General election called: What now for Parliament? - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 36 transcript

24 May 2024
©Rishi Sunak/Twitter
©Rishi Sunak/Twitter

This week, we dive into the unexpected political shake-up in Westminster, where Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a general election has thrown Parliament into turmoil. The Prime Minister’s surprising move to hold the election in early July, rather than waiting until Autumn, has sent shockwaves through the political landscape.

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00:00:02:07 - 00:00:16:15 You're listening to Parliament Matters, a Hansard Society production, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn more at 00:00:16:17 - 00:00:39:22 Welcome to Parliament Matters, the podcast about the institution at the heart of our democracy, Parliament itself. I'm Ruth Fox and I'm Mark Darcy. Coming up, Sunak's summer surprise brings the parliament elected in 2019 to an abrupt end. There's a spasm of speed legislating as MPs rushed through as much of the outstanding legislation as they can in just two days. 00:00:39:24 - 00:00:52:06 And both parties want more devolution, more mayors, but how will Parliament keep track of the billions they spend? 00:00:54:17 - 00:01:21:12 But first, Ruth, an asteroid struck planet Westminster this week, Rishi Sunak's almost completely unexpected decision to call an election caught most MPs, most journalists, most commentators, most podcasters, most podcasters, it’s a fair cop, society’s to blame. But here we are suddenly, with a general election and an awful lot of very surprised MPs having to make very rapid decisions about their future.

Quite a number. We're perhaps teetering on the cusp. Will I stay or will I go? Will I try and be in the next Parliament, or will I depart gracefully before the next general election? Have had to come to a very, very swift decision indeed. Names like Jo Churchill, Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, Dame Eleanor Laing or the Senior Deputy Speaker, has decided to stand down, which is a little bit of a surprise because she seemed almost in pole position, perhaps, to be the next conservative speaker of the House. 00:01:47:10 - 00:02:06:09 But after 27 years in Parliament, I think she's now had enough and announced to her constituency that she's going. Another name that's just dropped in the last few minutes, just before we started recording this, Huw Merriman, former chair of the Transport Select Committee, now a transport minister, suddenly announced that he's not going to be standing at this election. 00:02:06:09 - 00:02:32:13 And he's been an MP for, I think, nine years. He's he's not one of the old lags who's been around forever, but he's decided to move on and do other things. And I think there'll be many more decisions of that kind to come on all sides. So a couple of Labour MPs, Yvonne Fovargue, for example, has decided to stand down from her Makerfield seat, which I think she's been in since 2010, and Holly Lynch, shadow deputy chief whip on the Labour side, is also standing down for family reasons. 00:02:32:13 - 00:02:51:11 So I think we'll see over the next couple of days more of some more announcements. They're going to have to make, as you say, the decisions pretty quickly because basically two weeks time close of nominations, all the parties will have to have their candidates signed, sealed and delivered and in with the electoral returning officers. So there's not a lot of time for members to contemplate what they're going to do. 00:02:51:13 - 00:03:10:19 And of course, you know, for those MPs who already made the decision to stand down, some of them were perhaps hoping for a slightly more dignified departure and an opportunity to, you know, make a valedictory speech or finish off some work that they'd been sort of campaigning on. And it's kind of been ripped away. Yeah. No long goodbyes for them. 00:03:10:19 - 00:03:46:17 And some MPs may have discovered, to the horror, that they've already made their final contribution in Parliament and may never get to speak again. And normally it's a much gentler exercise in which, you know, you get a chance to shake hands with the speaker, and a clutch of MPs will go and see the commission that formally prorogue Parliament at the end of a parliament, a sort of weird ritual in the House of Lords, with lots of people in robes doffing cocked hats at various points during a generation in sort of pretend medieval English and all sorts of things like that, or possibly not now happen for them, and instead it'll just be a rather rapid 00:03:46:17 - 00:04:06:15 exercise in packing up the office and never darkening the doors again. Yeah, and of course, we're talking on Thursday, the day after the election has been called. This podcast will be out this episode on Friday morning and Friday was supposed to be, you know, finishing up for a week for the Whitsun recess. MPs had got holidays booked. They’ve got family plans. 00:04:06:15 - 00:04:27:10 Yes, some of them, a lot of them would have been campaigning in the constituency. But I mean, taking a few days break over the bank holiday rather splendidly. Steve Baker, a conservative minister, announced that he was going to have his holiday anyway. But of course, you and I were in the Palace of Westminster yesterday afternoon when the news broke talking to Patrick Grady, the SNP MP who is himself departing. 00:04:27:12 - 00:04:47:19 We were talking to him for a future episode. More about that in the coming weeks. And meeting MPs and in and around the corridors of Westminster was that there was a fair amount sort of quite stunned, frankly. Yeah. I think an awful lot of people struggle to fathom the political reasons, the electoral strategy, if any, behind Rishi Sunak's decision to call an election. 00:04:47:19 - 00:05:06:22 Well, I mean, that's something we'll probably leave to other podcasts more equipped for the grand political strategy of these things. But certainly there are a lot of conservative MPs I saw, and having the kind of expressions you associate with those movies of French aristocrats being taken in carts towards the guillotine. They were not looking at all happy. Now the polls might change. 