Good for the Conservatives, bad for the country: four reasons why a snap election is a bad idea

This post first appeared on the LSE Policy and Politics blog on 18th April 2017.

IMG_1512The Prime Minister has announced her intention to seek Parliament’s approval for a general election on 8th June. The Prime Minister’s surprise statement was long on bold intent and short on logical explanation. There are clear political benefits for the Conservatives in holding an election at this time. Labour are languishing in the polls and the government has a small majority, which may well be eroded over time by divisions in the Conservative Party or the outcome of ongoing investigations into MPs’ campaign expenses at the last general election.

However, what is good for the Conservative Party is not necessarily what is good for the country, and there are a number of reasons why a general election at this time is a bad idea:

  1. It is simply not necessary. The Prime Minister somewhat petulantly asserted that ‘we need a general election and we need one now’ because she claims the political divisions at Westminster are jeopardising the Brexit negotiations. Leaving aside the bizarre complaint that opposition parties at Westminster are involved in opposing the government, this assertion more than any other in the Prime Minister’s statement, is hard to reconcile with reality. A little over a month ago the Prime Minister secured parliamentary approval for triggering article 50 with an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. While the country remains divided on the question of Britain’s membership of the EU, what is striking about events at Westminster is the manner in which MPs from both sides of the chamber have been willing to line up behind the government on this issue. This is despite the fact that prior to the referendum, with the exception of the DUP, the majority of MPs from all parties who declared their position were in favour of remaining in the EU. If as the Prime Minister asserted in her Easter message that there has been a ‘coming together’ behind Brexit this has taken place at Westminster, not however, in the country.
  2. A general election will not alter the reality of the referendum result. Britain remains fundamentally divided on the question of EU membership and a general election will not alter that fact. In last year’s referendum 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU and 16.1 million voted to remain in. Opinion polls since the referendum indicate very little change in public opinion on this question. The Prime Minister’s recent statements suggests that this is something about which she is in denial. A general election will not enhance the Prime Minister’s mandate for leaving the EU, last year’s referendum did that, and the Prime Minister cannot hope to secure the support of 52% of voters in a general election, and the government’s mandate for the more complicated issue of negotiating a settlement will always be less clear than that provided by a simple in/out referendum. A general election will almost certainly change the parliamentary arithmetic but it is very hard to see how it will unite the country on a question on which it remains so fundamentally divided.
  3. It is unlikely to change the fundamental divisions across the UK and may accelerate the break-up of the Union. Another factor about which the Prime Minister appears to be in denial is that the majority of people in two of the four nations which make up the UK, voted to remain in the EU. A general election will do nothing to change this fact, and may reinforce the arguments of those who would like to break-up the Union. If the polls are to be believed, and we have little else to go on, Labour will lose seats to the Conservatives in England, but there will be little change in Scotland. Even if the SNP lose some seats, it seems highly unlikely that they will not hold a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster. The Prime Minister has been dismissive of SNP demands for a second independence referendum. However, if the SNP retain a majority of seats in Scotland on a general election which they will surely fight on the question of a second independence referendum, the SNP’s case will be significantly strengthened. The Prime Minister may calculate that a general election at this time will significantly enhance the fortunes of the Conservative Party in England, but if the price of that is the break-up of the United Kingdom, it is an extraordinary gamble.
  4. Finally, and most importantly, this is a significant and worrying distraction from the pressing issue of negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. It is less than three weeks since the Prime Minister triggered article 50 and set the clock ticking on Britain’s exit from the EU. This is arguably the most significant and challenging negotiation any UK government has faced in recent times. Most informed observers concede that it will be extremely difficult to complete negotiations within the two-year time frame offered by article 50, and that leaving without a negotiated settlement would be undesirable. Yet the Prime Minister thinks now would be a good time to set this aside and focus instead on a general election campaign. Even if the Conservatives retain or enhance their majority, time will be lost – a manifesto will need to be drafted, Ministers, including the PM, will need to spend time campaigning, and a new government will need to be formed. Whoever is in government when the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, may well rue the time wasted now. The inevitable churn caused by a general election will also undermine parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process. Parliament is currently deeply involved in scrutinising Brexit. A large number of select committees are conducting inquiries into some aspect of the implications of Brexit, a select committee for exiting the European Union has only recently begun its work. This will all come to a halt, inquiries will be quickly wound up or suspended, and new select committees will need to be appointed after the election. It is hard to see how this will enhance parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process.

