Cameron, May, Johnson – who, in constitutional terms, is the worst prime minister?

15th April 2021

Future students of history and politics will no doubt have to answer essay questions about who was the worst prime minister out of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

And there is also no doubt there will be those who will aver that, say, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair was worse than any of those three.

Over on Twitter the comedian and writer David Schnieder offered his view:

 

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From a constitutionalist (and liberal) perspective, there is a case to be made against each of the three.

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Johnson, for example, switched the government’s policy on Northern Ireland and Brexit, negotiated and signed the Northern Irish protocol, and rapidly passed it into legislation without any scrutiny – and we are currently watching the fallout from this.

One can also put against Johnson that it was his switch from supporting Cameron and his political ambition that led May to adopting the hardline positions that she did on Brexit.

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It was May, however, who was responsible for the ‘red lines’ that meant that the United Kingdom would leave the single market and customs union, which in turn necessitated there having to be elaborate provisions in respect of Northern Ireland.

She is also the one that triggered Article 50 prematurely and without a plan, and she even sought to make this momentous notification without an act of parliament.

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But.

Cameron is the most culpable.

However bad May and Johnson have been, they were and are merely dealing (badly) with a situation created by Cameron.

Cameron staked the entire future of the United Kingdom on a single turn of pitch-and-toss – a simple yes/no referendum – assuming that, of course, he would win.

No considerations – let alone plans – were made for the contingency of the votes being for leave.

It was perhaps the most irresponsible domestic political act one can imagine in peacetime.

A ‘macro’ decision that, in turn, led to the bad ‘micro’ decisions of May and Johnson as they sought to give effect to the referendum result.

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And so Schneider may be wrong on this, at least in terms of what the United Kingdom is going through constitutionally.

Looking at it in terms of other policies, one perhaps could take a different view.

But I suspect future generations will be aghast and bewildered at Cameron’s folly.

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The judges are only the ‘enemies of the people’ when it suits the government

14th April 2021

For the government. and its political and media supporters, the judiciary are the ‘enemies of the people’.

The view is that that it is no business of activist judges to interfere with what ‘the people’ want.

It is a view that led the London government to oppose the supreme court determining the two Miller cases.

It is also a view that informs the current attempts by the government to limit judicial review and the scope of the human rights act – to the claps and cheers of many who (frankly) should know better.

But it is a shallow view, adopted out of convenience and partisanship.

For, when the political boot is on a different constitutional foot, the government suddenly values an independent judiciary being able to assess the constitutional propriety of a measure:

See Joshua Rozenburg’s detailed piece here.

Also note the response of the London government’s former chief legal official:

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From a political perspective, this referral prompts mixed feelings.

My political view is that a Scottish parliament can and should be co-equal with the Westminster parliament – as the legislatures in Canada and Australia are, even if nominally under the same head of state.

As such, it is frustrating to see the emphatically supported view of the Scottish parliament potentially stymied in this way.

But a political view is not always the same as a constitutionalist perspective.

And under the current constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, this is a question that can be referred to the supreme court – and as such there is nothing unconstitutional about the London government doing so.

(Whether those should be the constitutional arrangements is a different question.)

It is sheer hypocrisy – and there is not other word – for the London government, and its political and media supporters, to pick-and-choose when the supreme court gets to determine constitutional questions.

Either the supreme court is a constitutional court or it is not a constitutional court.

And it should not be regarded as only a constitutional court when the London government wants to face down Edinburgh, Cardiff, or Belfast.

A constitutional court is not and should not be regarded as an imperial court.

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The Good Friday Agreement and Brexit

12th April 2021

Before the Brexit referendum, one British politician made an emphatic statement about the impact of Brexit on the position of Northern Ireland:

‘Relations between London and Dublin are by far the warmest they have ever been since Irish independence, and the people of Northern Ireland are among the beneficiaries of that.

‘For that, the credit goes to a whole succession of British and Irish leaders, and to the tireless diplomacy of the United States. Yet it has also partly been facilitated by both countries being part of a common framework.

‘If the UK were not in the EU, the impact on such close relations, though hard to quantify, would certainly not be positive.

‘The Good Friday Agreement was based on the assumption that the two countries would be in the EU together, and the various cross-border institutions it established are built on that.

‘Hundreds of millions of euros of European funds are currently diverted into the border region through a special peace programme.

‘Most important of all, the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be called into question.’

