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.

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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

Waterloo Bridge Towards Palace of Westminster

In episode 37 of our politics podcast, Dr Dermot Hodson and Dr Ben Worthy reflect on the power of the Prime Minister to hire and fire and the constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland. Just another week in UK politics-listen in here http://bit.ly/2ii3Cxp

You can read the paper on Prime Ministerial power by Allen and King that we mention here. You can also read some reflections on the border difficulties here and some scenarios for Northern Ireland here

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As part of a new series Birkbeck Politic’s own Ed Bacon has a new book on Russian Politics-see here

Is there more to Russian politics than Putin?

Inside Russian Politics is an intelligent, critical and engaging account of the realities of contemporary Russian politics.  It is distinctive in widening our view of Russia beyond the standard account of global power plays and resurgent authoritarian menace. Putin matters, but he is not Russia. Russian military adventurism has had a major effect on contemporary international affairs, but assessing its aims and projecting future intentions and impacts requires analysis within a context deeper than the stock ‘Cold War renewed’ story.

The holistic approach of this book facilitates our understanding of power politics in and beyond the Kremlin and of Russian policy on the international stage. Revealing the Russia beyond Moscow and the central figures around Putin, Edwin Bacon focuses on Russia’s political present, not to ignore the past but to move beyond cliché and misleading historical analogy to reveal the contemporary – and future – concerns of Russia’s current generation of politicians.

Find out more about Ed’s work on Russia here.

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(Image courtesy of Salon.com)

Is it a case of Jeremy thrives, Theresa survives? Birkbeck’s Ben Worthy and Dermot Hodson talk leadership and conference speeches on their latest Westminster Watch podcast here https://soundcloud.com/british-politics-centre/westminster-watch-episode-35. You can find out more about how Conservative leadership contests work here and read some analysis of May’s time as Prime Minister and why so many ‘serious’ prime Ministers fail here.

 

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(image from whatdotheyknow.com)

To celebrate International Right To Know Day, the Centre for British Politics and Public Life held a panel discussion on how Open Britain was. The UK has seen more than a decade of continuous openness reform, from Freedom of Information and Open Data and all sorts of information on gender pay gaps and experiments with election data. But where are we now?

Our panel of experts, Martin Rosenbaum (Journalist, BBC), Rosemary Agnew (Former Scottish Information Commissioner and now Scottish Public Services Ombudsman) and Professor Sarah Childs (Professor of Politics and Gender, Birkbeck College) debated how open the UK really is in 2017 and where we could go next.

If you want to know about the openness of Britain’s political candidates and  restaurant hygiene, why FOI is not always enough and how Brexit could take us backwards, listen to the podcast below.

Listen on Sound Cloud https://soundcloud.com/british-politics-centre/how-open-is-britain-in-2017-and-where-next

For further reading

 

Vittoria, the daughter of Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli, at sessions of the European parliament

(Image of Italian Member of the European Parliament Licia Ronzulli and her daughter Victoria courtesy of http://blog.gotomeeting.co.uk)

From Theresa May to Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Adern, women politicians have faced questions about family and motherhood in a way male politicians don’t. Birkbeck Politics own Jess Smith comments on the problematic issue of female politicains and babies in this BBC article. She argues that

The “stereotype of women as primary caregivers” is still “very much a lens that we like to see women through”, she told the BBC. “There’s also a trope that gets rolled out about career women, that if a woman doesn’t have children she’s sacrificed that for her career…men seem to have an opt-out clause for discussions of family, which women don’t”.” she added.

Read more about Jess’ research in her Guardian article here

In Birkbeck Politic’s 33rd Westminster Watch podcast Dermot Hodson and Ben Worthy looks across the General Election of May-June 2017, asking who has had the best campaign and who had the worst policy (is it the Conservative’s dementia tax or UKIp’s hospital ships?). Most importantly, who will win? Find out here.

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Polling-Station-Secretlondon123    (Image from SecretLondon123)

When Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016, she was the twelfth leader in the last 100 years who got to Downing Street through a party vote rather than a popular one. However, because of the divided parties and difficult situations that they often inherit, these ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers have less time in power and are generally rated as worse performing than those who win general elections -think Gordon Brown, James Callaghan and John Major. Their average time in power is 3.6 years compared with 6.6 for those elected by the people to office.

