13th September 2020
Yesterday this blog set out an ‘anatomy of a potential constitutional crisis’.
In that post, there were two extraordinary facts stated that went to the current constitutional drama being serious and also novel.
The first was that a cabinet minister said to the House of Commons that the deliberate intention of the government was to break the law.
The second was that the government’s senior legal official – the Treasury Solicitor – had resigned on this issue.
These two facts indicated – perhaps demonstrated – that the current situation was significantly different from previous threats from the government to disregard the law, which have often only been briefed to the weekend media.
There were third and fourth facts which also should have been listed.
The third fact is that the government has published a Bill with the explicit power of making regulations that would break international and domestic law.
The fourth fact is that the Cabinet Secretary has expressly sanctioned this intention of breaking the law as being compatible with the Codes for ministers and civil servants.
And today there is a fifth fact: the Lord Chancellor suggesting on television that a distinction can be made between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ breaches of the law.
None of this – yet – constitutes a constitutional crisis.
The crisis would occur if such intended law-breaking survived parliamentary scrutiny and judicial supervision.
If such intended law-breaking did not survive parliamentary scrutiny and judicial supervision that would be checks and balances working as they should in a constitution.
But that said, this is a very different type of constitutional drama to what has gone before in Brexit, and one perhaps has to go back to the unionist threats to disregard the law before 1914 to find a historical parallel.
Of course, all this may just be politics – and there is some planned (or hoped for) political manoeuvre that the government is to execute under cover of this drama.
Such a political game does not, however, justify direct threats by the government to break the law.
Perhaps this is just a passing row, and the government u-turns this week on this proposal.
But that the government risked a constitutional crisis (as well as self-trashing its reputation as a reliable party to international agreements) will linger.
There will be an impact.
And so even if this extraordinary situation is now brought quickly to a halt, what this has created cannot end well.
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