Hopes that the worst has passed will soon be dashedby Thomas Poole / December 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
They say prediction is a mug’s game. But invoking the spirit of Dickens, who knew better than anybody that this time of year lends itself to reflection on both past and future, I hope I might be forgiven a seasonal spot of divination.
There’s certainly much to mull over when it comes to the constitution, in a febrile state since the Brexit referendum.
In political terms, the election produced clarity, if not harmony. It delivered a solid Commons majority for the Conservatives, something of a rarity in contemporary British politics. And it represented a decisive victory for pro-Brexit forces, routing what remained of the Remainer factions. This most likely resolves at least for the time being the political crisis triggered by Brexit.
Reading the constitutional tea-leaves is trickier. One plausible reading is that the constitutional situation will track the political. A move into somewhat calmer, or at least clearer, political waters should bring with it less troubled constitutional politics.
There are sound reasons supporting this sanguine reading. A British government blessed with a working parliamentary majority comes as close as should be possible in a functioning democracy to plenipotentiary power. The Johnson administration has no need to push the constitutional envelope, for instance by resorting to royal prerogative (non-statutory executive powers). It can get pretty much whatever statutory authority it needs. Besides, the exigencies of delivering Brexit within an incredibly tight timeframe, together with other social and economic reforms, simply won’t leave the time and energy necessary to force constitutional change.
This reading side-steps Conservative commitments to constitutional change—notably in page 48 of the election manifesto—interpreting them as noises off, red meat for the party’s more fervid support. So far, it is true, little has been committed to beyond establishing a “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission,” a move that normally means that the matter has been kicked into the long grass.
This all sounds rational. But the chastening experience of so much that sounds rational failing to eventuate in recent times should give us cause to pause. All the more so given that Brexit is supported by some—including the PM’s Chief Special Adviser, Dominic Cummings—precisely because its destabilising effect makes root and branch reform easier to effect.
Especially in this…