http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/newsevents/events/calendar/what-difference-did-the-war-make/;
https://www.ria.ie/representation-gender-and-politics-past-and-presenthttp://www.historyandpolicy.org/events/event-listing/race-female-suffrage-and-parliamentary-representation-in-the-global-south.

[2] http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/case-study-the-right-to-vote/the-right-to-vote/birmingham-and-the-equal-franchise/1918-representation-of-the-people-act/

resignation

Donald Trump craves two things: to win, constantly, and, slightly less obviously, to be accepted. Wolff’s new book, and even a brief peruse of his twitter feed, shows us that for all his weird wants and wishes, it is these two things that drive him, and his failure to do either that drives him to distraction.

Wanting these things isn’t unusual. All presidents want to win and probably more than would admit want some form of affirmation. The problem for Trump is that the winning and acceptance simply isn’t happening. Instead, one year on from his inaugural speech that even George W. Bush thought was ‘some weird s##t’, Trump has become a loser. He is roundly mocked and abused by the press and establishment he wants to be adored by. The new book paints a vivid portrait of a lonely and strange figure, moaning at the state of the White House plumbing while shouting abuse at three TV screens, half-eaten cheeseburger in hand. Very, as it were, sad.

Trump clearly lacks the self-control, the emotional intelligence or, Wolff claims, the basic comprehension to do what needs to be done to win or be accepted. Like Nixon, Trump is consumed, so utterly consumed, by his rage and resentments at the elite who despise him that he only makes it worse. Wolff claims Trump is a ‘real life fictional character’, a ghost of a racist play acting demagogue, echoing JFK’s famous observation that Nixon ‘had to reinvent his personality everyday’. His habits also call to mind another JFK put down of Nixon: ‘no class’ (I’d encourage you to read the very wonderful ‘Nixon at the Movies’ by Mark Feeney).

Interestingly, ‘Fire and Fury’ claims Trump is obsessed not only by Obama but two other famous political figures: Lyndon Baines Johnson and John W. Dean. Johnson was, of course, the supreme doer of deals, the legislative maestro and the great civil rights reformer- everything Trump is not. One can only presume that the current racist in chief likes Johnson’s style rather than his politics. John W. Dean is even more interesting still. He was Nixon’s White House Counsel who, fearing he was to be made the Watergate scapegoat, co-operated and gave evidence to the investigating committee in a blaze of damning publicity. Why, I wonder, would Trump fixate upon someone with knowledge of something turning against him and going public?

The big question Wolff’s book raises is how will it all end? Even Bannon was unsure that Trump would make a full term. Commentators are plumbing for either the 25th amendment or impeachment.

The 25th amendment looks unlikely. It’s never been used and looks like some bizarre, terrible nuclear weapon of an open ended process: ‘no, you go tell Trump he’s mentally unfit for office and see how he reacts’. Some sort of mass Cabinet resignation, as with Zachary Taylor, could happen but, again, where would it get us?

Impeachment seems even less likely. No president has been successfully impeached. Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 survived their Senate votes and Nixon jumped in advance. How will it be triggered? Trump has publically supported Nazis (twice with his defence of the Charlottesville racists and Far Right retweeting) and admitted to sexual assault. It’s not clear what it is he needs to do, or indeed what is left to do, to get the Republicans to remove him. And if they ever summon up the courage, it takes time.

The Russia collusion would make a promising impeachment case, but it needs proof. Remember, Nixon was caught by his own recordings, not the allegations. Whatever collusion happened, it needs to have been written down or taped and, most of the time, I think no one’s that stupid (step forward Donald Trump Jr’s emails and Trump’s odd ‘recording’ tweet). That is unless, as Wolff claims, the Trump family fear the investigation turns up something else even uglier hiding in their accounts.

But there is a third option. What Wolff’s book also alleges is that Trump never intended, and didn’t want, to win in 2016. He now sits, in an odd reversal of King Lear, as someone granted huge power who never wanted it. Could he just give up? He clearly has a powerful dissonance capacity but somewhere, somehow, does he suspect he’s not winning? Do his raging tweets not hint that he knows things ain’t going well?