00:05:06:24 - 00:05:32:04 It's early days, the very beginning of an election campaign. But, this ludicrous story that started floating round, that there was going to be a last minute leadership challenge to remove Rishi Sunak and kind of undo the decision to call an election. Yeah, it's not going well. It never looks awfully likely to happen. I think it has its roots in the angst of that particular group of MPs who really couldn't fathom what was there, and felt it might spell the end for them. 00:05:32:04 - 00:05:51:06 Perhaps it shows the brutality of of politics, of parliamentary life, and of course, the other people. To remember all of this is the stuff. Oh, definitely know the MPs are leaving bit sooner than perhaps they anticipated. Got to pack up, as you say, their offices in just a few days. And there's a quite a number of MPs will be realizing that they are standing again. 00:05:51:08 - 00:06:17:23 For example, Jeremy Hunt was a name that was mooted as possibly standing down, but he's indicated now he's going to put his name forward again. Quite a number of them may well indeed lose their seats and that their staff will also go. So it's pretty brutal for everybody involved. Absolutely. It's always worth remembering that the staff are kind of personal to the individual MP, so that even if you're standing down as an MP, you can't just pass on your staff to the successor from the same party should they hold the seat. 00:06:18:00 - 00:06:38:23 And of course, if you lose, your staff are suddenly out of a job as well. And it's entirely possible there might be a bit of a glut in the market for conservative parliamentary staffers after this. And so it's a pretty unpleasant situation, not just for the members of Parliament to be in, but for those who've underpinned all their work, possibly for many, many years. 00:06:39:00 - 00:06:56:17 And of course, the flip side of this is that there’s quite a number of people who've not yet found a seat, including the Conservative Party chair, Richard Holden, looking scrambling to find a seat in the next few days. Quite a number of sort of people in and around Westminster who've been on the trail of selection and not yet been able to secure a seat. 00:06:56:17 - 00:07:22:18 They'll be trying to pin one of these remaining candidacies down, and it looks like there's about 100 on each side. Yeah. And the other numbers will change very rapidly in all this. But the key point to remember is that the party bureaucracies will be taking charge of accelerated selection processes. Now, there won't be the sort of stately process that you'd normally expect, in which a party would take several months to decide who was going to be its candidate at the next election. 00:07:22:20 - 00:07:47:23 This will all be done with this approved list of candidates that the party headquarters is trying to crowbar in. Somewhere, anywhere and in they will go. And of course, there are also some MPs that it not be forgotten whose status is a bit ambiguous at the moment. For example, a big decision awaiting the Labour Party's what they do with Diane Abbott, who is suspended from the Labour whip at the moment and cannot run as a Labour candidate if the whip is not restored. 00:07:48:00 - 00:08:05:02 The trouble with that is that Diane Abbott is, of course, a very close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, who's already made it clear he's going to run as an independent candidate in his Islington North seat, having lost the Labour whip and Keir Starmer having said quite clearly that he's not going to be ever again like the candidate. She would be in a very awkward position. 00:08:05:02 - 00:08:27:18 If she was a Labour candidate, might have to take a somewhat uncharacteristic vow of silence to get the Labour whip back. Whether she's prepared to do that or not, we really don't know. But perhaps the most consequential announcement of her candidacy or non candidacy so far, Ruth, comes from someone who's not actually an MP at the moment, but whose announcement may do more to shape the election campaign than anybody else's. 00:08:27:18 - 00:08:54:21 And that, of course, is Nigel Farage. The expectation was that he was cranking up to be a candidate for the Reform Party, but limited company he owns, incidentally. So the idea was he'd assume the leadership leader campaign take huge chunks out of the conservative vote. But he's decided he's not going to run for Parliament this time around. And that may mean, I suppose, that Nigel Farage never actually becomes a member of parliament in the House of Commons at all. 00:08:54:23 - 00:09:18:12 He is 60 now. In four years time, in five years time, he'd be 64. Would be looking at being an MP even to his 70s. So maybe that attraction isn't there. But the political significance of this is it does help the Conservatives a bit on their right flank because the current leader, Richard Tice, is no where near as potent a campaigner as Nigel Farage, or at least so far has not shown himself to be. 00:09:18:13 - 00:09:41:11 Who knows, he may surprise everybody, but at the moment the conservatives, I think, will be breathing a sigh of relief that Nigel is going to take his efforts over to American politics after a little bit of campaigning here. Well, we suspected that might be the case, didn't we, when we talked about it a few weeks ago after the local elections, that we thought he might prefer life on the campaign trail with Donald Trump, rather than life on the more parochial campaign trail in England. 00:09:41:13 - 00:10:08:19 But yeah, the argument, of course, is that, this is one of the reasons perhaps Rishi Sunak has decided to go for the election, because not only has he caught all of us on the hop, he’s caught Reform and Nigel Farage on the hop. That it seemed to be some sort of chatter that he was actually gearing up to be a candidate, probably in Clacton, one of the most, sort of Ukip seats, if you like, once held indeed by Ukip, the shape of Douglas Carswell, who won a by election when he seeks being a conservative. 00:10:08:21 - 00:10:30:21 But that is not now going to happen. One of the great what ifs of this election has already kind of crystallized. Yeah. And there's also take a look at what's going on in Parliament now, the election announcements been made that the kind of original business has been largely scrapped, and they're concentrating on whizzing through as much legislation as can be done in 48 hours flat.

