Cooper-Letwin II May Not Work

Politically, the installation of a temporary government with the sole policy of seeking EU27 agreement to the extension of the UK’s membership of the European Union is extremely difficult. Conservative MPs may be willing to vote against their own party in government, but they will be very reluctant to pass a vote of no confidence in it. A necessary condition of there being such a government is that there is an alternative bipartisan candidate for Prime Minister, and the leadership of Labour does not wish to accept the legitimacy of anyone other than Mr Corbyn (who is by definition because of his role not such a person) taking office. The unfortunate label a “government of national unity” has become attached to the idea; which as it would exclude the vast bulk of the Conservative party and the DUP, would have only one policy, and only last until after an election held at the earliest opportunity, is a misnomer. The shadow Home Secretary, echoing others, has rejected a return to the approach of Labour’s first Prime Minister, someone called “Ramsey Mcdonald” (sic).

 

The only alternative way to stop a Johnson government determined to pursue no deal Brexit is through legislation. Mr Stephen Bush, the brightest and best young political commentator, has suggested that if there are the votes for an alternative government, then a fortiori there are the votes for the easier path of legislation requiring the government to seek an extension of article 50. This is so, but there are other good reasons for thinking such an approach will not work.

 

Standing Orders

As Mr Bush rightly says, the Cooper-Letwin Bill, which became the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019, serves as a ‘proof of the concept’ that legislation is possible. This Act was passed against government opposition. Although ordinarily the government is in control of the timetabling of business before the Commons, and could choose not to schedule any Opposition or Backbench MP Business Days, MPs could seek to take control of the agenda themselves by tabling, and amending, an Emergency Debate under Standing Order 24 (see the Institute of Government Paper at p 10). The government may oppose the passage of such a Bill through the Commons and Lords, and Brexit supporting MPs might seek to filibuster, but the previous legislation shows that the procedural barriers are not insuperable.

 

Far more serious is Standing Order 48. This prohibits petitions for the spending of public money unless recommended by the Crown. So, whilst a Private Members Bill criminalising or decriminalising certain activity is possible, a Bill requiring the building of a hospital in a local constituency is not. There are good reasons for such a rule. We need the state’s finances to be the responsibility of one entity. Chaos would result if there were  a free for all by MPs enacting legislation for their pet project. Finances need to be taken in the round, with priorities set. Project X may be a good thing, but Project Y may be better.

 

Cooper-Letwin I

The Speaker of the Commons ruled that the Cooper-Letwin Bill, that required the Prime Minister to set down a motion to seek the extension of the UK’s membership of the EU, was not a finance resolution. He did so on the basis that although continuing to be a Member State of the European Union had substantial tax and spending consequences, the government already had the powers to cover such expenditure under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

 

The enacted version of the Cooper-Letwin Bill neither required the government to agree an extension, nor to change “exit day”. Instead it drew a distinction between “seeking” (ie asking for) and “agreeing”  an extension (see ss1(6). In this way it did not require further expenditure because it did not require the government to agree to whatever the EU27 offered. Instead it merely required the government to ask, thereby not in fact compelling it to extend. And if the government did agree to an extension, the costs of that were already covered by the earlier legislation.

 

Johnson

This means that an enactment along the same lines as Cooper-Letwin I will not work. A Johnson government might, with reluctance, be compelled to ask for an extension, but if an offer of one were to come back from the EU27, with or without conditions, it could respond “no thanks.”

 

Only an enactment requiring the government to agree to an extension can work, and such an Act would be a finance measure contrary to SO48.

 

Amend or Suspend?

 

Of course, Standing Orders have been amended or suspended in the past. It has been claimed that to disapply SO48 requires the consent of the Crown (see p 7), and it is true that in the past this has only been done where such consent has been given.

 

Whilst I do not agree with Mr Stephen Laws QC that it would be appropriate for a government to withhold Royal Assent from a Bill passed without government assent to an amendment to Standing Order 48, I do agree that such a Bill would be, put at its lowest, a dramatic change of procedure,

 

What is clear is that legislation of the form of the original Cooper-Letwin Bill will not force a determined government to stop a no deal Brexit. Legislation of a kind never before enacted will be required. The original Cooper-Letwin Bill was reliant upon a majority of one.

 

A Constitutional Crisis?

We do not have a constitutional crisis. Court orders are obeyed by the government. Legislation is passed and given effect to by the courts. What the law is is clear, and is obeyed by the various constitutive elements of the state. Widespread civil disobedience has not occurred.

 

What we have is a political crisis. This is caused by the existence of a Commons majority opposed to the central policy of the government, but that same Commons being unwilling to put in its place a government whose central policy has majority support. This is caused by the party system: the policy with majority support is found across parties but not within the largest.

 

Instead of attempting legislation that may not work, MPs should work together to temporarily replace the government for the purpose of the election that is coming soon in any event. Whether they have the political bravery to do so may be doubted.

