HL EU Committee publishes Brexit: devolution report

The House of Lords EU Committee has today (19 July 2017) published its report ‘Brexit: devolution’ which examines the impact of Brexit on the devolved institutions.

The key message of the report is Brexit presents fundamental constitutional challenges to the United Kingdom as a whole. Therefore, the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments, and – ‘if it is formed’ – the Northern Ireland Executive, will have to set aside their differences and work constructively together to achieve an outcome that ‘protects the interests of all parts of the UK’. The report submits that no durable solution will be possible without the consent of all the nations of the UK.

The report’s conclusions for Northern Ireland included (see chapter 3, para 93-99):

  • Due to Northern Ireland’s ‘distinctive’ geographical, historical, political, and constitutional circumstances, it will be ‘profoundly affected’ by Brexit. There will be a significant impact, including on cross-border trade, the agri-food sector, energy, transport, fisheries, access to EU labour, healthcare provision, tourism, and police and security cooperation.
  • It appears the Brexit debate has ‘undermined political stability and exacerbated cross-community divisions, contributing to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive and the calling of an early Assembly election’. This, together with the Conservative-DUP confidence and supply agreement at Westminster, and with no nationalist MPs having taken their seats in the new Parliament, ‘has created new uncertainty, underlining the fragility of the political settlement in Northern Ireland’.
  • Political stability in Northern Ireland must not be allowed to become ‘collateral damage’ of Brexit.
  • The specific circumstances in Northern Ireland give rise to unique issues that will need to be addressed during the Brexit negotiations.
  • The unique nature of UK-Irish relations necessitates a unique solution. The report welcomed the European Council’s commitment to seek “flexible and imaginative solutions”, and asks the UK Government to work with the EU negotiators to identify and outline such solutions as a matter of priority.

It is interesting that the EU Committee acknowledged that the use of the phrase ‘special status’ in respect of Brexit is a politically contentious term for unionists, who do not want Northern Ireland’s place in the UK to be undermined. The Committee did however advocate consideration for the specific circumstances in Northern Ireland, which give rise to unique issues. The report finds that these issues, including the issue of the border on the island of Ireland will need to be addressed during the Brexit negotiations.

 

House of Commons – Select Committee Chair Elections – The Results.

Eleven select committees held elections for the position of Chair on Wednesday 12 July, including the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

There were also seventeen select committees where the position of Chair was uncontested. If there was only one candidate for a position, the MP was deemed elected unopposed.

Results are as follows:

Departmental committees
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – Rachel Reeves (Labour; Leeds West)
Communities and Local Government – Clive Betts (Labour; Sheffield South East.)
Culture, Media and Sport – Damian Collins (Conservative;  Folkestone and Hythe – unopposed)
Defence – Dr Julian Lewis (Conservative; New Forest East)
Education – Robert Halfon (Conservative; Harlow)
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – Neil Parish (Conservative; Tiverton and Honiton)
Exiting the European Union – Hilary Benn (Labour; Leeds Central – unopposed)
Foreign Affairs – Tom Tugendhat (Conservative; Tonbridge and Malling)
Health –  Dr Sarah Wollaston (Conservative; Totnes – unopposed)
Home Affairs – Yvette Cooper (Labour; Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford – unopposed)
International Development – Stephen Twigg (Labour; Liverpool West Derby – unopposed)
International Trade – Angus MacNeil (Scottish National Party; Na h-Eileanan an Iar – unopposed)
Justice – Robert Neill (Conservative; Bromley and Chislehurst – unopposed)
Northern Ireland Affairs – Dr Andrew Murrison (Conservative; South West Wiltshire)
Science and Technology – Norman Lamb (Liberal Democrat; North Norfolk)
Scottish Affairs – Pete Wishart (Scottish National Party; Perth and North Perthshire – unopposed)
Transport – Lilian Greenwood (Labour; Nottingham South)
Treasury – Nicky Morgan (Conservative; Loughborough)
Welsh Affairs –David T C Davies (Conservative; Monmouth – unopposed)
Women and Equalities – Maria Miller (Conservative; Basingstoke – unopposed)
Work and Pensions – Frank Field (Labour; Birkenhead – unopposed)