It's what's known in the trade as the wash up. Yeah. So, they're basically expediting, as you say, you know, rapidly pushing through as much legislation as they can. The government's got 16 bills, two hybrid bills, sort of infrastructure bills, HS2 being one of them. And of course, there's a whole host of private member's bills to make a decision about. 00:10:50:10 - 00:11:21:18 Now we're talking on a Thursday afternoon, so there's still a day ahead of parliamentary business. So things could change. But it looks like as we speak, the government's going to pursue five government bills and four private member's bills. It's going to get through. So it's quite low compared to all the other warships. That constant splashing sound you can hear in the background is the sound of all the other legislation being dropped systematically overboard by the government business managers, and that there's quite a quite a considerable number of really significant bills going over the side. 00:11:21:20 - 00:11:39:08 Yeah. Well, if we look at what they are getting, we think it's a royal assent. Obviously the finance bill is a critical one because that deals with all the tax measures and so on. After the budget. And House of Commons has already given prior agreement to it, after the budget in the post budget resolutions. So that will go through. 00:11:39:10 - 00:11:56:21 We then think that the post Office Horizon System's offenses bill essentially deals with a compensation for the postmasters that will go straight because there's cross-party agreement. Victims and prisoners Bill looks like that. That's going to go through oh, that's the infected blood compensation scheme in that one. So that's a very significant measure for an awful lot of people. 00:11:56:21 - 00:12:17:07 Yeah. And Diana Johnson, the MP, Labour MP who's been campaigning on that is obviously in putting the pressure on over the last 24 hours to make sure that gets through. The media bill is being debated in the Lords as we speak, and we're not sure to what extent it will be gutted. But clearly, from what the peers are saying in that debate, there's clearly a degree of unhappiness about some of the provisions. 00:12:17:09 - 00:12:33:21 So I doubt that that will come out unscathed. It looks like it'll hit the statute book, but I suspect it'll be gutted. And the other one is the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, which similarly, we don't know at this stage whether it will be as it was yesterday, you know, it'll it'll survive intact or whether it'll be gutted. 00:12:33:23 - 00:12:55:06 But some form of that bill looks like it's it's going to get royal assent by the end of tomorrow. And then we've got a series of private member's bills. And the point to make about the way the wash up works is you can only ram something through Parliament in a very little time that's remaining if you have the consent of everybody, certainly the other parties. 00:12:55:06 - 00:13:11:13 But also you don't even want to have a few awkward squad MPs get up and say, we're not putting up with this bill. Yeah. So anything controversial in a bill and some of these are quite big measures gets dropped just so that the rest of it can get through. Yeah. And it gives the opposition parties an enormous amount of leverage. 00:13:11:13 - 00:13:28:18 It's one of those rare occasions when the opposition really does have the whip hand in things, because they can say, if you insist on having this clause in that bill, we're not letting it through and the government can't do anything about it. Yeah, it's sort of talked about as a sort of modern legislative equivalent of the smoke filled room doing the backroom deals. 00:13:28:20 - 00:13:44:14 And it is, of course, backroom deals, because there isn't time for it to be out in the light of the chamber, if you like. So the government has got to indicate what bills it would like to get through in the wash up. And then there's a negotiation with the opposition business managers, the whips, known as the usual channels as to what they're prepared to wear. 00:13:44:14 - 00:14:05:24 And obviously there'll be then some discussion with peers in particular, about which amendments they want to try and get through and what they're prepared to drop. An interesting one that sort of we're hearing and some media speculation around a bill that looks like it's it's being dropped is the smoking bill, tobacco and vapes bill that does not appear to be proceeding and rumours are that 00:14:06:03 - 00:14:26:10 The government never put it forward to the Labour Party, that they wanted that to be pursued and to be offered up in the in the wash up and Labour inside is apparently a bit confused about this because they would have in principle supported it. but some conservative MPs might not have supported it, and indeed some conservative awkward squaddies might have got up and made it very difficult to get it through, I suppose. 