Is there a way out of this ‘takeover trap’? The normal assumption is that takeovers need an election win for their own security and so they don’t feel, as John Major put it, they are ‘living in sin with the electorate’. Despite her repeated denials, May has decided to escape her takeover fate and called an election for June 8th 2017. This is May’s (not so big) gamble, having gained Labour’s agreement to a vote on a motion for an early election under the (not so) Fixed Term Parliament Act-which has proved even less of barrier  to a snap election than many hoped.

 

Takeover Prime Ministers: Elections, Longevity and Ranking 1916-2016[1]

Prime Minister Won or Lost next GE (and size of victory/loss) Time in power How left office Ranking (out of 20 using Theakston and Gill)
Gordon Brown 2007 Lost 2010 (narrow loss?) 3 years Defeated n/a (PM after survey)
John Major Won 1992 (narrow win) 7 years Defeated 15
James Callaghan 1976 Lost 1979 (medium loss) 3 years Defeated 12
Alec Douglas-Home 1963 Lost 1964 (narrow loss) 1 year Defeated 19
Harold Macmillan 1957 Won 1959 (increased majority) 6 years Resigned (health/lost confidence of party) 5
Anthony Eden 1955 Won 1955 (increased majority) 2 years Resigned (health/lost confidence of party) 20
Winston Churchill

1940

Lost 1945

(landslide)

5 years Defeated 2
Neville Chamberlain 1937 Never fought an election 3 years Resigned (lost confidence of party) 17
Stanley Baldwin Won 1935 (lesser majority for coalition) 2 years

 

Resigned (health) 8
Stanley Baldwin Lost   1923 (hung) 1 year (8 months)

 

Defeated

 

8
Andrew Bonar Law Never fought an election 1 year (7 months) Resigned (health) 16
David Lloyd George Won 1918 6 years Resigned (ejected by coalition) 3

 

Looking at the past, such an election gamble didn’t always pay off. In the past century 5 takeovers have won and 5 lost their subsequent election (two never fought them). All but one of the takeover winners were more than fifty years ago. Since 1959 only one takeover, John Major, has won a General Election, and his victory in 1992 did not lead to political success. If May increases her majority she’ll be the first takeover to do since Macmillan in 1959. Interestingly, no takeover has won more than one General Election, compared with 2 elected leaders who won 3 (Blair and Thatcher) and one who won four (Wilson). Perhaps even more notable is the fact that every takeover who won an election resigned before the next due election: Baldwin and Eden after 2 years, Chamberlain after 3 and Macmillan after 3 years and 3 months. By this calculation May has until June 2020.

In calling an election after only 9 months in power May has clearly bucked the historical trend, as most takeovers waited a while, and often waited too long (though Eden did it after just 9 days). Macmillan took four years from 1955 until 1959. All the other modern takeovers from Home to Callaghan, Major and Brown sought to hang on to the end of their term limit and to, as Churchill put it, ‘stay in the pub until closing time’. They all did this in the hope that their polling would improve. Poor polling is not a worry for May, though rumours have swirled that the CPS expenses investigation and possibility of Corbyn stepping down after the local elections did play a role.

The bigger question is whether the General Election will solve May’s problems. It appears likely an election will ‘crush Labour and make Brexit a little easier’ though there are, as ever, other possibilities and John Curtice has pointed out that a combination of SNP dominance, Northern Ireland divergence and safe Labours seats may stop a landslide. Unlike John Major, she will probably have a larger majority according to the latest polling.

Yet many other problems will still loom large on 9th June and the new May administration will inherit several rolling constitutional crises. Nicola Sturgeon could be gifted a stronger case for IndyRef 2 and make good her prediction that a 2017 General Election is a ‘huge miscalculation’.  The too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland looks set to worsen. The poll will also do nothing to solve the huge complexities of Brexit and, for the secretive May, any election campaign could drag the spotlight onto her Brexit plans, forcing her to reveal her hidden hand. So an election victory will free May from the short, unhappy fate of other takeovers but won’t necessarily secure a long or more stable premiership. What could be historic could also prove pyrrhic.

The full paper Ending in Failure? The Performance of ‘Takeover’ Prime Ministers 1916-2016 can be downloaded here

[1] Table excludes self-takeover by Ramsay MacDonald in 1931.

On St Patrick’s Day 1995, Bill Clinton courted controversy by shaking hands with Irish Republican leader Gerry Adams. A politician accused of past involvement in the Irish Republican Army, Adams was a key player in the Northern Irish peace process. As such, Clinton’s willingness to extend his hand was correct if no less controversial because of it. This year, it is the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, who faces criticism for his St Patrick’s Day meeting with Donald Trump. There is no better sign of the topsy-turvy times in which we live. Continue reading