Other specified select committees:
Backbench Business Committee – Ian Mearns (Labour; Gateshead)
Environmental Audit – Mary Creagh (Labour; Wakefield – unopposed)
Petitions – Helen Jones (Labour; Warrington North – unopposed)
Procedure –  Charles Walker (Conservative; Broxbourne – unopposed)
Public Accounts – Meg Hillier (Labour; Hackney South and Shoreditch – unopposed)
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs – Bernard Jenkin (Conservative; Harwich and North Essex – unopposed)
Standards – Sir Kevin Barron (Labour; Rother Valley – unopposed)

No doubt there will be interesting times ahead with Nicky Morgan as Chair of the Treasury Select Committee. A pro-Remainer, she saw off the arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg to position herself as a thorn in the side of the UK Government’s plans for leaving the EU. The former Treasury minister and Education Secretary was elected by MPs across all parties, but with particular support from those on the Labour benches who want to stop Mrs May’s hardline Brexit plan to leave the single market, customs union and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Another one to watch is the new Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Dr Andrew Murrison is a proponent of the Military Covenant’s extension to Northern Ireland. The mainstream unionist parties support the extension, but the nationalist parties do not. Indeed, it was a thorny issue during the long-running talks process at Stormont to restore a power-sharing Executive.

French Presidential Election 2017 – the outcome.

There we have it. It’s been a tense election of sharp rhetoric, and discourse pondering the future of France. But the second round of voting came and went today. And France has a new President.

Emmanuel Macron – the pro-EU, social liberal-won with a decisive victory over the far-right Marine Le Pen that his supporters hailed as holding back the tide of populism.

Macron, who at 39 becomes the youngest French President since Bonaparte, is a former economy minister who ran as a “neither left nor right” independent. He promise to shake up the French political system, and took 65.1% of the vote to Le Pen’s 34.9%, according to initial projections from early counts. It is a stronger-than-expected victory, and a stunning achievement for a novice to electoral politics – Macron has never been elected to public office before.

The size of the victory margin however does not disguise the fact a section of the French electorate felt disenchantment. Pollsters said between 25%-26% of voters stayed away, meaning turnout at its lowest level for the second round of a French Presidential election since 1969. Among those who did vote, some 12% submitted a blank or other invalid ballot, indicating they did not support either candidate.

Yet the far-right can also take some comfort in its best electoral showing in French history. Although Le Pen fell well short of the presidency, her score is roughly double what her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, got in the second round in 2002. No doubt the anti-immigration, anti-EU Front National’s supporters will claim that on the back of this performance, the party has a central place as an opposition force in France.

Not too much comfort, however. This win also marks the third consecutive setback for European populist parties who preached a mix of Trump-style nationalism and protectionism to voters fed up with conventional politics. Austria saw pro-European Green Alexander Van der Bellen defeat far-right Norbert Hofer in the country’s Presidental election. To the Netherlands, which saw sitting Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) see off far-right Party for Freedom (PVV). France today ultimately decided to opt for politics of hope over hate.

Of course, there are challenges on the horizon. The next test for Macron and Le Pen — as well as the mainstream parties who for the first time failed to get a candidate through to the second round of a Presidential election — is next month’s Parliamentary election. Its outcome will determine whether Macron can translate his strong mandate into enough seats in the National Assembly, and a governing mandate to run France. Macron will have to remember that some of his voters today came from other parties across the political spectrum and turned out not in complete support of his programme, but to stop the Front National.

To win next month’s Parliamentary elections, Macron will have to defy political tradition once more. His own political movement, En Marche, was formed just last year and this will be the first time it has fielded Parliamentary candidates. And, even if Macron wins enough seats in Parliament to lead the government, he will face resistance from unions, a hostile left, and the far-right to his proposed economic reforms.