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The key sentence of that passage bears repeating:

‘The Good Friday Agreement was based on the assumption that the two countries would be in the EU together, and the various cross-border institutions it established are built on that.’

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Who was this politician?

Was it some starry-eyed Europhile writing in some left-wing magazine?

No, it was former Conservative foreign secretary William Hague writing in the Daily Telegraph on 9th May 2016.

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Hague’s warning was not the only one – and he was also not the only one to make the connection between the European Union and the Good Friday Agreement.

The then Taoiseach Enda Kenny said, just days before the referendum:

‘When the Good Friday agreement was concluded 18 years ago, the detail of the negotiations and the agreement itself were brought about as a result of intensive engagement by the British and Irish governments in conjunction with the Northern Irish political parties.

‘But often underestimated was the international support for the process, not least that of the European Union.’

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And if one looks at the Good Friday Agreement itself, you will see the following recital:

‘The British and Irish governments […]

‘Wishing to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union’

The agreement also expressly provided that the north-south ministerial council ‘consider the European Union dimension of relevant matters, including the implementation of EU policies and programmes and proposals under consideration in the EU framework. Arrangements to be made to ensure that the views of the Council are taken into account and represented appropriately at relevant EU meetings’.

Indeed, there are eight mentions of the European Union in the agreement.

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Of course, an agreement made in 1998 did not and could not have anticipated the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union in 2016 and then leaving in 2020.

But that shared membership of the European Union was a presupposition cannot be sensibly denied.

As Hague also points out about Gibraltar, shared membership of the European Union was a handy and effective solution to tricky cross-border issues.

The European Union was a useful geo-political work-around for many otherwise insoluble problems. 

And so be departing from the European Union, such advantages of membership were removed.

This should not have been a shock.

Hague set this out plainly in the Brexit-supporting Telegraph, and the Taoiseach also put his name to articles explicitly stating this.

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Brexit, of course, is not in and by itself a contradiction of the Good Friday Agreement – in that the Good Friday Agreement still is in force now that the United Kingdom has departed the European Union.

In the first Miller case, the supreme court was asked to rule against the Article 50 notification, and they stated in respect of the legislation implementing that agreement:

‘In our view, this important provision, which arose out of the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement, gave the people of Northern Ireland the right to determine whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to become part of a united Ireland.

‘It neither regulated any other change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland nor required the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.’

As such continued shared membership of the European Union may well have been a presupposition of the Good Friday – but it was not (as a lawyer may say) a condition precedent.

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The Good Friday Agreement is, in terms of its practical importance, perhaps the most significant single constitutional instrument in the politics of the United Kingdom.

It is of far more practical importance than, say, Magna Carta.

It shapes what is – and is not – both politically permissible and politically possible.

It largely explains the curiously elaborate – and, for some, counter-intuitive – nature of Brexit in respect of Northern Ireland.

It meant that the clean absolute break with the European Union sought by many Brexit supporters did not happen.

The Irish border was to be kept open.

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But the Good Friday Agreement does not only protect the nationalist community, it also should protect the unionist community.

And the Brexit arrangements – with a trade barrier effectively down the Irish Sea – is seen as much as an affront to the unionists as a visible land border infrastructure would have been an affront to the nationalists.  

There is no easy answer to this problem – perhaps there is no answer, easy or hard.

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It took membership of the European Union to make the Belfast Agreement possible.

Perhaps there is no alternative geo-political workaround to take its place.

Had the United Kingdom stayed within the single market and the customs union, even if as a matter of legal form it would not technically be a member of the European Union, then perhaps this problem could have been averted.

But the fateful decision by then prime minister Theresa May in the months after the Brexit Referendum that Brexit would mean leaving the single market and the customs union meant that problems in respect of the position of Northern Ireland would become stark.

And as nods to the articles by Hague and Kenny show, it cannot be averred that the United Kingdom government was not warned.

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History vs law – the two disciplines compared and contrasted

11th April 2021

On a superficial level, the disciplines of law and history have a good deal in common.

Both subjects deal primarily with words.

The stuff of history (as opposed to prehistory or archaeology) tends to be written documents – though supplemented with the evidence of other materials.

And the stuff of law also tends to be written instruments and, in litigation, the words of witnesses and lawyers – though supplemented by other forms of evidence.

Neither of these two observations are universal, of course – one can have historical accounts and evidence without any words, and one can have law and litigation without words.

But in the main: words are the thing.

Both subjects also deal with evidence.