00:14:26:12 - 00:14:43:07 I mean, this was a bill that was more divisive amongst the conservatives, and it was for Labour. But Rishi Sunak mentioned it in his speech, triggering the election. So it's a it's a strange, strange one. It's a strange one. I think he did have it in mind as a sort of legacy piece of legislation for himself, but it doesn't look like he's going to get it that way. 00:14:43:09 - 00:14:59:20 I'd be quite an interesting trick for Labour to try and bring it back if they're in government. and see how many conservative MPs would then be prepared to vote for it. If it was a Labour government's bill. That's a fun one. And you mentioned private member's bills. Some private member's bills are going to survive this process and possibly get through. 00:14:59:20 - 00:15:20:03 They're normally the ones that are slightly later stage, but the one that we featured in this podcast, a few weeks back, Wayne David’s SLAPPs Bill against strategic litigation against public participation, the use of lawyers to sort of squash critics in the press or the public sphere. That bill had more or less got through the Commons. It was fourth in the ballot. 00:15:20:04 - 00:15:37:23 It attracted a lot of media attention. It doesn't make the cut this time. That I think will be a great disappointment to Wayne David as he prepares to retire from the Commons. Absolutely. I mean, there is a convention. It's a wash up that private member's bills that haven't reached report stage or third reading don't generally get proffered up for the wash up. 00:15:37:23 - 00:15:54:15 So that may be the reason why, if you look at the bills that are getting through. So Chris O'Malley's provisions for paternity leave, Julie Elliot’s changes around building societies funding, I mean, they were first and second in the ballot for for private member's bills. So they were right at the top of the queue and will have made more progress. 00:15:54:15 - 00:16:23:24 So I think more surprising is that a bill that came 16th in the ballots, Gavin Robinson from the DUP's proposals for eligibility for British nationality by Irish citizens, if they've lived here in the UK for for five years or more, that came low down in the ballot, but that is going to make it through and worth looking also at some of the things that aren't going to make the cut in terms of government bills, the renters reform bill, which is, you know, very major, an important piece of legislation, the offshore petroleum licensing bill. 00:16:23:24 - 00:16:44:15 Spoke about this on the pod. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. This this is the bill that caused, former green tsar Chris Skidmore to resign his seat and leave Parliament altogether. And the government lost the ensuing byelection in Bristol. That one's not been pushed through either. So you have much ado there. And no actual legislative result. And so the list goes on. 00:16:44:15 - 00:17:08:00 One to watch out for, football governance, an area obviously ripe for reform. Tracey Crouch, the former sports minister, and put together a very detailed package on this and legislation was in the process of going through. I bet that's one that future government will pick up, whether it's Labour or Conservative, because it's a very, very popular cause. Yeah. And they've also started to establish the regulator that this is required with this legislation. 00:17:08:00 - 00:17:25:03 So, those that are going to need some covers, legislative cover for it, but for the perspective of English Football League clubs who are desperate for this bill to go through, I think it's pretty worrying. But, you know, if there is to be an incoming Labour government, I think they're pretty clear that they want to to bring this legislation into force. 00:17:25:03 - 00:17:57:03 And because there's already a text out there, it's quite an easy thing for them to make any revisions. They want to it and start it moving again through through the process. It could become law quite easily within the year. Even with a general election causing a brief commercial break in this discussion. Another one to think about. We've talked on the podcast before about the Criminal Justice Bill and the concerns about the provisions in that which would have enabled the political parties to have used personal data more freely for marketing purposes for what was described as democratic engagement. 00:17:57:03 - 00:18:16:18 Well, that is shelved. It looks like the criminal Justice Bill is not going to proceed. Not entirely surprising, given the sheer scale of amendments to the bill that were introduced just a couple of weeks ago. Three government amendments, 183 pages of amendments changes, yeah, some of which are even worse, of which 159 individual amendments were from the government. 00:18:16:18 - 00:18:36:03 So not entirely surprising, pretty contentious. And it looks like that one will be shelved compared to previous wash ups. It's actually quite a big loss. I mean, in 20 1013, government bills got through compared to five this time, but maybe they had more like a week to do it in than this. This time it's, you know, 48 hours. 00:18:36:03 - 00:18:53:23 Yeah. Well it's been very quick afterwards. Wash up has tended to be two, three, four days. So two days is not unusual. But the gap between, you know, the announcement and the wash up may have been longer, but certainly five is a lot lower than any other wash up between 1997 and 2010. So what's the politics at play here?

