Politics Always the Final Arbiter – The (Not So) Fixed-term Parliaments Act

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) passed in 2011 was meant to make the calling of early elections a lot harder for Prime Ministers. As I wrote back in July 2014, there were now several obstacles in way of a Prime Minister who wanted to go to the country early. Then the speculation was heightened as Theresa May was a new Prime Minister yet to trigger Article 50 and seemingly lacking a mandate (though there is of course no requirement for a prime ministerial mandate to govern). Now the political game has changed and the opportunity has been seized, as my colleague Sarah Lieberman writes. So what has happened to these obstacles? In effect the FTPA was a political fix not a constitutional one, meant to bind the coalition partners together after the 2010 general election. If a Prime Minister can successfully manage the process and control the narrative, as May has done, the obstacles fall away. So it is that May (catching media, cabinet colleagues, parties and the public on the hop) announced her intention to call a general election for 8 June. Demonstrating the power of the Prime Minister to set the news agenda, she controlled the media narrative placing the date pretty much in stone. Gaining parliamentary approval, now a prerequisite under the FTPA, became a formality – opposition was futile (an exercise in what we often call in political science ‘path dependency’).

The technicalities mean that when the motion is put before Parliament on Wednesday 19 April, it will require 434 MPs, two-thirds of Commons MPs, to vote in favour. Labour caught in a bind – too weak to oppose and too weak to pose an electoral threat – has indicated the party will support the motion, favouring potential electoral meltdown against blocking the Prime Minister and being accused of running scared. The politics therefore overrides the legislative technicalities. As Alan Renwick of the UCL Constitution Unit points out, the rules have proved weak in constraining a Prime Minister. Indeed, although many MPs may oppose the motion – fearful of the electoral consequences, the Act may have merely shifted the choreography from a prime ministerial trip to the palace to inform HM Queen, to a procedural vote in Parliament. Despite creeping constitutionalism, politics still remains the final arbiter in the ever vague British constitution.

Dr Mark Bennister is Reader in Politics & International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. His research currently deals with Prime Ministerial Accountability and the Liaison Committee. In 2016, he was awarded an academic fellowship at Parliament to continue this research.

 

Theresa May’s statement – what does it mean?

A snap general election will be held on the 8th of June. According to Theresa this is to unite the people of the UK, to unite the people of Westminster. She is the ‘Brexit Candidate’. She previously said she did not want a general election, but then again she also said previously that she wished to remain in the EU.

Snap general elections should have been ended by the Fixed Term Parliament Act. However, by presenting this as the ‘democratic choice’ and presenting it to the public before asking parliament for the 60% that she requires to do this, she has cornered the opposition into a position in which they cannot refuse without looking undemocratic and undecided. Jeremy Corbyn has to say ‘yes’.

By calling the election so soon, there is very little time to organise politically. It is possible that a UKRP (UK remain party) might do well in an upcoming election. However, it is a very, very short period of time to do this. In terms of opposition, the Labour Party remains divided.

This is not a second referendum: the government is divided, the opposition is divided. The alternative position is the Liberal democrat position.  If everyone who wishes to avoid a hard Brexit votes Liberal Democrat then just maybe it could be avoided…? However, the party retains the toxic reputation of the previous General Election.

May hopes to achieve a mandate for hard Brexit, and while the Labour Party looks divided and unpopular, she lacks the opposition that would prevent her course of action. This is an opportunistic move to consolidate the power of the Conservative party, and it will be surprising if this does not happen on the 8th June.

Dr Sarah Lieberman is Senior Lecturer in Politics and IR and Canterbury Christ Church University.

TATE Exchange: Fairground Diaries – Thursday (13 April)

The Politics and International Relations programme at Canterbury Christ Church University has collaborated with local organisations and schoolchildren to curate and present a live art intervention held at the Tate Modern: “Waste Not, Want Not”. Curated as part of the Tate Exchange programme, the intervention will be live from Wednesday 12 April until Saturday 15 April 2017. Dr David Bates, director of Politics & IR, reports from the scene of the ‘Fairground’:

“Watch out: The Fairground is in Town!

We had 826 visitors to our Fairground on Wednesday, and it looks as though Thursday will have topped this. We have had some really great responses from all who have attended.

Our students have engaged the public with ideas about gender, ethnicity, social class, intergenerational inequality, disability, marginalisation and exclusion.

It has been vital to experiment with these discussions in an ‘elite’ gallery space. It is great that Tate have set up the Exchange project so we can unsettle the status quo.