For history, this is (ahem) self-evident – and for law, the application of laws and legal instruments will always come down to a given fact situation: did [x] breach the contract or did [y] damage that artefact.

And both subjects tend to deal with the construction of narratives derived from assessments of evidence.

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But there lies the crucial difference.

While in putting together a historical account, there are no rules of evidence – if a piece of evidence is relevant then it can and should be used.

In contrast, in law and litigation there are rules of evidence – some evidence may be highly relevant, but it cannot be put before a court because it is inadmissible.

And the questions of the evidence which are asked by a historian will be different to that of a lawyer.

A historian may well ask ‘what happened’ – but a judge may ask only for that evidence that is relevant to the elements of the criminal offence or civil wrong that is being tried.

In concrete terms, a judge will not be interested in all sorts of circumstantial and contextual information about, say, a theft or a trespass but may look only at that evidence which goes to whether there was permission by a property owner.

And this is why legal records such as judgments or transcripts from trials are sometimes unexpectedly complicated sources to interrogate and analyse for a historian.

The questions being asked or the problems being solved by a judge or a lawyer are not that of someone committed to free historical inquiry – but instead have an immediate purpose in respect of the elements of the case that need to be proved or otherwise.

Judgments in particular can be misleading to the student of history – especially those that are framed as showing that, of course, one party had a more compelling case than the other.

The truth is that if a case was indeed that one-sided then the claim or action would normally not have needed to go to trial.

But a good historian knows that every document – including a legal document – has its own context, and that it was created (and survived) for a reason – and that reason is usually not for the personal benefit of a historian.

And in that respect, law and history are both good as ways of promoting critical engagement with words and evidence. 

It is just that they are not the same, despite their superficial similarity.

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The reason for these reflections is my ongoing attempts to understand and explain practical law and policy by means of critical engagement of written sources.

For example: a good deal of the politics of the last five years in the United Kingdom has been shaped by the structure of Article 50, and by the European Union law on the internal market, and by the Good Friday Agreement.

Such texts have led to all sorts of policy and political contortions and distortions, with things being pushed and pulled in one direction or another just to accord with (perceived) legalities.

A lawyer, however, would never have predicted what happened after 2016 just by looking at the dry, black letter text of Article 50 and other European Union provisions, and by the Good Friday Agreement.

There is a limit to how much one would understand about, say, Brexit or Trump by just looking at legal instruments and transcripts.

But there is, I hope, a valid purpose in doing so.

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‘It was Remainers All Along’ – Brexit and Wandavision

9th April 2021

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE TELEVISION SERIES WANDAVISION

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The recent Marvel and Disney-Plus  series Wandavision was a brilliant – almost perfect – piece of television.

In particular it played to the strengths of a story told in periodic instalments, while playing with and exploiting the conventions, techniques and lore of other great television series over seventy years.

But there was part of the story – a misdirection – which makes me think of the current blame games about Brexit.

You may know this misdirection by a merry little song.

That it was ‘Agatha All Along’

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At the point of the series we are introduced to this lovely ditty, there is plausibility to it all being down to the rival witch Agatha.

And indeed: for many her theatrical wink is the compelling tell.

It must have been Agatha all along.

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Except, of course, it was not Agatha all along.

For although Agatha had a certain impact on the plot and the characters, the real causes of the predicament as set out in Wandavision are elsewhere.

The problems instead flow from deeper dislocations, and from distortions of reality, and from the limits of magical thinking.

A false – and ultimately flimsy – world is created, but it is unsustainable and so it comes crashing down.

Happy nostalgic images of the 1950s – and of other decades – are ultimately mere make-believe constructs.

Sound familiar?

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The state of Brexit at the moment is such that it is understandable that those who urged the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union at such speed and with no planning are looking to blame others.

But it is difficult to blame Remainers.

Those blaming Remainers for the shape of Brexit forget that Remainers were not even capable of winning a referendum.

Remainers also had a real opportunity to delay Brexit – or at least have a further referendum – in the the months before the December 2019 general election – and they were not even capable of accomplishing that either.

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At each important point of Brexit – and especially in the crucial few months after the referendum result – the government and its political and media supporters prioritised speed and lack of substance over everything else.

Hardly a thought was employed as to the implications of ‘red lines’.

And once there was an agreement text, the race was on to ‘get Brexit done’ as swiftly as possible, with no proper consideration as to what was being agreed.

As I have averred over at Twitter, the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Irish protocol were the result of five distinct political steps taken by the prime minister Boris Johnson.