And in the meantime, it's not just the legislation that's been winnowed out at speed. Select committee land has been put to a bit of trouble by the sudden arrival of a general election. Committees have to either push out their reports very rapidly, or the reports almost cease to exist. Really, because whatever work they've done is inherited by successor committees that get established in the new parliament, who may or may not agree with what was done before, who may want to take new evidence. 00:19:20:21 - 00:19:40:13 Time may have moved on. The personnel may be completely different. Yeah, well, the chair of the Defense committee is Jeremy Quin here. We've talked about quite a lot on the podcast. We've covered the Defense Committee in your constituency. MP he's put out a statement basically saying that they had the committee had five reports that they were planning to publish between now and summer recess at the end of July. 00:19:40:15 - 00:20:02:23 They won't now be able to finish those on subjects like Future of Aviation, Artificial Intelligence and the Service Accommodation Report that we talked about at the beginning of this, this podcast back in the start of the session and that basically going to now be sort of in suspended animation, waiting for the new committee to decide whether or not they want to publish them, whether they want to do further work on them. 00:20:03:00 - 00:20:23:11 Oh, what I mean, it's just a colossal amount of legislative and scrutiny time that is not entirely wasted. Not entirely wasted. But it certainly hasn't come to full fruition. I mean, there may be people who've learned a lot from listening to the various witnesses and exploring issues in great detail and thrashing out exactly what they think about them. 00:20:23:13 - 00:20:46:18 But you don't get a written report that the government has to respond to. And the Defense Committee, I think, will probably be a little bit peeved. Yeah. And they won't be the only one. There'll be other committees who've got similar challenges because they were all, I think, working on the assumption that they would get as many of these inquiries finished and done by summer recess, and the assumption was that that was safe, and they weren't really planning much work beyond that for the autumn. 00:20:46:20 - 00:21:08:23 Another one that we've talked about, the podcast, the Standards Committee's review of the landscape of regulation, the standards landscape. I don't know whether that will get published. Well, another area ripe for reform. But now the has been slammed on, as you say, a lot of committees are going to lose a lot of work because there just isn't time in the hours ticking away now until Parliament's prorogue for anything much to be done. 00:21:09:00 - 00:21:30:24 That, incidentally, raises one mildly interesting question. Well, this is quite how long it's going to take to get select committees up and running after the next election. Theoretically, it's supposed to happen within six weeks of Parliament sitting, but it has in the past taken a great deal longer than that. I would be mildly surprised if the select committees were in operation much before October.

Yeah, well, this brings into play the broader question. I think about, what the timetable for the start of the new parliament is going to look like. So we know that the plan is to summon the new parliament on, I think it's the ninth. So the two days after the general election, everybody's just had a chance to put their feet up over the ensuing week, in fact. 00:21:50:07 - 00:22:12:24 And then the the week after that, the new have got state opening. Yeah. And then after that you'll have a few days of debate on the King's Speech and then. Well, what happens after that? Well, yeah, but the current plan is for Parliament to rise for its summer recess on the 23rd. So that was the plan. But of course, that applies in this Parliament and it's dying and changes may be made. 00:22:12:24 - 00:22:36:07 Yeah. So first of all, then the MPs are summoned, first of all to elect a new speaker. Yeah. Then to take the oath themselves. And then nothing much happens until the state opening of Parliament, the King's speech a week later, which is all the full ceremonial. But we're so used to that, the great British display of pageantry. And then a week or so to debate the new measures of the new government. 00:22:36:09 - 00:23:02:03 And then what do MPs and peers then stay on a bit longer than they thought they were going to, so that the government can start getting some bills through its second reading phase and into committee, because I think a new government is going to want to hit the ground running and demonstrate to the public that it's not just taking its holidays and putting its feet up, but actually really getting to grips with the issues confronting the country. 00:23:02:05 - 00:23:21:21 And that would suggest to me that Labour would like two, three, four bills passed second reading stage in front of committees, maybe other bits of parliamentary action taking place as well, before they finally rise. So you could see Parliament sitting well into August. Yeah. And possibly having a much shorter than usual break. Yeah, I think that's at least a possibility. 00:23:21:23 - 00:23:40:24 And the other factor, of course, is do you really want to be in a situation where new MPs come in. They effectively have three weeks at best, of which, I mean, one is normal parliamentary business time, really. And then they're basically sent off away from Westminster for six weeks and then back again for a couple of weeks in September. 00:23:40:24 - 00:24:03:19 Then they're away again for conference season for three weeks, and you're into the beginning of October before they're really all back and into normal business. That's quite a long time for what it could be a very large turnover. And the parties, in terms of management of MPs and sort of socialization of MPs into the ways and workings of Westminster, I think they'll want possibly a bit more time. 00:24:03:19 - 00:24:28:23 Absolutely. On the principle that's, otherwise the devil may find work for rival hounds, and they may fall into bad influences and bad companionship, and that would never do. So. Yes, I wouldn't think back to the year of the lockdown. You know, the MPs would come in in the 2019 general election, if you remember, just before Christmas 2019 had a sort of intensive sitting between Christmas and the New Year to get various Brexit measures through, and they were just beginning to recover from that. 00:24:28:23 - 00:24:48:17 Then badabim along came Covid 19. And so a lot of these MPs barely found their way to the gents unaided before they were away from Westminster for a very long time indeed, being socialized if they were socialized at all into the ways of Parliament through WhatsApp groups and things like that, over which the whips and the government don't have all that much control. 