But, to what extent can the typical ‘Tate demographic’ engage with groups who they would rarely encounter in such a space?

The conversations I have had so far have been interesting.

Some people clearly would prefer that the class constituted distinction between high and low art be maintained. Why are these people in our space? Do these young people really have to be so noisy? A gallery is a space for serious contemplation, not fun! (Rarely has enjoyment been more of a political act!)

But others have been open to discussing the dynamics of privilege which we have set out to challenge. We have engaged people from across the globe in political conversation, without any form of ‘sugar coating’. The sense of solidarity which these conversations have engendered has been profound.

Perhaps the most powerful moment for me was in a reception event for all our partners at the close of the day. Young people from Valleys Kids and Astor College spoke about what it means to them to be able to come to London and produce work in the Tate – to constitute the Tate space as ‘their space’.

The ‘social elites’ who think the Tate – and other institutions oh ‘high art’ – are for them and them only, better think again: The fairground is in town!”

Find out more here: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/workshop/tate-exchange/fairground

TATE Exchange: Fairground Diaries – Tuesday and Wednesday (11 & 12 April)

The Politics and International Relations programme at Canterbury Christ Church University has collaborated with local organisations and schoolchildren to curate and present a live art intervention held at the Tate Modern: “Waste Not, Want Not”. Curated as part of the Tate Exchange programme, the intervention will be live from Wednesday 12 April until Saturday 15 April 2017. Dr David Bates, director of Politics & IR, reports from the scene of the ‘Fairground’:

“We finished installing ‘Waste Not Want Not’ into floor 5 of the Switch House, at Tate Modern at 6pm on Tuesday. We got back to Canterbury at 9pm, then back to London for a 10am start.

When the doors opened, the people started to flood in. As the saying goes ‘build it and they will come’! 

All the work in our fairground looks fantastic.

Robert – a talented Slovakian student from Astor College in Dover – has produced a work called ‘The Booth’. Visitors to the exchange seem most curious to see what is inside!

Reece also from Astor college has completed his ‘House of Horrors’. For some reason, members of the public are using this to take ‘selfies’. I have no idea why!

The work by Valley’s Kids – all the way from the Rhonda Valley in Wales – is wonderful. (See their ‘Merry-go-round of Arts and Ideas’.)    

Our colleagues from People United are enjoying lots of success with their work ‘For Me For You’, which explores the idea of reciprocal altruism.

And the work of the artist Holly McKenzie encourages you to ‘Smash the Patriarchy’!

Finally, we must note that Susannah Campbell and Lewis Bloodworth, two of our own Politics and international Relations students from CCCU, were part of the live art piece ‘Test Your Mental Strength’, a two hour discussion of concerns of a theoretical nature. Joining with visitors to Tate, we debated such questions as: ‘Democracy: Is it Worth It?’ ‘You read all em books, but you don’t know what’s living!’; ‘Survival of the unfit’; ‘gender and being a woman’; ‘the industry of love’; ‘Is there a world beyond capitalism?’

I encourage everyone to roll up to take exchange – open until 6pm on Saturday.”

Find out more here: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/workshop/tate-exchange/fairground

Theresa May’s Three-Way Brexit Fight – And Why She Cannot Win

On the 29th of March 2017, the government of the United Kingdom officially informed the President of the European Council about their intention to leave the European Union within the next two years. This so-called triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union will start a process, which will be complex with many unknown and unforeseen developments, challenges and problems on the way.

Theresa May has made it clear that she wants the UK’s departure from the EU to strengthen the Union, to improve the lives of British people and to work for both the UK and the EU.  However, this seems more and more unlikely. The Prime Minister, and her negotiation team are not just fighting a one-way battle with the EU-negotiation team about the terms of Brexit and a successor agreement that will give the UK access to the European market, they are actually involved in a three-way fight. A fight that is full of contradictions and centrifugal forces, and one that Theresa May cannot win.