Three Presidents in living memory have given up. Truman decided not to run in 1952, though he could have. LBJ refused to accept the Democratic nomination in 1968. And Nixon resigned in 1974, of course, before he was removed. All of them faced plummeting popularity and poll numbers and so side stepped humiliation. Could Trump do the same? And what can be done to make him go?

First, we should continue to point out regularly that he is a loser. By any available metric he is an abject failure. His polling numbers are the worst since records began and worsening (even among his base). In legislative terms he is a loser-all he did was create a huge tax break that the public are against. Most presidents have six months, as Rupert Murdoch supposedly warned him, to do something. But Trump’s early nights and golf (see here) means no wall, an uncertain and globally despised Muslim ban and no Obamacare repeal. When he throws his support behind someone, such as alleged molester Roy Moore, they lose too. Trump’s coattails are actually banana skins.  The numbers look even worse if you compare them with Obama. His legislative agenda and polling numbers were impressive, the sort you’d expect from a winner (he’s even globally popular). Indeed, a majority of these voters wish he was on his third term.

Second, we should emphasise Trump’s unacceptability and continue to hammer away at it. He supports some of history’s biggest losers. He makes no secret of his regard for the Confederacy-and that crazy gang in the White House ‘jokingly’ referred to Trump’s Attorney General by his middle name Beauregard (a Confederate civil war general). In words and deeds, he trolls and targets minorities and the vulnerable. Trump has denied he is a racist, though I’m not sure exactly what his definition is. I take the old fashioned, classic approach of ‘does he say and do racist things?’ When the press must ask ‘are you a racist?’ repeatedly and both the UN and African Union describe you as a racist, I think we can be reasonably sure you are a racist.  And then there’s women and what he said and the (22) allegations. The idea that Trump has some form of provocative, clever strategy must, by now, be over. He says and does racist things, says and does fascist things because that’s what he is.

Will it work? It’s not clear. But is it not worth a try? The chance to push him out of office? Can we make him do the long, slow, painful walk to the waiting helicopter and the longer, inevitable trip to the dustbin of history? As either Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or Pliny the Younger said ‘everything looks impossible until it’s done’.

Listen to the Westminster Watch predictions for politics 2018 here where we cover May’s fate, the EU and the special relationship.

It also includes a review of our guesses from 2017(listen here to the December 2016 podcast) and a series of polite disagreements as to what will or won’t happen. The podcast will help with many of your burning Yuletide questions such as:

  • Who or What is a ‘Post-Blairite Bridge’?
  • Where is the ‘Gordon Brown Zone’?
  •  Which of us coined the term ‘Trump-Made-Twitter-spat’?

 

Image from CloudFM group

Image from CloudFM group

by Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos

Upon reading this headline, one would be forgiven for thinking that a publication that is often referred to as a ‘rag’, cares deeply about ordinary Brits’ income and so is the Conservative Party’s Europhobic (current) majority.  In reality though, they like to hide behind the veil of nationalism so as to conceal its market fundamentalism.  This is why they love to hate the EU’s Working Time Directive.  That directive is part of an enduring effort made by a previous coalition of national and EU-level political actors to use the collective force of the European Union to ‘humanise’ capitalism as we – citizens of the EU – face it in our daily lives.

Originally enacted in 1993, it was extended to a larger number of workers in 2000 and was subsequently codified in 2003.  It contains basic provisions such as daily and weekly limits to the number of hours that workers can be required to work, a legal right to four weeks of paid annual holidays, legal rights to regular health checks for those who work during the night (an activity that is directly associated with ill health), rest breaks, etc.  Two key points are often missed when that directive is discussed in Britain.  First, it – just like several other pieces of EU legislation – sets minimum standards (i.e. a ‘floor’ below which member states are not allowed to go) but allows EU member states that want to enact higher levels of protection to do so.  Second, the individual opt-out that it contains allows individual workers to work for more than 48 hours per week if they so wish but this is a clause that is often abused in the UK where the culture of long working hours persists.