 

The shape and manner of Brexit has many causes – but the overriding ones are specific political decisions made by pro-Brexit governments and parliaments when they had majorities in the house of commons – before June 2017 and after December 2019.

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One cannot sensibly hold that Remainers can be held primarily responsible for anything to do with Brexit – other than complacency before the June 2016 referendum and ineptitude before the December 2019 general election.

Of course, there will be Remainer ‘leaders’ – professors and lords and QCs – who like Agatha may tweet theatrical winks to the camera.

And this may in turn provoke Brexit supporters into singing that it was ‘Remainers all along’.

But the tune does not make it true.

It was Brexiters all along.

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Four months after the end of the transition arrangements there is still no clear view of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union

4th April 2021

The United Kingdom ceased to be a member of the European Union over fourteen months ago, and the transition arrangements came to an end on 31st December 2020.

Regardless of whether you take the fourteen-month or the four-month period as the true duration so far of Brexit, what is not coming into view is the shape of the future relationship.

My own view – which is pretty much a minority view, as it has been since the dawn of Brexit – is that the United Kingdom and European Union would be best having a close association agreement, where the the legal form would be that the United Kingdom was not a member of the European Union but the substance would be that we would continue to be part of the single market and the customs union.

Issues of representation, consultation and mutual influence would be dealt with by dedicated EU+UK institutions – and such consensual and sustainable institutions would be the answer to the charge that the European Union would be imposing law and policy on an independent United Kingdom.

But this middle way position is still not in sight, and many still see the Brexit debate in the leave/remain binary.

As far as I am aware, no front-rank politician has yet set out a positive vision of the institutional, law and policy framework of the relationship of a post-Brexit United Kingdom and the European Union.

The government is still in its toy-room of gesture politics.

The official opposition is silent.

Those in favour of the United Kingdom becoming a member (again) of the European Union are still – wrongly, in my view, for reasons set out here – emphasising rejoining the European Union, rather than making a positive case from scratch, that is a case without depending on our previous membership.

Those remainers who accept Brexit in principle are saying little about how the United Kingdom should engage

Those in favour of Brexit in principle are still, to use the famous phrase, the dog that caught the car.

There is drift instead of where post-Brexit development of medium- to long-term policy should be.

The removal of Trump from the American presidency and the ongoing pandemic are further disorientating features.

In the absence of constructive policy formulation, we have from ministers shouty confrontation and culture wars instead.

But as was averred on the cover of a Fat Boy Slim album, they are already number one, so why should they try harder?

The politics of Brexit and beyond have still not settled.

Maybe they will not settle for some time.

Maybe, even, we are still in the early years of a Boris Johnson government – or that he will be replaced by someone even less suited to building a constructive relationship with the European Union.

And, to be even-handed, there is little sign in Brussels and other European Union capitals that they too are seeking a new model relationship with the United Kingdom.

If anything, there is a defensive-rearguard urge just to keep the current withdrawal and relationship agreements in place, let alone think about the future.

And the impending Scottish elections and the politics of Ireland and Northern Ireland may even mean there be soon no United Kingdom to have a relationship with the European Union.

All up in the air, still.

So four months on, there is almost no indication of what the long-term post-Brexit relationship will be like.

Volatility may be the new norm.

Brace, brace.

***

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Union Jacks being placed indoors in politicians’ offices is a constitutional distress signal

23rd March 2021

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“They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths.”

– overheard in Camden Town, 1969

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In thirty-five years of reading and writing about the constitutional history of the United Kingdom I have never given a second thought to the Union Jack (or Union Flag).

To the extent I thought about flags at all, I just had a vague notion that they were things which people in other countries had – like the fact they put their country names on postage stamps while the Royal Mail does not.

It was not so much that I felt strongly against a flag – I just did not really think about it at all.

And now it seems to be the most potent political issue of our age.

It is all very strange.

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Let us start with the law providing that the Union Jack is our national flag.

There is no law providing the Union Jack is our national flag.

Indeed, it seems there was doubt that the Union Jack was our national flag until the early twentieth century.

Here is a revealing exchange between three earls in the house of lords in 1908:

From that exchange we can infer that in the Victorian period the Union Jack was not regarded widely as the national flag – else there would be no need for such a debate and clarification in 1908.

So it may not even be Victorian nostalgia – but something of which has only been a big thing for a hundred years or so.

Another ‘invention of tradition’ as some historians would say.

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There are two things, however, which one must know about the Union Jack.