There are clear potential benefits for the Conservative Party in holding a general election now, but it is very hard to see how this is in the national interest. If the Prime Minister genuinely aspires to give the British people a say, then proper parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process and ultimately a parliamentary vote, even a second referendum once the real costs of withdrawal are known, would be preferable to an opportunist election now.

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What happened to the Easter Act, 1928?

Source: UK Parliament

Source: UK Parliament

As students, schoolchildren and their teachers are acutely aware, Easter this year was ‘late’. Unlike Britain’s other major religious holiday, Christmas, the date of Easter is not fixed. Easter Sunday (Easter Day) can fall on any Sunday from March 22nd to April 25th. One result of this is that school and university terms between Christmas and Easter can vary considerably in length. Yet as parliamentary nerds are aware the date of Easter was fixed by an Act of Parliament as long ago as 1928, when Parliament passed legislation to ‘regulate the date of Easter Day and days or other periods and occasions depending thereon.’ The Easter Act, 1928, was a short Private Members’ Bill which fixed Easter day as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. It applies to the whole of the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

If then, the date of Easter is fixed in UK law, why is it still subject to considerable fluctuation, and why this year did it fall one week later than specified in legislation?

The answer is that while the Easter Act received Royal Assent in February 1928, the central provision of the Act has never been brought into effect. In general a Bill comes into force on the day it receives Royal Assent. However, in some cases Bills include a commencement clause which sets out the timing or the circumstances in which the provisions of an Act will come into effect. In general this either specifies that an Act, or part of an Act, will come into force at a specified time or that it will be brought into effect when the government brings forward a commencement order. A commencement order is a Statutory Instrument which gives effect to the provisions of an Act of Parliament, because the Act to which they relate have already been passed by Parliament, commencement orders, are not generally subject to Parliamentary debate.

The inclusion of a commencement clause means that an Act of Parliament can remain on the statute books, but inactive, until such time as the government of the day chooses to bring it into effect. While government’s generally aim to enforce legislation within their own lifetime, if a commencement order is not introduced and the legislation is not replaced by a subsequent government, provisions can remain on the statute books, but unenforced, long after a government has left office. The Easter Act, 1928, is perhaps the most long-standing and famous example of such an Act.

The commencement clause in the Easter Act specifies that:

This Act shall commence and come into operation on such date as may be fixed by Order of His Majesty in Council, provided that, before any such Order in Council is made, a draft thereof shall be laid before both Houses of Parliament, and the Order shall not be made unless both Houses by resolution approve the draft either without modification or with modifications to which both Houses agree, but upon such approval being given the order may be made in the form in which it has been so approved: Provided further that, before making such draft order, regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body. (s.2(1))

It is the final provision of this clause which has prevented the Easter Act from coming into force. Although the Bill was originally brought forward following a recommendation of a committee of the League of Nations in 1926, the international Christian community has since failed to come to agreement on the timing of Easter. The Bill itself was carefully drafted to ensure that the government was not legally bound to accept the views of the Church, but successive governments have taken it to mean that the Act would not be brought into effect until there was a general consensus on the part of the various churches of the Christian faith as to when Easter should fall.

The failure to enact the provisions of the Easter Act has been the subject of occasional parliamentary interest since 1928. This has generally taken the form of repeated questions by a succession of, perhaps slightly obsessive, MPs who have variously argued that fixing the date of Easter would benefit Britain’s businesses, regularise school terms or allow workers to enjoy more spring sunshine. The most recent example of this is the Conservative MP, Greg Knight, who for the last seven years, has heralded the imminent arrival of Easter by asking the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, when the Easter Act would be brought into force. Incidentally, Mr Knight has also been a vocal advocate of retaining British summer time throughout the winter.