The original directive was enacted despite vehement opposition from the Conservative British governments of the first half of the 1990s.  Later on Tony Blair’s New Labour administrations fought tooth and nail to prevent the abolition of the individual opt-out which it (still) contains.  But behind the veneer of ‘British’ opposition, a rather different picture exists – indeed, one about which the Murdoch press does not appear keen to inform its readers but also one that offers awkward reading for supporters of what is misleadingly called ‘Lexit’.

As my own ESRC-funded research has demonstrated, when the New Labour transposed that directive in UK law and then implemented it, they made choices that reflected the then government’s ideological orientation.  For example, they transposed the directive into UK law in a way that enabled it to cover many more workers than was legally necessary.  They could have done much more along those lines but chose not to.  That was the government’s choice.  As I have demonstrated elsewhere, the same happened in France.  In other words, membership of the EU did not prevent parties that place themselves on the Left of the political spectrum to a) act in ways that was consistent with their ideological orientation and b) in one way or another different from parties of the Right.  Moreover, a comparison of these two countries has revealed differences between them too: when in government, New Labour’s stance was less worker-friendly than the stance of the French Socialist Party; the French Right did not question the involvement of public authorities in the regulation of working time, while the British Conservatives still believe that this should be left to the market: a matter for direct negotiations between the individual employers and employees.

Over the week-end, this idea – that the amount of time a worker can be required to work should be left to the marketplace – was, yet again, presented in a way that feeds into a particular narrative not only about the EU but about the economy as well.  On that instance, the Sun was simply copying (!) a Frenchman, a descendant of immigrants, no less: Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-winger who won the 2007 French presidential election by promising to French workers to enable them to ‘travailler plus pour gagner plus’.  What they subsequently discovered was that his actual policies were not exactly worker-friendly, as demonstrated by the sweeping reform of French labour laws enacted by the Fillon-led governments of the Right.  Just like in France, the Sun’s narrative, in addition to the numerous factual mistakes that it contained, reflected the idea that public authorities are by definition fetters, not promoters of material progress; workers ought to compete against each other (come what may) so as to earn more irrespective of the negative consequences that the non- or light-touch regulation of working time can have on their health, family life, etc.  Of course, this kind of discourse also helps many employers hide their antiquated practices that foster instead of combatting low productivity.  Ironically and revealingly, GDP per hours worked is far higher in France than it is in the UK.

 

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Students in a Birkbeck Politics undergraduate class, Parliamentary Studies, have given evidence to an inquiry by the Commons education select committee on value for money in higher education.

The evidence has been published on the House of Commons website.

The committee has invited written submissions on a range of issues in higher education, including graduate outcomes, social justice and teaching quality, and has also launched an online survey for current students.

Parliamentary Studies is an option module in the Department of Politics that aims to give students a better understanding of how legislatures work and their role within modern political systems.

Birkbeck is one of only a small number of universities able to teach the module, which is delivered by Birkbeck lecturers as well as parliamentary officials.

The Parliamentary Studies module is available as an option module to students on our BA Politics, BA Global Politics and International Relations and BA Politics, Philosophy and History programmes.

In 2017 the module is taught by Dr Ben Worthy and Professor Sarah Childs.

More information:

Brexit_WEB

The issue of whether the government would allow Parliament a vote (it seems as though it will) and whether any such vote will be meaningful (it won’t be) has dominated Brexit coverage since the referendum. This has been a distraction from the main event – not least because the EU Withdrawal Act makes any vote meaningless. When the Conservatives and Labour whipped their MPs in the same direction, they whipped away Parliament’s power and gave it to the EU and UK government.

The place where Parliament has actually had most success is not  taking back control of what’s happening, but actually finding out what’s going on (or not going on). This was symbolised by the apparent success last month in forcing the government to release the 58 studies about the likely economic impact of Brexit.