Boris Johnson’s Duty to Resign

If there were an election tomorrow, and the main opposition party won a landslide victory, what would the duty of the current Prime Minister be?

 

No statute anywhere tells us. Certainly not the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which says nothing about the issue.

 

The answer is however clear: he must resign. He must resign because he no longer has the confidence of the Commons and another person, in this example the leader of the opposition, is better placed to do so. This rule is found in Convention, not the posited law. It was this Convention that caused Gordon Brown to resign in 2010, before him John Major in 1997 and before that every other Prime Minister who lost the confidence of the Commons when another was better placed.

 

In some cases it may be unclear whether the Prime Minister has lost the confidence of the Commons, and so a vote is held to test the matter, as happened in December 1923. But what he or she must do after losing such a vote is not set down in any statute or other posited law anywhere.

 

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act

 

On the front-page of today’s Times Dr Catherine Haddon of the Institute for government is quoted as saying

In terms of a strict reading of the [Fixed-terms Parliaments Act] Boris is not required to resign. It is completely silent on all of this. The onus is on the incumbent Prime Minister – they get to choose whether they resign. If they do not it is hard for a new government to be formed without dragging the Queen into politics.

This statement is extremely misleading. It is true that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is silent as to the Prime Minister’s duty to resign in favour of another better placed to command the confidence of the Commons. That is because it is legislation concerned with fixing Parliaments, not Governments (see its name). It is silent, just as is the Fisheries Act 1981 or the Contagious Disease Act 1864, because it concerns something else.
This blog began life four years ago to deal with this serious, and I thought dangerous, misreading of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It is a topic I have felt the need to return to.

 

The correct position is set out in the Cabinet Manual and in the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Report on the Act (see pp 18-25). A Prime Minister who does not have the confidence of the Commons when another is better placed must resign.

Conventions are unenforceable

If a Prime Minister were to defy Convention, and refuse to quit as the Times story suggests, and reports in the Telegraph claimed the Prime Minister’s advisor Mr Dominic Cummings has stated, what could be done?

 

Conventions are unenforceable. Indeed, courts cannot authoritatively rule upon them (save where they come up as an issue of fact as happened in the Spider Memos Case, and as questions of foreign law often do).

 

If a Prime Minister were so to disgrace his office by refusing to resign, destroying representative democracy in the United Kingdom, the only recourse middle aged conservative people such as myself personally have is to take to the streets. You will have to join me.

 

Confidence Motions

As the PACAC report on the Act makes clear, all that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act does in relation to a vote of no confidence is fix the form of it for purposes of starting the clock towards a General Election. It does not state what a vote of no confidence is, the form it must take, or what the Prime Minister should do if one is passed.

 

In order to leave the Prime Minister no option but to resign it must be clear that there is someone else better placed to command the confidence of the Commons. If there is a doubt about that the incumbent may say “ok, I don’t have the confidence of the majority, but nobody else does either, so I can continue, at least on a caretaker basis.”

 

If a vanilla no confidence motion in Johnson were passed (eg “this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”) the incumbent could, with some plausibility, claim that he did not have to resign if there were nobody else better placed. The Leader of the Opposition is not only unpopular with MPs from other parties but with many from his own, and it may be that there is a majority opposed to his being Prime Minister under any circumstances.

 

Stopping no deal Brexit

How could the legislature stop a determined Johnson government from pursuing a no deal Brexit?

 

The first method is legislation, a form of which I suggested here. Although some Conservative MPs may prefer this option it is difficult. First the government is in control of the legislature’s tabling of legislation. Second, even if a friendly Commons speaker were to defy Convention and allow legislation to be put, it would face stiff opposition in the Commons and Lords and it may be doubted whether it could be passed with sufficient speed.

 

The second and easier method is to pass a Confidence motion. This does not have to be in the form necessitated by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The government, by Convention, must make time for an opposition confidence motion. If it (completely outrageously) insisted that this could only be put forward in the form set out in the Act, the opposition could do so and it should be amended.

 

A motion of the form suggested below, clearly demonstrates the Commons’ lack of confidence in the Prime Minister, puts forward a person who does command the confidence of the House, and would not trigger the Fixed-term Parliaments Act as it is in a different form from the words used there

 

“This House, not wishing a General Election and wishing to stop a no deal-Brexit, has no confidence in her Majesty’s Government, and calls for the formation of a new Government led by the member for [X}.”

The person who then became Prime Minister could do so on a temporary basis for one purpose: seeking a further extension of UK membership of the European Union, in order for there to be a General Election or other vote. Who that person should be is of secondary importance (and indeed could be settled in the debate on the motion). MPs need however to start discussing names,

The Monarch

In our constitution today, the person of the Monarch is almost entirely symbolic. Although some powers are formally carried out through her, she is just a pen.

 

What if a motion of the above form were passed, and a Prime Minister so forgot himself so as to defy it, and stay in post? What should the monarch do?

 

In such extraordinary circumstances, she should dismiss him, and call on the person who commands the confidence of the House.