Challenges and battles lie ahead. Yet tomorrow will seem a little brighter after this result. The far-right once more could not achieve their objectives. Across Europe, the far-right, with its policies of fear and division, did not prevail.

And it will not prevail.

Conservatives and European Convention on Human Rights… Again

Whenever the Conservatives are not falling out over Europe in the form of the European Union, they are falling out over human rights. Merge these two traditional battlegrounds together, and you are left with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). And after the Prime Minster’s sudden announcement of a snap General Election, it should come as no surprise that the ongoing ECHR issue will inevitably feature in some form.

Yes, the Conservatives have a habit of expressing their desire to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998, the legislation which enshrines the Convention into domestic law. They also have a fondness for expressing their deep-rooted hope to see the creation of a British Bill of Rights in place of the 1998 Act. The more daring and extreme will speak too of the UK withdrawing from the European Convention itself.

I have written about all this before, but this once again is of topical relevance since the announcement we shall return to the polls on the 8th June.

Since becoming Prime Minister – back when she kept vowing she would never call an early election – it was reported Mrs May planned to fight the 2020 General Election on a platform of leaving the ECHR. Apparently, the Prime Minister sought to “lift and shift” rights protections so people in the UK could only seek rights protections in UK courts, not the ECtHR.

It was also reported Mrs May “has decided that she cannot start that fight with the prospect of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union set to dominate Parliament over the next few years.” Therefore, Conservative plans to replace the 1998 Act with a British Bill of Rights were seemingly put on hold, albeit temporarily, because of the Brexit result. And recall that during her leadership bid, Mrs May said pulling out of the ECHR was not something she could pursue in this Parliamentary mandate because of the Conservative’s slim majority.

So the question becomes this: if Mrs May intended to fight the 2020 General Election on a manifesto pledge to see the withdrawal of the UK from the ECHR, might it feature now, during this snap campaign? Moreover, if Mrs May is calling this early election on the basis of her slim majority and the need for a greater mandate, should she acquire a comfortable majority, would she venture forth and take the UK out of the ECHR?

It would appear I am not the only one querying what might unfold. Theresa May has apparently been urged to commit to staying in the ECHR in the next Parliamentary term, dude to concerns she could try to get a mandate at the election for taking the UK out of the treaty after Brexit. And this comes from within her own party, as some in the liberal wing of the party (yes, such a wing apparently exists in the Conservative party) are worried that Mrs May will be tempted to include leaving the convention in her election manifesto.

After all, her predecessor David Cameron at the last election submitted plans for a British Bill of Rights to restore some sovereignty over human rights whilst remaining within the ECHR. Thus Mrs May now finds herself having to decide whether to proceed with those plans after Brexit, or go even further and withdraw the UK . This was advocated last year by Nick Timothy, her co-chief of staff – who just happens to be heavily involved in drafting the Conservative’s manifesto.

I wrote only a few months ago:

Yet, it was suggested the drafting and implementation of a British Bill of Rights is now unlikely to happen at all due to concerns that Mrs May would face a rebellion by Conservative MPs. And as previously outlined, all it would take is a small band of backbench Conservative rebels to cause trouble, given Mrs May’s slim majority in the Commons.

Of course, the Prime Minister could call for a snap election in an attempt to boost her majority. Whilst this is unlikely, it is not completely so: British Labour is struggling in the polls, and as the UK Supreme Court recently ruled the UK Parliament must be granted a vote on Art 50, Mrs May might think it better to increase her majority now for an easier life in the long run.

At this point, after so many ups and downs in politics and a never-ending stream of elections, I will say this: never say never. I would not be surprised if Mrs May, intent on pursuing a hard Brexit, might go further and not only oversee the UK withdrawing from the EU, but perhaps the ECHR as well.

From snap press conference, to snap General Election.

And so it came to pass, the Tuesday after Easter weekend, that the British Prime Minister did announce her intention to call an early General Election.

