Professor Robert Hazell is Director of the Constitution Unit at University College London and will today be giving evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee.
The Conservatives’ agenda for constitutional reform will require difficult decisions in their first weeks in government. The timing of their decisions provide early tests of their sincerity and their capacity to govern. David Cameron’s plans are much bigger than perhaps even he realises, in spite of his bold pledge to repair our ‘broken politics.’
No one has pulled the Conservatives’ constitutional agenda together and viewed the elements as a whole before, as the Constitution Unit has just done in this major report. We have worked very hard on how their plans might be implemented, talking to all the main policy experts, and our report brings out how early in the life of the new government they would need to make some difficult and important decisions.
Some policies are better thought through than others. And which policies get implemented depends crucially on which Ministers are put in charge: how committed they are to the policy, and how competent. We will learn a lot about a new Conservative government simply by seeing who is put in charge of what: and what Cabinet committees they establish to oversee the process.
First signs that Cameron means business as Prime Minister would include:
- Reducing the shadow cabinet of 30 to a real Cabinet of 20;
- Merging the three territorial Secretaries of State, for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into one, now that justice powers look like being transferred to Stormont;
- Reducing the number of Ministers, to match their commitment to reduce the size of the House of Commons by 10 per cent;
- Restoring collective Cabinet government with a strengthened Ministerial Code and new Cabinet Manual;
- Implementing in full the Wright Report on Reform of the House of Commons, to reduce government control of the parliamentary timetable and of Select Committees, if Labour hasn’t done so first.
A Cabinet Committee will be needed for early and difficult decisions on how to reduce the Commons by 10 per cent, which the Conservatives want to do in time for the next election. This will mean abolishing the usual local inquiries into boundary changes, and abandoning the Conservative target of equal sized constituencies if the exercise is to be completed in time.
Other difficult decisions where there are trade offs between competing policy objectives include:
- The British bill of rights, where the Conservatives risk alienating lawyers and the judges if they try to reduce the UK’s obligations under the ECHR;
- Civil service reforms, where the Conservatives support a Civil Service Act to buttress civil service independence, but risk alienating senior civil servants by introducing fixed term contracts and Whitehall boards with power to recommend removal of Permanent Secretaries;
- More direct democracy through referendums, where the Conservatives want binding referendums for local government, which would override elected councils, but advisory petitions for central government, putting items on the parliamentary agenda;
- The EU Treaties (Referendums) Bill and Sovereignty Bill, where the Conservatives want to bang the stable door, but without too much legal effect;
- The referendum on primary legislative powers for the Welsh Assembly, which plays strongly to Conservative principles of decentralisation, but is opposed by a lot of Conservative MPs at Westminster;
- Publishing all government expenditure over £25k on line, which may cost more to set up than it is likely to save.
Our timetable shows that as Prime Minister, David Cameron would have to make the first moves in this agenda – plans for a Welsh referendum – just as his Chancellor was completing his planned emergency Budget. This would be followed immediately by a potentially explosive White Paper on reducing the size of the House of Commons within the period of a Parliament of average length.
If he is serious about delivering this agenda, Cameron would be going against the grain of Conservative tradition and could become marked out as the most significant Tory reformer in this area since Disraeli.