There have also been a number of unsuccessful attempts to bring forward Private Members’ Bills to force the commencement of the 1928 Act. While these have allowed for more lengthy, and occasionally esoteric, debate on, amongst other things, the ecclesiastic and lunar explanations for the timing of Easter, they have been no more effective in persuading the government to give effect to the Act. In 1951 the Labour MP, Sir Richard Acland sought to bring forward a Bill to amend section 2 of the Act to bring forward its provisions without the need to consider the opinions of the Church. More recently, in 1999 the Conservative hereditary peer, Earl of Dartmouth, sought to bring forward the Easter Act 1928 (Commencement) Bill, which would force the government to give effect to the 1928 legislation. Earl Dartmouth argued that ‘the floating date for Easter has its real basis in neither religion nor science but in what might be termed happenstance or even accident’. He argued that ‘businesses, retailers and all manufacturers would all like to know the date of Easter well in advance’ and that ‘such a fixed date would also make life easier for parents, teachers and all would-be tourists and travellers.’

Despite several decades of parliamentary questions on the subject, and several Private Members’ Bills there is little evidence that there is any prospect of a change to Easter’s floating date. The responses of successive governments to questions on the Easter Act have differed little from that offered by the Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, in 1939:

I am afraid it is impossible to bring the Easter Act into force until there is agreement amongst the religious communities, and there appears to be no immediate prospect of such agreement.

Despite falling church numbers, and a growth in the observance of other religious faiths, the inability of successive governments to do something as simple as fix the date of a public holiday is indicative of the continued impact of religion on British life. The continued failure to give effect to the provisions of the Easter Act also illustrates the difficulty of legislating in an area defined by global forces beyond the government’s control. It is not the will of the British people, or the vagaries of party politics, which have frustrated application of this decades old legislation, but a seemingly interminable debate within the global Christian community. The Easter Act is also a stark illustration of the importance of commencement clauses. The Easter Act may be an extreme example, but it does provide a warning that getting provisions onto the statute books does not guarantee that the proposed changes will come about. In scrutinising legislation it is worth noting that commencement clauses matter, and those wishing to bring about real legislative change should take care to examine them in detail.

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“To advise, warn and deliver”: Ken Clarke on the proper role of the civil service

The Conservative MP, Ken Clarke, is one of the most experienced MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons. His Ministerial career has spanned the Thatcher, Major and Cameron years, and has seen him occupy many of the seats around the Cabinet table, including Secretary of State for Health, Education, Justice, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Clarke’s recently published memoirs, Kind of Blue, are an engaging read and his comments on the changing nature of British politics over his long career are particularly illuminating.

One significant change since the Major years has been the expansion in the use of special political advisers (SPADs) as temporary civil servants brought in to support the role of the Minister. While the use of special advisers is not new their numbers grew considerably following Labour’s election in 1997, from 38 in the final year of the Major government to 70 in Labour’s first year. Despite criticisms from the Conservatives in opposition, the number of SPADs has remained high, with 92 in the Cameron government elected in 2015.

Ken Clarke is, perhaps not surprisingly, largely unimpressed with this development and offers the following defence of the long-established role of the permanent civil service:

I am a great believer in and defender of the non-political Civil Service, and a great fan of the many hard-working and talented civil servants with whom I have worked over a long career. I deeply object to the growth in the number of politically appointed advisers, who are exempt from the requirements on civil servants to be appointed on merit, to behave with impartiality and objectivity, and to act so as to retain the confidence of future governments of a different political complexion. Many of these so-called special advisers are not nearly so expert as they think they are and simply magnify the political faults of their ministers. Any suggestion that the top posts in the Civil Service should be politicized is, to me, deeply suspect. However, this fine British tradition of a non-political Civil Service only works so long as the civil servants accept that their role is not to determine policy, but rather to advise, warn and deliver. K. Clarke (2016), Kind of Blue: a political memoir, Macmillan, p.264.