00:24:48:19 - 00:25:08:21 Yeah. So in terms of select committees, for example, yes, you might sort of go through the sort of six plus weeks to get them up and running. Of course, you got to elect the chairs. You've got to elect the members. One of the factors that's going to come into play is fitness, an overwhelming majority for one of the parties that's easier to do than if it's a tight result where you've got to balance who's getting what committees. 00:25:08:22 - 00:25:30:15 And you know what the balance of membership is going to be on the committees. So it potentially could be easier to do this time than it has been, in previous parliaments, sort of 2010, 2015 and so on. And that point about the devil finding work for idle hands. This is one of the ways to get MPs doing productive work is to have those committees set up at a reasonably early stage, so they can sink their teeth into the work of those committees. 00:25:30:17 - 00:25:50:20 Yeah. The other factor in all of this, though, is it's a huge thing for the for the incoming government. It's got to have its King speech ready for, you know, ten days, barely after the election. But also there's a big NATO summit happening immediately after the election. Fast on the heels of that, there's this sort of European political community conference that's actually being hosted hearing in London. 00:25:50:22 - 00:26:21:06 So the government gonna have some big international, certainly the Prime Minister is going to have some big international distractions that he's going to have to deal with. Let us not forget, though, one, one very important fact about the general election period. While MPs stop being MPs at the moment Parliament is dissolved, ministers, including the Prime Minister, remain as ministers of the Crown until someone else is appointed to take their place, and that means that the business of government has to carry on, but it has to carry on under rather controlled conditions. 00:26:21:08 - 00:26:41:23 You don't want a situation in which a government is possibly going to lose office in a few days. Time is taking big, sweeping, important decisions. It's the process known as purdah, where the civil service just doesn't let ministers do anything too controversial. Well, apparently we now call it the period of sensitivity. Sounds like the era of stagnation, and it, yeah. 00:26:41:24 - 00:27:03:10 The other thing, of course, just remember, we're talking about MPs are no longer MPs. Once Parliament dissolves, peers do remain peers. Peers are for life not just for Christmas. Yeah, but they've got nothing to do. So yes, I mean, there's restrictions on what the government ministers can do in terms of use of official resources. You know, there's got to be appropriate or to avoid inappropriate. 00:27:03:12 - 00:27:19:13 Certainly nothing electoral. No. And obviously it's all built around trying to guard the impartiality of the civil service. I mean, it's one of the reasons why, of course, Rishi Sunak was stood out in the rain when he made his announcement of the election campaign and looked like a drowned right. And everybody's asking what on earth is he doing stood out there? 00:27:19:15 - 00:27:39:04 Well, one of the reasons, of course, is he's got a spanking new press conference waiting in Downing Street, but he can't use it because it's government property and he can't make that for a party announcement. It's a party announcement, not a government announcement at that point. But there have been occasions in recent elections where big, important, controversial things have been going on. 00:27:39:08 - 00:28:02:18 That has to be done in consultation between the sitting government and the opposition that might be taking over. You think back to 2010. There was a financial crisis, a European summit, the then Labour chancellor, Alistair Darling, basically had to act in consultation with his conservative shadow and soon to be successor, George Osborne. Yes, ministers are expected to use discretion, but if decisions have to be made, they have to make them. 00:28:02:18 - 00:28:22:17 It's not that they can't make decisions. They're supposed to avoid making decisions that can be avoided. But if you know decision is deemed to be in the national interest, if a contract or expenditure of money is deemed to be necessary, then they have leeway to do that. And what normally happens is you say, you know, then there's normally consultation with their opposite number. 00:28:22:19 - 00:28:46:23 But of course, I think it was it was George Osborne said in the 2010 election when Alastair Darling had to consult him about attending a European Council. At the end of the day, he's in the room. He's got to make the decisions. But of course, the thing to remember here is that the world doesn't stall because an election has been called in Britain and all sorts of international crises are on the slow boil here, and it's not impossible that one of those might escalate in some way while the election is on. 00:28:47:00 - 00:29:04:21 And the current ministers of the Crown, it's their job to deal with it. Yeah, and the period of sensitivity lasts until the election, assuming that's a clear result. If that isn't a clear result, if we were into a hung parliament situation, as we were in 2010, it lasts until clarity gained about who's going to be the government, who's going to be taking over. 00:29:04:23 - 00:29:25:15 You know, on that note, Ruth, probably time to take a break. Take a break, If you'd like to watch that Theresa May Churchill-Attlee Lecture to the Hansard Society about the state of our democracy, we're offering an online ticket to our Parliament Matters community. Buy a ticket and you can watch the recording online at a time that suits you. 00:29:25:17 - 00:29:48:04 We've got many dedicated listeners to Parliament Matters in the UK and around the world, but podcasts don't come cheap, so we've got bills to pay. Buying an online ticket for a very reasonable sum is a great way to support the podcast and help us keep the work going. Details about how to buy a ticket for the recording are in the show notes, or you can go to our website home page Thanks for your support. We really appreciate it.