MPs and the public first got wind of these ‘studies’ back in the summer when David Davis mentioned them on the Andrew Marr show: (see p.11 of this transcript):

“That  data’s  being  gathered,  we’ve  got  50,  nearly  60  sector  analyses already done, we’ve got planning work going on in the customs,  we’ve  got  planning  work  going  on  22  other  issues  which  are  critical,  127  all  told.  All  of  them  have  got  to  be  grounded  before  we come to a conclusion what it looks like.”

Repeated FOI requests for the studies by the MEP Molly Scott Cato and others failed, as the government appeared to argue it would undermine their ability to negotiate (and there are certain protections under FOI that might support this rather bland statement).

In November, Labour then used an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure to force the government into releasing its Brexit impact studies, as this blog by Andrew Defty explains. Using a motion for a return, Labour ‘transformed a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House’ (see more on these here in this 1999 report Section 3 (ii)).

However, the government then responded with an admission (or confession) that the ’50’ or ‘60’ – or possibly 127 – pieces of analysis are not what they seem: “As we have made clear, it is not the case that 58 sectoral impact assessments exist”. The statement went on to explain that the papers are a

“… wide mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, contained in a range of documents developed at different times since the referendum. It examines the nature of activity in the sectors, how trade is conducted with the EU currently in these sectors and, in many cases, considers the alternatives after we leave as well as looking at existing precedents. This analysis ranges from the very high level overarching analysis to sometimes much more granular level analysis of certain product lines in specific sectors.”

At some point, a discerning reader could conclude, Davis was being ‘economical with the truth’. Either the impact studies exist (or existed) in some form, or they didn’t. It now seems that ‘Brexit studies’ doesn’t mean, as it were, ‘Brexit studies’. And whatever they are, they won’t be fully released (though the ultimate power may lie with the DExEU committee here).

Back in July of 2016, when Brexit meant Brexit and Theresa May had a majority, her new government asserted that it was for government to declare and trigger article 50 and then conduct the subsequent negotiations in a confidential way. The government were keen to keep things closed and secret. There was to be, famously, no running commentary.

In September 2016 Davis, the new secretary of state for Brexit, made it clear the limitations of any openness, saying he would be “as open as I can. More accurately, the Government will be as open as they can”. He argued that it may be ‘the most complicated negotiation ever’ but there would be ‘debates, reports by Select Committees and hearings’ and he promised:

“We will certainly match and, hopefully, improve on what the European Parliament sees. At given times, that will be tactical, I am afraid. I do not want to be boring about it, but this is likely to be the most complicated negotiation of modern times. It may be the most complicated negotiation of all times. By comparison, Schleswig-Holstein is an O-level question. We will not always be entirely free agents, but we will be as open as we can be.”

He also spoke of the impossibility of secrecy:

“… I will seek to be as open as is possible…Even were I to decide that I was going to behave like Rasputin and keep it all entirely secret, I would fail. It would not be possible… other Governments would do it. In the Government’s own interest, it is a better idea to be more open than is perhaps traditional, but always subject to the overriding point that we cannot pre-empt the negotiation.”

 In October the report from the House of Lords EU Select Committee took a rather stronger view of what right Parliament had (2016).

“One of the key objectives of parliamentary scrutiny is to ensure transparency – to cast a light on the actions of the executive. It is, we suggest, essential that many elements of the forthcoming negotiations – for instance, negotiations affecting acquired rights, or future cooperation between UK and EU police forces—should be conducted transparently.” (House of Lords EU 2016a).

Since then, Parliament has been the key to shining more light on Brexit. The sheer volume of investigation and scrutiny can be seen below:

Scrutiny of Brexit by Parliament, 13 July 2016 – 19 June 2017

Written questions 490
Written answers 819
Select committee inquiries begun 55

(House of Commons/UK Parliament: IFG)

 

Select committees launched more than 55 inquiries into various aspects of Brexit, though some were curtailed by the June 2017 General Election. In December 2016, the Liaison Committee was the first body to subject the Prime Minister to detailed scrutiny of the government position on Brexit revealing, perhaps inadvertently, that her approach was one of secrecy and that she appeared unaware of how exactly article 50 functioned. In one day in November 2017, in a ‘bumper day for select committees’, six select committees questioned different officials and Ministers on various aspects of Brexit. In March 2017, the new DExEU Select Committee scrutinised the government’s objectives and positions and questioned Davis, who confessed there had been no preparation for what would happen in the event of Brexit talks breaking down and that any financial settlement will favour the EU. The debate around the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) bill from January to March 2017, triggered by the Supreme Court ruling, also gave a focus to discussion and debate and revealed more about the prospects and government plans.