The first is that some people will have Very Strong Opinions on whether it is called a Union Jack or a Union Flag – though those three earls of the realm were quite at ease calling it a jack.

The second is that the same people are also likely to have Very Strong Opinions on which way up the flag should be flown.

This blog does not have such strong opinions.

But the one thing which seems to be overlooked in the current heated political controversy about flags is that, well, they are supposed to be flown outside – on land or at sea.

That is the point of a flag, if you think about it.

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To have political arguments about flags in indoor rooms seems, on this basis, to be rather weird.

It is like having a row about closed umbrellas.

Our ancestors did not give us much guidance about the Union Jacks being indoors as political props, as it may not have occurred to them that a flag would ever be used for such a purpose.

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That said, there is some trace of flags in our legislation.

In schedule 1 of the grandly titled Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007, there is this provision for things that do not need consent:

But nothing about flags inside.

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This lack of any formal recognition of a national flag is not surprising in those often casual arrangement that we describe as the constitution of the United Kingdom.

A thing can be – and presumably cease to be – a national flag without any legislative intervention.

A thing can become official in an unofficial way.

Whether this relaxed approach will continue in this age of hyper-partisanship and performative nationalism is unlikely.

One can quite imagine a new act of parliament ‘enshrining’ the Union Jack as our national flag, with ‘tough new offences’ to ‘crack down’ on disrespect.

One wonders how we managed so far.

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The timing of this phenomenon is telling.

By reason of Brexit, there is a non-trivial likelihood that there will be Irish unification and maybe also Scottish independence in the next few years.

So there is a real risk that two of the crosses on the Union Jack will soon not be there if the flag were ever to be adjusted for accuracy.

(Though one can quite imagine England carrying on with the Union Jack even with the loss of Northern Ireland and Scotland – like those pop bands that still tour with just one original member.)

And although it is easy to mock this flag-showery, it is not without political purchase, as my wise Financial Times colleague Robert Shrimsley avers:

But taking this sensible warning seriously, there still seems symbolism in this, well, symbolism.

Lore tells us that a Union Jack flown upside down was a sign of distress.

It is almost as if the current prevalence of indoor Union Jacks – upside down or otherwise – is itself a distress signal – and one for the future of the Union.

Brace, brace.

***

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The Clown and the Constitution

21st March 2021

Sometimes the usual superlatives do not seem enough – ‘brilliant’, ‘excellent’, ‘outstanding’ do not give justice to a thing.

So all I can aver is that the article ‘The clown king: how Boris Johnson made it by playing the fool’ by Edward Docx is perhaps best piece of contemporary political observation and analysis I have come across for a long time.

If you have not read it, go and read it now – else the rest of this post will make little sense.

And if you have read it, go and read it again.

This is because there is no way that a summary of that article by me will be adequate.

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Everything Docx says that touches on certain law and policy issues over the last few years is true.

Brexit is indeed ‘an act of symbolism at the expense of everything else.’

The lack of seriousness about law as an illustration of the the lack of seriousness generally:  ‘the teetering unicycle of Johnsonian buffoonery – A-levels, school meals, foreign health workers and more. A country of tumbling catastrophes. Trampolining absurdities. Go to work. Don’t go to work. A country proroguing parliament illegally here, trying to break international law there.’

The dislocation between the heady claims of political language and the mundane realities of political substance: ‘we became a country in which there was only the mock heroic – a “world beating” country that would “strain every sinew” and give “cast-iron guarantees” while bungling its plans and breaking its promises. A country “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles” and act “as the supercharged champion” of X, Y, Z. A country on stilts – pretending that we had a test and trace system that was head and shoulders above the rest of the world.’

The nature of the campaign for Brexit and the insincerity of Boris Johnson’s role: ‘the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, Steve Baker, Nigel Farage, Mark Francois, John Redwood, Gisela Stuart, Kate Hoey et al – were never more than a dim congregation of rude mechanicals. And what they required to win was someone who instinctively understood how to conduct a form of protracted public masque.’ 

And so on.

Docx’s depiction of the character and approach of the current prime minister is unmatched.

Falstaff, the Fool, the Clown, has indeed taken over as king.

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At the end of Docx’s article, however, he posits that there are hard challenges that cannot (easily) be avoided by the clowning prime minister:

‘The difficulty for the clown is that once truth and seriousness have been merrily shattered, they cannot be put back together and served up anew. Or, to put it another way, the buffoon who has just entertained the audience by smashing all the plates cannot now say that he proposes to use them to serve up a banquet in honour of himself becoming a wise and honest king. Everyone can see: the plates are all in pieces on the floor.’