Now, one of the features of the local elections earlier this month was the very lively contest for a series of Metro mayoralties around the country. Ben Houchen, the conservative, narrowly held on to the Teesside mayoralty. Andy Street another conservative lost the West Midlands mayoralty, and Labour surprised a lot of people by winning the new North Yorkshire mayoralty, which includes the parliamentary seat of the current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. 00:30:23:01 - 00:30:52:17 But there's an interesting issue around all these powerful local figures, however big their profile is locally wants the scrutiny and arrangement around the billions of pounds of taxpayers money that they will control. What can be done to keep tabs and make sure that there aren't scandals or complaints of abuse of public funds in the future? It seems like a bit of a job for Parliament, but Parliament can't easily keep its finger on the pulse of the increasingly number of Metro mayoralty. 00:30:52:17 - 00:31:12:16 So coming in to talk to us about that is Jack Newman, research fellow at the University of Bristol and one of the authors of a report on local democracy. Jack, first of all, what's your impression of the existing arrangements for scrutinizing these incredibly powerful figures with all this public money at their disposal? Okay. Yeah. Thanks for having me on. 00:31:12:18 - 00:31:37:12 Maybe first I'll take issue with the idea that they're immensely powerful. I think they have some power. And that power is likely to increase in the years to come. So the scrutiny question is going to become more and more important. And at the moment, I'd say that the scrutiny arrangements are unsatisfactory. So the principal mechanism through which they're held to account at the local level is through a scrutiny committee in each mayoral combined authority. 00:31:37:14 - 00:31:56:24 But these are widely acknowledged to be ineffectual. They're made of councilors, many of whom don't have the time, aren’t funded, often they don't attend. These committees lack the kind of powers or funding to really hold the mayor properly to account, and therefore much of the scrutiny of mayors has come from the center, through the Treasury and other controls over their spending. 00:31:57:01 - 00:32:31:19 But this creates a problem, really, because for mayors to really be effectual and mayoral combined authority to really realize their potential, they need flexibility and freedom over their spending. And this means that there's going to need to be a new mechanism holding them to account, other than the current funding restrictions that exist. And one of the things that happens at the moment is that the mayors make individual kind of bespoke deals with central government for particular aspects of their policy, what they're going to do about training, what they're going to do about boosting growth in their region, what they're going to do about infrastructure. 00:32:31:21 - 00:32:52:14 And those are one off issues between the mayor and government ministers. And parliament doesn't get much of a look in the other. Local councils don't necessarily get that much of a look in either. Yeah, they're quite secretive arrangements rarely negotiations really. They happen behind closed doors, so to speak. A lot of the public don't really know they're happening or don't have a say themselves either. 00:32:52:16 - 00:33:13:03 And these tend to be deals struck between the leaders of local councils and members of the government. This is quite unique, really. You look across the world and most systems that have a strong regional tier government that's embedded in their constitution, and these regional institutions have a kind of constitutional footing and a set of responsibilities and rights that are unique to them. 00:33:13:05 - 00:33:33:07 And in England, we've got this emerging system where a number of bespoke deals are being struck between the central and local leaders. And I think what we can see this has really is it's a stepping stone to a stronger regional tier government in this country. What's interesting is whether that journey is going to continue or whether it's going to slow after the next election. 00:33:33:09 - 00:33:59:08 Clearly, one option is greater strengthened scrutiny at the local level. But obviously, given the amount of money and however much a next government is committed to decentralization and devolution and so on, Parliament itself and as an institution is going to want to have some scrutiny over these bodies as well, particularly if they're going to become more powerful, if they're going to have more money, and that if we have a new Labour government, that seems to be the direction of travel. 00:33:59:10 - 00:34:17:23 What Labour's dubbed a taking back control bill as possibly being the first bill out of the box. And, you know, kind of almost 100 days achievement and trying to get that onto the statute book. So what are the options for Parliament? Because, I mean, Michael Gove has been discussing this as the sort of lead minister in the leveling up department. 00:34:18:00 - 00:34:37:06 What are the options? I mean, what's being mooted at the moment is a situation where you basically have a committee of MPs that in many ways mimic the select committees for each of the mayoral combined authority, starting with the most advanced ones in Britain, Manchester in the West Midlands. And these MPs, yeah, they perform the kind of main scrutiny function. 00:34:37:08 - 00:35:02:20 There are a number of problems with this. I mean firstly you've got the question, the fact that MPs are already notoriously busy people who have a role in Parliament, who have a role of their constituents, who have a role within that party. The second one is that there seems to been a history in local and regional government in England, where we look to the center to try and resolve problems at the local level, or we look to the center to keep an eye on what's going on in local government. 00:35:02:22 - 00:35:25:16 And we've had this traditional top down view of accountability, where local and regional politicians are ultimately answerable to Parliament. But they, of course, have their own mandate. They're elected at to local authority elections and increasingly, these mayoral candidates have their own direct mandate through to mayoral elections. So we need to think about other ways in which we can hold these new local leaders to account. 00:35:25:21 - 00:35:50:17 One of those ways is through improving arrangements within mayoral combined authority for better scrutiny committees to get that right. And the other angle is to think about local democracy. When we in a report that I did with Mike Kenny about local governance in England, we compared local turnout between England and comparative countries. England's turnout in local elections is much lower than comparative countries and decreasing. 