All this pressure has given us far more information that the government seemed prepared to give before. We have had two major Prime Ministerial speeches and one, heavy, evidence session (with another due December 20 this year). Ministers have appeared and explained (and sometimes contradicted each other) regularly. We’ve also had a Brexit White Paper (that, you’ll be pleased to know, gave us all 14 weeks holiday a year).

Brexit has not, of course, been fully opened up by Parliament. The government refused some of the more transparent options, such as a cross-party approach via Royal Commission, in 2016 and again in 2017. The January White Paper was described as ‘largely devoid of content because the UK government’s concern about negotiating secrecy’ and offered ‘as few concrete positions as it is possible to imagine’. The government also resisted Parliamentary motions to mandate regular updates on Brexit to Parliament in the future.

Nevertheless, Parliament was key in forcing appearances. Far more is known than before, and benchmarks have been lain down with the legislature’s action leading to far greater understanding of the government’s views and preparation. And here is what has proved so damaging: the lack of preparation. Westminster’s digging and pressure have revealed not what has been done but what has not been done. There is no hidden grand plan, but a void at the heart of government thinking on the most important event in the last 60 years. And this is what the ‘58’ studies symbolise. As General Montgomery once said: “I have not been told of any master plan and I must therefore assume there was none.”

See my paper ‘Brexit and Open Government in the UK: 11 Months of May’ (June 19, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2988952

As the Exiting the European Union Committee (once more) debates the 58 Brexit Studies with David Davis, two Birkbeck Politics academics reflect on what the struggle between Westminster and the government tells us about power, Parliament and Brexit.

social_card

Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos

Governing is (perhaps) not what it used to be but there are some things that have not changed much.  The possession and significance of privileged information is one of them.  Distributing and (more broadly) utilising sensitive information is part of the tools of government.  That is why one of the most significant concerns of parliaments in democracies is getting hold of this information.  Without it, there is no way they can hold government to account.  But even in the absence of this oversight, the credibility of a government’s position is at stake. Without credible information (indeed, without information that is known to be credible), how can a government formulate good public policy?  This was at the heart of the previous coalition government’s now forgotten review of the balance of competences between the UK and the EU. A key reason why it was barely mentioned after its conclusion was the fact that it did not fit the narrative that the Conservatives wanted to construct in relation to the UK’s membership of the EU. The credibility of government-held information is more important in the context of controversial negotiations like the one that the UK government is currently conducting with the European Union (first) in relation to the terms of the UK’s exit.  A large part of the controversy that surrounds the referendum is built on the systematic use of lies by supporters (including ministers) of the winning side.  Now that they must deliver on their promises, the fundamental weakness of their arguments is beginning to show.  This is demonstrated, for example, by the government’s acceptance of the EU’s preferred sequencing and the reported acceptance of the EU’s calculation of the UK’s legacy debts (usually and misleadingly referred to as ‘exit bill’), i.e. the expected costs to which the UK has agreed whilst still a member of the EU.

Until the earth-shattering news of Meghan Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry, the debate inside the UK on the ongoing Brexit negotiations was dominated by the thorny issue of Northern Ireland and the impact of Brexit on the British economy.  The British Parliament managed to extract from the government a commitment to share hitherto unpublished sectoral studies that assess Brexit’s likely impact on several sectors of the British economy.  The latest twist in this sorry and lengthy saga – which highlights, instead of concealing, as the UK’s Conservative government intended, the weakness of its negotiating position – saw the government effectively refuse to reveal this information to British parliamentarians.