One of these challenges is more policy than law – the many serious failures of the government United Kingdom in respect of the Covid pandemic.

Here Docx points out that Johnson is now seeking to tell a story so as to lift him out of any culpability:

‘Are we supposed to forget this legacy and “move on”? That is what Johnson is now tacitly suggesting. Like all storytellers, he knows the public remember endings, less so beginnings and seldom the middle. He did all he can, he says. He knows it’s not true, but that is what he is selling.’

Here Docx appears to be doubtful of his own plate-smashing analogy.

People may elect not to see the damage: Johnson can – and may well will – distract us by more plate-smashing: world-beating plate-crashing, no doubt.

The other challenge, however, is squarely constitutional.

And that is the future of the union.

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Docx rightly observes that there is a pending constitutional crunch: ‘the realm really is still falling apart. Johnson’s predicament could not be more starkly illuminated than by the next existential challenge he faces: to do with the very nature of the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.’ 

Johnson’s predicament here affirms the truth of the old Hebrew proverb about the difference between a clever person and a wise person: a clever person can get out of situations that a wise person would not get into.

The lack of wisdom here, however, is not that just of Johnson.

The folly of the in/out referendum was that of David Cameron, and the infliction of a ‘hard Brexit’ (with the United Kingdom outside the European Union customs union and single market) was by Theresa May.

Wiser heads – who realised the precariousness and fragility of constitutional arrangements – would not have risked the future of the United Kingdom, as Cameron did, on one turn of pitch-and-toss.

Nor would they have insisted on an extreme form of Brexit in the first few months after the referendum, as May did.

Johnson was not responsible for either of those two calamitous decisions, which in turn have created what Docx rightly calls the ‘existential challenge’ of keeping the union together.

The fool may have become prime minister – but only after the two previous prime ministers had made the most foolish of decisions.

And given those foolish decisions – and their necessary implications for the position of Northern Ireland – then there is not a great deal that Johnson can do.

The clown has not so much taken over the stage: it is more that supposedly wiser rulers have left the stage to the clown alone.

And, of course, Johnson will approach the problem with his strategic dishonesty and tactical buffoonery – but, frankly, what else has he got?

The constitutional logic of the Brexit that was in place before he became prime minister will continue to unfold.

Slapping sticks is perhaps all that is left.

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All this said: never underestimate the trickster.

A clever person may be the one who gets out of situations that a wise person would not have got into – but the clever person may still do so all the same.

And as Docx avers: ‘the clown is always in a deeper relationship with the audience than with his ostensible subject.’

The plates that may now smash will be as big as the union itself.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland may not last another few years in either form or substance.

But the clown-king may still be able to get away with it – and still be prime minister of whatever is left, with claps and cheers for more.

The audience may never see or care what damage is done in the meantime.

And this is not just because of the skills and talents of the clown-king but because of the stage we are now at in the story of Brexit and the United Kingdom – to use a phrase of Johnson’s earnest antonym as prime minister – there may be no real alternative.

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“Will it please you to see the epilogue, or to hear a Bergomask dance between two of our company?”

– Act V, Scene 1, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

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What now stands between a populist authoritarian government with a huge majority and a full scale assault on civil liberties and human rights?

 18th March 2021

Earlier this week the house of commons passed the government’s illiberal Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill with a ninety-six majority.

So given this high majority the obvious question is what would actually stop or hinder a populist and authoritarian government from seeking to pass primary legislation that would remove or undermine basic legal protections and rights? 

This is not a trivial or academic question.

The usual ‘gatekeepers’ that would prevent a government from not even proposing such things are no longer in place.

For example, the offices of lord chancellor and attorney-general are occupied by politicians who happen to be lawyers but have no credentials in protecting either the rule of law or fundamental freedoms.

And we have a government heady with ‘will of the people’ rhetoric that has developed a taste for attacking or disregarding what checks and balances the constitution of the United Kingdom has to offer.

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In constitutional theory, the next check – once legislation is proposed – is the house of commons.

But with such a large majority – and the tendency for even supposedly ‘libertarian’ government backbenchers to vote in accordance with the whip and accept limp front-bench assurances – there is no realistic way that the house of commons is any check or balance on this government.