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What is the Chancellor’s Autumn statement?

HammondThis week the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his Autumn Statement. It forms part of three set-piece debates which punctuate the parliamentary year, alongside the debate on the Queen’s Speech and the Budget. It is striking that two of those, the Autumn Statement and the Budget are the responsibility of the Chancellor and that, while the Queen’s Speech and the Budget statement are familiar to many, the purpose of the Autumn Statement and its relationship to Budget are not widely understood.

The media are fond of pointing out that the main difference between the Autumn statement and the Budget is that when delivering the latter the Chancellor is permitted to refresh himself with an alcoholic drink, while the Autumn statement is a more abstemious affair. However, there are other differences between the two statements which are often overlooked.

Although it takes place late in the year, as late as December in some years, contrary to some reports, the Autumn Statement actually precedes rather than follows the Budget. The parliamentary calendar begins with the State Opening of Parliament in May, the Autumn Statement takes place in November or December and is followed towards the end of the parliamentary session by the Budget statement, which usually takes place in the spring, some time around March.

The Autumn Statement and the Budget also have distinct functions. While both provide an opportunity for the Chancellor to comment on the strength of the economy, the Autumn Statement is generally used to provide details of the Government’s spending priorities and plans, while the Budget sets out the taxation measures necessary to implement those plans. To put it broadly, the Autumn Statement deals with spending, while the Budget is concerned with tax. It is perhaps not surprising then that it is the Budget, which tells people how much things are going to cost, that attracts more public attention, while the Autumn Statement can be more easily overlooked as promises yet to be fulfilled.

Indeed, the Autumn Statement can certainly appear more aspirational and is often somewhat shorter on detail. Although, like the Budget, the Autumn Statement is followed by the publication of detailed documentation, The Economic and Fiscal Outlook, the implications of this are perhaps less clear than the statements of revenue raising measures included in the Budget statement and the Red Book. Moreover, while the Autumn Statement, like the Budget, will be subject to considerable scrutiny on the floor of the House of Commons, and in the Treasury select committee, it is not subject to quite the same level of fiscal scrutiny as the Budget.

In delivery, however, the distinction between the two statements is often somewhat blurred. Chancellors will often take the opportunity of the Budget to restate spending plans already outlined in the Autumn Statement, and the Autumn Statement can have the appearance of a mini-budget. While this may have some political value, it is also understandable. There is something artificial about the notion of separating spending plans from the tax revenues needed to support them. For this reason, and following pressure both from within the Treasury, and outside bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, in 1993 the Conservative Government introduced a unified budget with a single statement, taking place in the autumn. The unified budget experiment was, however, short-lived. Following Labour’s victory in 1997, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown reintroduced the combination of an autumn statement (labelled the pre-Budget report by Labour), followed by a spring Budget and the practice has remained unchanged since. In his recently published memoirs, the former Conservative Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, regrets the abandonment of the unified budget which he describes as  a ‘very sensible approach’, although he observes with some relish that one result of this is that he is,  ‘the only Chancellor of the Exchequer to have delivered a huge all-embracing Budget at this time of year.’ (Kind of Blue, p.326).

There are, however, some very good reasons why the unified Budget did not endure. As Ken Clarke suggests the production of a unified budget once a year was a monumental task. In his book The Secret Treasury, the Labour Peer, David Lipsey, argues that the Treasury ‘was never a wholehearted convert to the unified budget.’ There were, he argues, very good practical reasons for having two statements, it served to spread the, not inconsiderable, workload involved in producing a single Budget:

The separation of spending and taxes might be hard to justify in theory; in practice, it helped with the organisation of the workload. Spending could be decided in outline by Cabinet in July. Detailed negotiations would follow in August and September. The government could then announce its spending plans in November. That would clear the decks for a crescendo in work on the budget in the following March. When, however, the whole process came to a head together, at a date between the old autumn statement and the old budget, all the work had to be done at once. The Treasury never buckles, but it blanched. (The Secret Treasury, pp.122-3)

Moreover, there was, Lipsey argues, another more fundamental objection to a unified budget. Some in the Treasury were concerned that a single Budget was likely to open questions about tax to much wider debate.  The Treasury recognised that its weakness in dealing with government departments in relation spending was that it was forced to consult, and that in doing so it was invariably outnumbered by other departments and that decisions would ultimately be taken in the Cabinet. In relation to tax, however, the Chancellor, has singular authority and the Treasury was keen to hold onto this. ‘Tax’, Lipsey observes, ‘is for the Chancellor alone':

He will of course tell the Prime Minister what he plans. He will also consult individual ministers on individual taxes which affect their department; indeed they may be responsible for the detail of some of those taxes. But by tradition, he only tells the Cabinet the content of his proposals on the day he announces them to Parliament, when it is far too late for them to do other than applaud them. (The Secret Treasury, p.123)

Clarke’s memoirs also serve to illustrate the different processes involved in producing tax and spending plans. While the latter involved considerable negotiation with Cabinet colleagues, the tax side of the Budget was decided almost exclusively in the Treasury. He also notes that while spending plans involved negotiation it was often ‘fairly easy’ to gain consent, ‘because most departmental ministers were convinced that the spending total’s effects would not be borne by them’. The tightening of fiscal policy set out in tax policy was not so easy to sell.

When the Chancellor sits down after his Autumn Statement this week it is worth noting that the applause which will inevitably follow, at least from those alongside and behind him, may be far more sincere than that which will follow his Budget statement in March. When giving his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor is the friend of government departments, by the time he stand up to deliver his Budget speech in March he may well need a drink.

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Irrelevant questions undermine the value of PMQs

DSCF2733This post first appeared on the blog of the Parliaments and Legislatures study group of the UK Political Studies Association.

The weekly Prime Minister’s Questions is undoubtedly an important mechanism for holding the government to account. The requirement that the Prime Minister must come to the chamber of the House of Commons on a weekly basis to answer questions about government policy and administration provides a valuable, and rare, opportunity for individual MPs to scrutinise government.

However, in practice PMQs often falls somewhat short of this ideal. Criticisms of PMQs tend to focus on the Punch and Judy nature of the occasion, in which government and opposition seek to score points by outdoing each other through jeers and rehearsed one-liners. Another common source of complaint is the governing party’s use of planted questions which are merely designed to offer the Prime Minister an opportunity to reiterate a few stock phrases about the government’s achievements. If PMQs is to provide a genuine opportunity to scrutinise the government then such practices are, at best, a waste of time.

Another, less well-known but increasingly common, way in which this precious opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny is being wasted is the practice of MPs asking pointless questions about things over which the government has no control. Such questions are not necessarily designed to provide the government with a free hit and are perhaps less grating than those which ask the Prime Minister to comment on the economic benefits of the recent opening of a newsagents in Chipping Walden. However, they are similarly pointless.

Two striking examples of the form cropped up in last week’s PMQs. The first, from Charles Walker, Conservative MP for Broxbourne, related to the news that the British gymnast Louis Smith had been banned from the sport for two months after appearing to mock Islam in a video. Something for which Smith had subsequently apologised. An indignant and apparently frustrated Walker asked the PM:

When people make fun of Christianity in this country, it rightly turns the other cheek. When a young gymnast, Louis Smith, ​makes fun of another religion widely practised in this country, he is hounded on Twitter and by the media and suspended by his association. For goodness’ sake, this man received death threats, and we have all looked the other way. My question to the Prime Minister is this: what is going on in this country, because I no longer understand the rules? (Hansard – 2 November 2016, col.888)

The PM who, understandably, appeared at something of a loss at how to answer the question, ‘what is going on in this country?’, responded by asserting the importance of freedom of speech and religious tolerance, before moving onto ground on which she was clearly more comfortable, the government’s counter-extremism strategy.

