What became of the constitutional commission?

It is often said that voters do not read political manifestos. They are, after all, long. Plus once you start reading them you realise that you will have to weigh the upsides and downsides of each party. This is a big ask when your vote statistically doesn’t matter.

Yet manifestos are important politically. A bungled manifesto pledge on funding social care is often seen as what undid Theresa May during the general election campaign in 2017. Manifesto commitments also enjoy easier passage through Parliament, since the Lords don’t contest them by convention.

More importantly, manifesto pledges generate news stories. And in the wake of last year’s parliamentary wrangling over Brexit – which even I got bored of – the Conservative party manifesto controversially committed (on page 48) to a constitution, democracy and rights commission within a year to examine our political arrangements in the round.

This worried the ‘anti-populist’ crowd, who had been using many of the institutions facing examination to thwart or soften Brexit. At the top of the commission’s agenda would be “the relationship between the government, Parliament and the courts”, with the manifesto criticising “the way so many MPs have devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people in the 2016 referendum” and the use of judicial review “to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays”.

Critics contended that the government, which had recently tried to sneakily prorogue Parliament, might use the commission to grab more power for the executive and disarm the legislature. Such fears have been a recurring feature of the pandemic era, with even former Brexiters attacking the government for imposing lockdown measures with little debate.

Such people may sleep easier for a simple fact: with one month to go until the first anniversary of this government there has been little to no sign of the commission. As a parliamentary webpage puts it: “So far, the government have made no announcements about the form or timing of the commission beyond the commitments made in the Conservative manifesto and Queen’s speech.”

An oral hearing from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), was not much more helpful. As witness Andrew Blick, political economy head at King’s College London, put it in a blog post in October, “none of us, nor anyone on PACAC, had any idea when this commission is likely to be set up; the form it will take; who will sit on it; how it will operate; what issues precisely it will look at – or indeed if it will ever appear at all.”

Writing on Conservative Home in July, editor and ex-MP Paul Goodman suggested that the commission had been “shelved”. “We hear that the manifesto commitment is dead and that there will be no such commission – this year or any in other year,” he said.

Having emailed Cabinet Office and received no update on the status of the commission, Goodman looks increasingly likely to be right. As Blick argued, the pandemic has provided a good reason to delay the commission, while the Independent Review of Administrative Law launched in July may satisfy the ambition to rein in the courts.

Boris Johnson’s recent disparagement of Scottish devolution shows that there’s a wider justification for reforming Britain’s uncodified constitution beyond Brexit. Whether this need will be met by the current government is dubious.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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