And if the opposition do oppose – which cannot be assumed, given the official opposition’s habit of not opposing things for tactical and strategic reasons – then such opposition can and will be weaponised by hyper-partisan ministers and their media supporters.

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Next there is the house of lords, where (fortunately) the government does not have an in-built majority.

And the house of lords can vote things down and pass amendments.

But.

When constitutional push comes to political shove, the house of lords will usually backdown once the house of commons has reaffirmed its support for a measure.

This is in part that the the house of lords has a, well, constitutional disability in respect of confronting the democratic house.

There will only be a few occasions where the house of lords will use its power to delay legislation under the parliament acts.

And that power is that: to delay.

A determined government, with the support of the house of commons, will get its legislative way in the end.

A government in these circumstances would not even need to resort to an ‘enabling act’ – as it would get through any desired illiberal legislation anyway.

There are a very few exceptions to this: such as a bill containing any provision to extend the maximum duration of a parliament beyond five years.

But otherwise: there is nothing that can ultimately stop an illiberal bill eventually becoming an act of parliament.

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And then we come to the courts.

Here we have another problem.

Because of the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy there is nothing that the courts would be able to do – as long as the government has ensured that the statutory drafting is precise and tight.

The human rights act, for example, provides no legal basis for an act of parliament to be disapplied.

The judgments of the European court of human rights are not binding.

The European communities act, which did enable a court to disapply an act of parliament on certain grounds, is no longer part of domestic law.

‘Common law rights’ capable of frustrating an act of parliament exist only in undergraduate law student essays.

Even with the powers the courts do have, the government is seeking to limit access to judicial review by all possible means: in substantive law, by procedural restrictions, and by denying legal aid.

(And the courts have taken an illiberal turn anyway: and we now have a president of the supreme court, in an unanimous judgment, telling the court of appeal off for not according ‘respect’ to a home secretary’s assessments.)

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Before the general election of December 2019 we had the unpleasant predicament of a government that was populist and authoritarian – but at least it did not have a parliamentary majority.

Now, by reason of that general election and its result, we have a government with the same illiberal instincts but with all the sheer legal force of parliamentary supremacy at their disposal.

That the opposition parties facilitated an early general election in December 2019 was a moment of political madness.

And now – until at least December 2024 – we have a government that is able with ease to get the house of commons to pass the most illiberal legislation – and there is ultimately nothing that either the house of lords or the courts can do – as long as the legislation is precise and tight.

Brace, brace.

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The European Commission launches legal proceedings against the United Kingdom – a guided tour

 16th March 2021

The European Commission announced yesterday that it had ‘launched legal proceedings’ against the United Kingdom.

What has happened is that a formal legal notice has been sent by the European Commission to the United Kingdom.

To say this is ‘launch[ing] legal proceedings’ is a little dramatic: no claim or action has been filed – yet – at any court or tribunal.

But it is a legally significant move,  and it is the first step of processes that, as we will see below, can end up before both a court and a tribunal.

This blogpost sets out the relevant information in the public domain about this legal move – a guided tour of the relevant law and procedure.

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Let us start with the ‘legal letter’ setting out the legal obligations that the European Commission aver the United Kingdom has breached and the particular evidence for those breaches.

This is an ‘infraction’ notice.

As the European Commission is making some very serious allegations – for example, that the United Kingdom is in breach of the Northern Ireland protocol – then it is important to see exactly what these averred breaches are.

This information would be set out precisely in the infraction letter – informing the ministers and officials of the United Kingdom government of the case that they had to meet in their response.

But.

We are not allowed to see this letter.

Even though the European Commission is making serious public allegations about the United Kingdom being in breach of the politically sensitive Northern Ireland Protocol, it will not tell us the particulars of the alleged breaches.

This is because, I am told, the European Commission does not publish such formal infraction notices.

There is, of course, no good reason for this lack of transparency – especially given what is at stake.

The European Commission should not be able to have the ‘cake’ of making serious infraction allegations without the ‘eating it’ of publishing them.

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And so to work out what the alleged breaches are, we have to look at other, less formal (and thereby less exact) sources.

Here the European Commission have published two things.

First, there is this press release.

Second there is this ‘political letter’ – as distinct from the non-disclosed ‘legal letter’.

What now follows in this blogpost is based primarily on a close reading of these two public documents.

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We start with the heady international law of the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties.

Article 26 of the Vienna Convention regards the delightful Latin phrase Pacta sunt servanda.

In other words: if you have signed it, you do it.

Agreements must be kept.