Fight Number 1: The European Dimension

The UK government will spend the next two years negotiating with an EU delegation on the terms of Brexit. Some of the negotiations will be relatively simple, such as on air traffic rules and even the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU will be secured relatively quickly as there are no major obstacles on a solution for these issues on either side. Other issues, such as which access the UK will get to the European single market, the size of the final bill that the UK will have to pay and the future of free movement will be much tougher. The European Parliament has already announced that they will veto any deal that will phase out free movement early, and countries in Eastern Europe will likely veto anything that will affect financial contributions promised to them in years to come. There is still an ongoing debate about whether no deal would be a good deal. However, the complexity of reaching a deal becomes obvious when one thinks about the key priorities for the European side. There are three priorities the EU negotiators will focus on. First, the rights of EU citizens in the UK. This will be secured relatively quickly as it just needs an insurance that Brits in the EU will treated the same way. Second, the final bill the UK has to pay before leaving, for example for pension contributions to British staff that served in the Commission. Here agreement will be hard to find and a lot will depend on Germany as the now even bigger contributor to the EU to pick up some of the bill and give the UK a “better” deal. However, the third key priority for EU negotiators and linked to a trade deal with the UK, is the issue of demonstrating that leaving the European Union has serious consequences. Many saw Brexit as a first step to the EU falling apart. Germany, France, and most countries in Eastern Europe will want to prevent any impression that this is the case and that a country can leave the EU, stop paying into the budget but still enjoy all the benefits. The Germans particularly will want to set an example and Angela Merkel has announced this immediately after the Brexit vote. So, it is by no way clear that there will be a deal, and what kind of deal it will be.

© stuart anthony via flickr.com

Fight Number 2: The Home Front

On the 28th of March 2017, the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of a new referendum on independence. This vote, a day before the triggering of Article 50 by the British Prime Minister, will set the tone for months and indeed years to come. While the UK government has dismissed the Scottish request for a second referendum within a decade, it will not be able to uphold this ignorance for long. Scottish people might not (yet) be convinced that independence is the better option, but most of them are convinced that Scotland should have the choice and that the UK government should not decide on Scotland’s future. There is a good chance that by the time Scotland will have a second referendum on independence (and this is just a question of time), there might be a majority for independence. In addition to the constitutional crisis in regards to Scotland, Brexit has also opened up old wounds in Northern Ireland, with Sein Fein using the topic to mobilise support for a referendum on the unification of the Irish island. The potential of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland might create new potential for conflict, but most importantly it will create huge disturbances for people and businesses on both sides of the border. In light of this, who knows, maybe the people in Northern Ireland can easier live with a united Ireland than a new hard border.

Finally, the business community in the UK will put pressure on the government to ensure access to the European market, or in case this cannot be received, to receive special deals. A special deal has already been agreed for Nissan, it is hard to see why other car manufacturers in the UK will not demand the same terms of a deal from the government.

With a constitutional crisis fully evolving, a fragile economy that has to be preparing for the worst, and many regions, Councils and communities in the UK expecting whatever affect the Brexit deal will have on them, it is hard to see how the government will be able to deal with all of these competing and in some cases contradicting demands and find a solution that everyone can live with.

Fight Number 3: The International Dimension

Finally, Brexit will force the UK government to think about the UK’s international role. This of course offers a lot of opportunities. However, in reality that international environment is about as hostile as it could be to the UK as a new actor in trade and world influence. In the USA, President Trump is about to divide his country and the international community with it. In Russia, President Putin is probing the patience of NATO. In China, the Communist Party, while formally committed to free markets, is preparing for a more competitive and protectionist era in world trade. At the same time, the UK will only be allowed to formally negotiate trade deals once it has left the European Union (until then, this remains a competence of the EU Commission). While trade deals with some countries will be signed relatively quickly, especially trade deals with the major UK markets outside of Europe (such as the US, Canada, Australia, India, etc.) will take years to negotiate. Even if trade agreements can be negotiated, even if the time span is shorter than expected, it is nevertheless hard to see how the current international environment and the limited ability and experience that the UK government has to negotiate new deals will not have an impact economically, politically and socially.

It Burns, Burns, Burns – The Ring of Fire

Brexit is the result of an ill-informed and unnecessary referendum. The British people will now have to live with the consequences. However, as has been demonstrated above, there are at least three major fights the government has at its hands in order to make any Brexit deal work and ensure a better future post-Brexit. The centrifugal forces that will hit the UK, the economic impact of the Brexit negotiations, and the future development of the international system will all have substantial impacts on the UK in the near future. Even if the UK had the best negotiators in the world (and it does not), even if Europeans wanted to give the UK a good deal (and they do not), even if the international environment was more receptive and positive (and it is not), even if all of these circumstances were met, it would still be hard to see how Theresa May and the UK government can win the fight on all these three fronts. What has happened is that in recent months more and more fires were lit by the government and fire does, what fire does – it spreads and grows out of control. Eventually, it burns.

Dr Soeren Keil is Reader in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University.