What started out as a sudden announcement of a press conference outside Downing Street quickly descended into rampant speculation. Had Queen died? Is Theresa May resigning? Are we going to war with North Korea? Had Theresa May set off Trident? Is Jeremy Corbyn going to organise an Official Opposition? (Then again, maybe not. I did say it was all mere speculation.) And then, because Northern Ireland is that political thorn in the side of the British government these days (we still do not have an Executive, just so you know) there was some murmurings that perhaps the Prime Minister was about to deliver a statement on the political impasse here, and potentially announce the introduction of direct rule.

I thought the chat about the Prime Minister announcing a resignation on health grounds was unlikely. And, I also considered that despite some questionable decisions since last summer, Theresa May was unlikely to have accidently fired Trident. Firing metaphorical shots about Gibraltar is where it stops with this Prime Minister.

On the speculation about the suspension of Stormont, well, I did not think it to be entirely impossible. The British government is keen for resolution here; it has to present a united front of sorts during the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Moreover, no British government has ever enjoyed dealing with the political crises Northern Ireland throws up. However, I ruled this out because any announcement on Northern Ireland, whether to impose direct rule or call yet another snap election, would surely come from the Secretary of State. James Brokenshire has taken the lead on Northern Ireland since the Executive’s collapse over the RHI controversy in early January. Theresa May has taken a back seat, especially over the recent negotiations and their subsequent collapse and re-formation. James Brokenshire had said he would come to a decision after the Easter weekend, and the political parties do seem to be stuck in stalemate. But I doubted the Prime Minister would summon the UK-wide media to a sudden press conference just for Northern Ireland.

That left speculation over an early General Election. This seemed possible to me, with Labour polling in dire straits, with the Conservatives polling strongly in marked contrast. And after all, Theresa May needs a mandate, and urgently. She found herself anointed as Conservative Party leader and thus Prime Minister last summer; she was never elected to be Prime Minister. Attempting to oversee the most divisive operation in Brexit, she needs to say she has the support of the people – at least, the support of the majority of those who vote. Moreover, she does not wish to be simply the Prime Minister who heralded Brexit. As we have seen with her stance on education, particularly around grammar schools, there is a whole domestic policy agenda she wishes to pursue.

The scene is set. The Prime Minister settles down at her podium, ten minutes before she was expected. Truly, we all should have picked up the theme was ‘early’ from that alone.

And so she duly announced she had spoken with her Cabinet, and all had agreed an early election was the most suitable course. It shall be held on the 8th June, and essentially contested on Brexit.

In her statement, May said her government was trying to deliver on last year’s referendum result by making sure Britain regained control and struck new trade deals.

“After the country voted to leave the EU, Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership. Since I became prime minister the government has delivered precisely that,” she said, but claimed that other political parties had opposed her efforts.

“The country is coming together but Westminster is not. Labour have threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach. The Lib Dems have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill. Unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”

Now, Theresa May has been quite clear in the past about wanting the next general election to be in 2020, so she stunned many in Westminster by announcing that it would actually be held this year.  The Prime Minister claimed she had changed her mind “reluctantly”, although the spate of polls putting the Tories as much as 21 points ahead of Labour may have made it easier. You know, 21 points ahead means 21 points ahead. And all this, despite a recent policy blitz by Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. Evidently, the Prime Minister was tempted to capitalise on the poor ratings in an effort to boost her slim working majority in order to pass both Brexit and domestic legislation. (This, of course, will render her current reliance on the support of the DUP in the Commons null and void…)

The Prime Minister will first have to win a vote by MPs today to hold an early election thanks to the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, she cannot call an election directly, but must laydown a motion in the House of Commons. This will require two-thirds of MPs to back it. The Commons vote will follow a 90-minute debate on Wednesday, after Prime Minister’s Questions and any urgent questions or ministerial statements.