You will also see in Article 26 express mention of ‘good faith’.

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We now go to the withdrawal agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

There at Article 5 you will see that the United Kingdom and the European Union expressly set out their obligation of good faith to each other in respect of this particular agreement:

So whatever ‘good faith’ may or not mean in a given fact situation, there is no doubt that under both Article 26 of the Vienna Convention generally and under Article 5 of the withdrawal agreement in particular that the United Kingdom and the European Union have a duty of good faith to each other in respect of their obligations under the withdrawal agreement.

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The European Commission not only allege that the United Kingdom is in breach of its obligation of good faith but also that the United Kingdom is in breach of specific obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol (which is part of the withdrawal agreement).

The press release says there are ‘breaches of substantive provisions of EU law concerning the movement of goods and pet travel made applicable by virtue of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland’.

The ‘political letter’ says:

So it would appear that the relevant provisions of the withdrawal agreement are Articles 5(3) and (4) of the Northern Ireland and Annex 2 to that protocol.

Here we go first to Annex 2.

This annex lists many provisions of European Union law that continue to have effect in Northern Ireland notwithstanding the departure of the United Kingdom.

Article 5(4) of the protocol incorporates the annex as follows:

‘The provisions of Union law listed in Annex 2 to this Protocol shall also apply, under the conditions set out in that Annex, to and in the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland.’

As such a breach of Article 5(4) is a breach of the European Union laws set out in that annex.

Article 5(3) of the protocol is a more complicated provision and it is less clear (at least to me) what the European Commission is saying would be the breach:

My best guess is that the European Commission is here averring that the United Kingdom is in breach of the European Union customs code (which is contained in Regulation 952/2013.)

As regards the specific European Union laws set out in Annex 2 that the European Commission also says that the United Kingdom is in breach of, we do not know for certain because of the refusal of the commission to publish the formal infraction notice.

On the basis of information in the press release and the ‘political letter’ it would appear that the problems are set out in these three paragraphs:

Certain keyword searches of Annex 2 indicate which actual laws the European Commission is saying being breached, but in the absence of sight of the formal infraction notice, one could not know for certain.

The reason the detail of what laws are at stake matters is because each instrument of European Union law may have its own provisions in respect of applicability, enforceability and proportionality that could be relevant in the current circumstances.

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So: what next.

Two things – the European Commission is adopting a twin-track, home-and-away approach.

One process will deal with the substantive provisions of European Union law – and the other process will deal with the matter of good faith.

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In respect of the alleged substantive breaches of European Union law, the European Commission has commenced infraction proceedings – as it would do in respect of any member of the European Union.

As the ‘political letter’ pointedly reminds the United Kingdom:

The United Kingdom is still subject to the supervisory and enforcement powers of the European Union in respect of breaches of European Union law in Northern Ireland.

You thought Brexit meant Brexit?

No: the government of Boris Johnson agreed a withdrawal agreement that kept in place the supervisory and enforcement powers of the European Union – including infraction proceedings of the European Commission and determinations by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

And so in 2021 – five years after the Brexit referendum – the European Commission is launching infraction proceedings against the United Kingdom under Article 258 of the Treaty of Rome:

This means there could well be a hearing before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

One does not know whether this would be more wanted or not wanted by our current hyper-partisan post-Brexit government.

One even half-suspects that they wanted this all along.

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The other track – with the European Commission playing ‘away’ – is in respect of the general ‘good faith’ obligation – as opposed to the substantive European Union law obligations under Annex 2.

Here we are at an early stage.

In particular, we are are at the fluffy ‘cooperation’ stage of Article 167:

If this fails, then the next stage would be a notice under Article 169(1):

Article 169(1) provides that such a formal notice shall ‘commence consultations’.

And if these Article 169 consultations do not succeed, then we go to Article 170:

The arbitration panel – and not the European Commission nor the European Court of Justice – would then determine whether the United Kingdom is in breach of its general obligation of good faith.

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We could therefore end up with two sets of highly controversial proceedings.

The European Commission has intimated the processes for both to take place in due course.

From a legalistic perspective, the European Commission may have a point – depending on what the alleged breaches actually are.

A legal process is there for dealing with legal breaches – that is what a legal process is for.

But.

When something is legally possible, it does not also make it politically sensible.

A wise person chooses their battles.

And if the European Commission presses their cases clumsily, then the legitimacy and durability of the withdrawal framework may be put at risk.

Brace, brace.

***

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