This may come as a surprise to many but it is perfectly in keeping with both the country’s enduring constitutional settlement and the Conservative Party’s – especially its loudly Eurosceptic wing’s – duplicitous stance on the issue of parliamentary sovereignty.  Although Westminster is frequently referred to as ‘the mother of all parliaments’ one must be careful for the system is neither balanced, nor is it characterised by the centrality of Houses of Commons and Lords that its title suggests.  As early as 1867, Walter Bagehot was observing that ‘[i]n England a strong Cabinet can obtain the concurrence of the legislature in all acts which facilitate its administration; it is itself, so to say, the legislature’.  He noted that ‘[t]he efficient secret of the English Constitution may be described as the close union, the nearly complete fusion, of the executive and legislative powers’.  One of the ways in which this fusion is achieved is highlighted in RHS Crossman’s famous introduction to the 1963 edition of Bagehot’s classic book:

Once elected by the Commons the Prime Minister exerts power greater than those of any American President […] In this new middle class regime, in fact, the nation is run by a board of control headed by a powerful managing director’.

But even if one ignores the real and enduring balance of power between the British executive and legislature, it would be unreasonable to expect a UK government to bend to the will of parliament on matters European given the historical precedent.  As I have argued in detail in an article in the Journal of Common Market Studies, acting in a comparable context in the early 1990s again under a Conservative government with a slim majority in the House of Commons, an arrangement put in place in 1980 obliged the government of the day to (normally) refrain from giving its assent to EU legislative proposals as long as the parliamentary scrutiny of these proposals in Westminster had not been completed.  Crucially though, the government retained the right to decide that due to ‘special reasons’ – agreement at the level of the EU need not be withheld (House of Commons Debates, vol. 991, 30 October 1980, col. 843). It was – and is – up to the government of the day to make that decision and all they need to do is simply explain these reasons in Parliament.  In other words, one should not be surprised by the current government’s stance. It is consistent with the essence of the UK’s constitutional arrangement as well as the ruling party’s tradition, no matter what Conservative Eurosceptics said when they were not running the country.  If Brexit is about ‘taking back control’, why not share with our elected representatives these impact studies?

In reality, the current government’s real problem lies in either a) the really bad news that these studies would reveal to the British public or b) the weakness of way in which these studies were constructed.  Either way, the government’s dogged fight to conceal them is much more revealing than they want it to be.

Follow the author and Birkbeck’s Politics Department on Twitter: @DGDimitrakop @bbkpolitics

Waterloo Bridge Towards Palace of Westminster

In episode 38 of our politics podcast, Dr Dermot Hodson and Dr Ben Worthy reflect on some emerging data about the June 2017 General Election and on the instability in Ireland’s supply and confidence arrangements-listen in here https://soundcloud.com/british-politics-centre/westminster-watch-episode-38-elections-supplies-and-confidence-with-a-brexit-coda

You can read the paper we discuss (and, of course, draw your own conclusions) here:

Mellon, Jonathan and Evans, Geoffrey and Fieldhouse, Edward A. and Green, Jane and Prosser, Christopher, ‘Brexit or Corbyn? Campaign and Inter-Election Vote Switching in the 2017 UK General Election’ (November 17, 2017). Available to download at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3073203

Women-MPs

In this episode of Birkbeck Voices, we’re joined by Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender at Birkbeck.

Professor Childs discusses the benefits of equal gender opportunity in parliament, the current system of quotas for women in politics and a report she recently put forward that recommends a change to the law on job-sharing for MPs. She has worked extensively on representation theory and policies surrounding gender politics and currently advises the new Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion(www.parliament.uk/business/committ…ation-inclusion/).

Listen here https://soundcloud.com/birkbeck-podcasts/the-rise-of-the-female-politician-how-gender-equality-is-permeating-parliament

Read this recent piece by Sarah Childs, Jessica Smith and Meryl Kenny on the 2017 election ‘Women and the 2017 Parliament: scratching, rather than smashing the glass ceiling’ http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/women-and-the-2017-parliament/