That shouldn’t be too hard for her to win given that Labour has welcomed the move, while the SNP and Liberal Democrats would find it hard to vote against it as they would be effectively voting to keep the Tories in power.

Currently, the Commons composition looks like this: the Conservatives have 330 MPs, giving the party its working majority of 16. Labour has 229, the SNP 54, and the Lib Dems 8. The DUP hold 8, Sinn Féin 4, the SDLP 3, and the UUP 2, with one Independent. Plaid Cymru have 3 seats, the Greens 1, and there are four other independents. (Note that UKIP recently lost their only MP, when Douglas Carswell announced his resignation from the party. If he votes with his old party, the Conservatives, he gives the government a majority of 17.) Based on current polling, Labour could lose around 70 seats.

The Conservative leader said the vote would give “certainty and stability” to the country for the Brexit process. As nothing promises stability and certainty quite like an early General Election on the most divisive issue of our times in Brexit.

Moreover, Theresa May might have hurt her public image slightly by calling this election. After vowing for months that she would not seek a snap election, insisting she would see the government through to the next statutory General Election in 2020, she now appears to have gone back on her word for the sake of her party, and party seats. The Independent has rather helpfully complied a list of her statements on the issue of an early election. It is worth highlighting that the most recent comment on the issue came just under a month ago.

This will be the second General Election in as many years, and the third UK-wide vote in two years. But spare a thought for my fellow citizens in Northern Ireland. We have had two Assembly elections in less than a year, and now have to return to the polls in a few months. And it gets better: if there is no agreement reached between the main political parties, we face the prospect of a third Assembly election in a few months, too.

Of course, one could argue that the decision of the Cabinet to support the Prime Minister in calling for an early General Election, during a time of political instability in Northern Ireland, is evidence of their (dis)regard for the peace process here. One could argue this. But as for myself, I’m digging around for my canvassing shoes. It is going to be a long few weeks.

A month away, and look what happens.

Hello all,

Rest assured that despite representations to the contrary, I am in fact still alive and active on this blog. It appears that real life i.e. work, and postgraduate studies, have taken over for a period of time.

But Leah, I hear you cry. There was a snap election in Northern Ireland. There is ongoing political stalemate and negotiations in your part of the world. Where have you been?

Forsooth, I wish I had covered the Assembly election from 2nd March. I was, however, an active canvasser for my political party – which really can take it out of a girl. However, I will have some posts about the election and the continuing aftermath uploaded in due course.

It really has been a case of Too Much News and political shenanigans. It can be rather hard to keep up on a daily basis. I shall endeavour to keep an eye on things, and report back here when I can.

Until then, I have two MA assignments to work on, and a human rights working group to participate in. There is never any rest for the wicked, of this I do swear.

And anyway, when all else fails, Theresa May will call an early General Election. What ever happened to UK politics? Remember the days when the most startling news was the revelation that Ed Miliband couldn’t eat a sandwich, and David Cameron left his daughter at a pub on a family holiday? What a difference a year – and a divisive referendum on EU membership – makes.

Mr Osborne goes to London… Evening Standard.

George Osborne’s career looked finished after the overall vote for Brexit, and after he was unceremoniously ousted from Cabinet by the newly-crowned Prime Minister, Theresa May. The final nail in the coffin, it was thought, was when it emerged that his parliamentary seat of Tatton would be abolished in the boundary review. It seemed as though the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, having lost the Brexit gamble, had lost his political gravitas.

But then again, maybe not. For Mr Osborne has now found himself a safe seat – the Editor’s chair at the London Evening Standard.

Mr Osborne is expected to take up the new role in May, while keeping his seat in Parliament. He will have to balance his time carefully in order to fit in his other jobs: advising the investment manager Blackrock, chairing the Northern Powerhouse project, working as a Kissinger fellow at the McCain Institute and his speaking on the after-dinner circuit. His bulging portfolio has led to calls for him to stand down as MP for Tatton.