Later in the same session the Labour MP for Selly Oak, Steve McCabe, asked the Prime Minister to comment on the ruling by football’s governing body that the national teams for England and Scotland would not be allowed to wear poppies on their kit in their forthcoming game to be held on Armistice Day:

Has the Prime Minister spotted the ludicrous refusal by FIFA, the footballing federation, to let our ​players wear poppies at the forthcoming Scotland-England game? Will she tell the respective associations that, in this country, we decide when to wear poppies and that we will be wearing them at Wembley? (Hansard – 2 November 2016, col.889)

The PM was, it seemed, much more comfortable in responding to this question and was moved to offer a stern telling-off to FIFA:

I think the stance that has been taken by FIFA is utterly outrageous. Our football players want to recognise and respect those who have given their lives for our safety and security. I think it is absolutely right that they should be able to do so. This is for our football associations, but I think a clear message is going from this House that we want our players to be able to wear poppies. I have to say to FIFA that before they start telling us what to do they jolly well ought to sort their own house out. (Hansard – 2 November 2016, col.889

Interestingly it was this response which dominated media coverage of last week’s PMQs, and was reported on the front page of several newspapers. In contrast, for example, the Prime Minister’s responses to Jeremy Corbyn’s questions about benefits cuts or Jeff Smith’s question on the government’s latest high court defeat on air pollution, or the government’s commitment to increase GP numbers restated in response to a question from Rosie Winterton,  faded into oblivion.

The problem with Walker’s and McCabe’s questions is not that they are not interesting and valid issues for discussion but that they are not issues over which the Prime Minister has any authority. Both questions related to the actions of a sport governing body, in McCabe’s case, the international governing body, over which the Prime Minister has no authority or, it might reasonably be assumed, influence. Walker’s question raised the not insignificant problem of online abuse but did not ask anything specific about government policy in that regard. Indeed, it is not entirely clear why Walker felt moved to ask his question at all. As far as I can tell, Louis Smith is not a resident of Broxbourne and was not born or brought up there. The question was clearly motivated by a more general sense of disquiet about the state of the country but it is hard to know how the Prime Minister is supposed to answer such questions.

It is not that the Prime Minister will not have a view on such issues, but it is perhaps wrong to expect that she does, or more importantly that it matters. The Prime Minister’s response to such questions, made up as it is on the floor of the House of Commons, does not constitute government policy and is at worst wholly irrelevant. The policies of British Gymnastics or of FIFA do not fall within the purview of government policy and it is unlikely that the government will choose to do anything in response to such questions, or indeed that it should. It would be refreshing, although admittedly unlikely, if the PM would respond to such questions by stating that the government has no official position on these matters, and no authority, and that if MPs wish to know her personal view on such matters they should perhaps choose a different forum in which to ask such questions, the House of Commons tea room, for example.

The more serious point about this is that questions such as these waste a valuable opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny when MPs could be asking the Prime Minister to comments on government policy. When PMQs was established as a regular fixture in the Parliamentary week in 1961, it was based on the assumption that the Prime Minister would only answer questions on those areas in which they had personal responsibility. It was not uncommon for the Prime Minister to transfer questions to other Minsters or simply to dismiss irrelevant questions in a fairly perfunctory fashion. The current practice of PMQs being tabled as engagements questions, allowing MPs to ask an unseen supplementary question on any issue they care to choose, has rather undermined the Prime Minister’s capacity to transfer questions in advance. At the same time a widespread expectation has developed that the Prime Minister should now provide an answer to whatever question is posed on any issue which might excite a member’s interest. It would perhaps take a brave Prime Minister to simply dismiss a question on the basis that it is not an area over which they have any responsibility, but it might help to reassert PMQs as an important and relevant mechanism for parliament to scrutinise the executive.

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