Yet Mr Osborne believes he can manage both jobs as ‘this paper is edited primarily in the morning’, while ‘Parliament votes in the afternoon’. This is rather ambitious: surely an editor needs to be an active presence in the evening, to confirm the final version before print? Extraordinary time management indeed.

Then again, one can afford such management. It has been suggested that since his fall from Cabinet grace, Mr Osborne has garnered more than £700,000 from public speaking; secured a £650,000 stipend for four days’ work a month from BlackRock; been granted a £120,000 fellowship at the McCain Institute; and can now expect to take home more than £220,000 for a four-day week at the Standard. That’s on top of his £75,000 salary as an MP.

Needless to say, the announcement of the selection of Mr Osborne caused such a furore, because MPs who undertake second jobs will now fear Mr Osborne’s dealings will lead to a crackdown on outside earnings that, in turn, will cost them money. Already it has been suggested that this will trigger an official review by the UK’s chief standards watchdog, the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

And so cue the argument for Mr Osborne to step down from his position as a MP immediately. This is not just on the basis of money, but also on the basis of the conflict of interest argument.

Claims of a conflict of interest between his membership of the third and fourth estates -and between his City and newspaper roles – are loud. It has to be said: how can Mr Osborne edit a newspaper, de facto positioning it along a political axis, whilst undertaking advisory work at BlackRock? How will he juggle engaging in private MP meetings, and overseeing political columns?

The former Chancellor’s break into journalism will give him considerably more influence than he would have as just a humble backbencher. Might it just offer him a means to exacting revenge on his political rivals?

It was noticeable that Number Ten was not in the loop over the former Chancellor’s work. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman was rendered speechless when the news was broken to him in his regular morning briefing.

Mr Osborne himself has made clear he would not be above giving his own government a hard time:

“We will judge what the government, London’s politicians and the political parties do against this simple test: is it good for our readers and good for London? If it is, we’ll support them. If it isn’t, we’ll be quick to say so.”

It might be argued that by taking on the position of editor of a newspaper with an estimated circulation of one million in the City of London, Mr Osborne might just be able to wield some political influence, namely through the political position adopted by the paper.

The main issue is that of Brexit: the former Chancellor was firmly on board with former Prime Minister David Cameron in campaigning for Remain. The current government is tasked with acquiring and implementing Brexit, but seems keen to go a step further than merely withdrawing from the EU – exit from the Single Market has been voiced. Mrs May has been adamant in her stance that there will not be an ongoing briefing to Parliament during negotiations – probably to prevent any criticism at home from weakening her position. Nevertheless, the media will still cover the negotiations to the best of their ability – the coverage – and angle – offered by the Standard during this time will be interesting.

Moreover, whilst Mr Osborne will no doubt be careful not to attack Mrs May personally, he could just use the paper to campaign for policies that will put him on a collision course with her instincts for more state invention on economics and immigration, on the basis that these are issues particularly important for London.

But any potential power of this position should not be overestimated. It should be remembered that the Standard’s current track record of persuasion is not exactly impressive. The Standard did come out in favour of Remain (check out that not-exactly-complementary reference to George Osborne) during the EU referendum last year, and London as a whole did vote Remain. However, on the basis of party politics: the Standard supported the Conservative Party in the general election of 2015, but it was the Labour Party who dominated. Moreover, the Standard supported Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith in the 2016 London Mayoral election (who had announced his support for the UK to leave the EU) – Labour candidate Sadiq Khan was the victor.

Spare a thought during all of this for the constituents of Tatton. How must they feel, knowing their MP has multiple jobs and has declared himself a ‘Londoner’? As the MP for Tatton, Mr Osborne has duties in the North of England which do not align with his new-found duties as a newspaper editor in the South.

No doubt there will be more coverage of this story, and further developments. It is something to note though that on the same week the Prime Minister publicly reversed her Chancellor’s announcement on his policy of NI and the self employed – to his embarrassment, surely – the former Chancellor has proven he is quite content with life outside of the Cabinet circle – and that he hasn’t gone away.