00:35:50:23 - 00:36:12:00 And then in this new report that you mentioned at the start with the productivity Institute, we look at the local media situation. Local media is decreasing as well across England. So you've got this kind of broken and breaking scrutiny mechanism where the local public should hold local leaders to account. So I think fixing that is the solution, rather than trying to add another burden on MPs. 00:36:12:02 - 00:36:31:02 But it's what the government has suggested so far, almost as sort of a halfway house, because, as I understand it, these MP sessions that are being mooted, the idea is that they actually don't sit in Westminster, that they actually send the MPs off to the regions and hold the sessions there, which brings into play a whole set of questions about how that would work. 00:36:31:08 - 00:36:54:16 Is it a proceeding in Parliament? What are the travel arrangements? Does that mean MPs who've got other business sort of missing votes? How do you make the logistics of it work? Yeah, they're all interesting and important questions that haven't really been properly answered yet. And I think this opens quite a interesting question, because traditionally MPs have been understood to have their role with their constituents and have their role in Parliament. 00:36:54:17 - 00:37:20:16 And through both of these, they have a role within their political party. And this seems to be a whole new dimension to what MPs are expected to do, which is to directly hold local leaders to account in that area. So I think there are all sorts of potentially unforeseen issues to arise with this. And one of the just to raise briefly is if you look at the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies and you look at the boundaries for local authorities, the two do not align or they do in a handful of places. 00:37:20:22 - 00:37:40:09 So you will have all sorts of questions about these overlapping and not quite aligning, which I think will also create issues here as well. One of the issues is its political balance, because in some of these regions, obviously they skew more to one party than the other. And on a normal sort of parliamentary committee, you'd expect political balance that's required under the standing orders. 00:37:40:11 - 00:38:13:04 So is the proposal that only the MPs from that particular region are appointed to these MP sessions for the metro mayoral areas, or would it be MPs from across the country? Yeah, I mean, the idea is that it is the MPs within the area of the Mayoral Combined Authority. But as you say, that raises questions over balance. And I maybe, maybe broaden this out into a bigger question for scrutiny of the mayors, which is the in the British political tradition, we are used to the idea of a governing party and an opposition party. Mayoral combined 00:38:13:04 - 00:38:36:13 Authorities operate very differently. The mayor, one of their main roles is to build consensus among the local authority leaders, and therefore the idea is to reduce opposition, to build consensus. When you add that to the fact that many of these male combined authorities are completely dominated by one party. South Yorkshire, Liverpool, West Yorkshire, for example, all Labour, Greater Manchester, all Labour except one of the seats. 00:38:36:15 - 00:38:56:18 When you combine these two things, a lack of an opposition and the single party dominance, you have this big gap where there should be a scrutiny mechanism. So this is a concern for the proposal about having a committee of MPs, but it's also a concern for other kind of traditional scrutiny arrangement that you might envisage. So this is one of the big challenges that I think we need to face up to. 00:38:56:22 - 00:39:20:06 There's another dimension to this as well, though, isn't there? Which is accountability outward, if you like. What is the best way for the mayoral to the regions to influence central government? Because central government's policies could be very, very important to those regions. And they might be formulated in a way that those regions don't like. Yeah, absolutely. And we talk about top down accountability, which is central government holding local leaders to account. 00:39:20:06 - 00:39:48:10 We talk about inward accountability, which is now scrutiny arrangements within mayoral combined authorities, outward accountability, the way in which mayors and local leaders are accountable to local people and by the local media. But there's this fourth dimension that's that's often ignored in the UK and in England specifically, which is bottom up accountability, which is where local leaders or in this case, mayors have some sort of role at the center, some sort of say in what happens at the center, especially when it pertains to their own remit. 00:39:48:12 - 00:40:06:16 If you look at other countries, if you look at Germany, for example, they have the Bundesrat, where the regional governments are represented, Belgium, Austria, many of the countries have this as well. We have nothing like this in the UK. So this is the kind of missing dimension really. And I think this will emerge in the years to come. 00:40:06:16 - 00:40:25:22 But it's going to take time. There were examples of people, for example, Ben Houchen, that the Teesside mayor is a peer. Dan Jarvis, when he was mayor of the South Yorkshire mayoralty, was still a member of Parliament, was sitting in the Commons as well. So there are occasions when people have kind of their tendrils into the Westminster set up. 00:40:25:24 - 00:40:45:08 Yeah, they were kind of ad hoc arrangements. There was an informal pressure as well. I mean, look at HS2, the way in which the mayors responded to that or look at Andy Burnham during the Covid lockdowns. Mayors increasingly have this informal power where they're able to put pressure on central government, and they're able to exercise a kind of informal bottom up accountability. 00:40:45:10 - 00:41:13:22 What is yet to emerge is some sort of institutional framework that deals with that, and, and provides a kind of formal space in which local leaders and central leaders can negotiate and come together. There's maybe something that exists between central government and the devolved nations through intergovernmental relations that could be replicated in England. But we're yet to see this, really, and there are a number of different options on the table about how this might be done, but no agreement or real strong political direction to put these into action. 00:41:13:24 - 00:41:43:12 Given that we're now into a general election period and given the polls, it looks likely that Labour will probably win. But if the Labour Party side on this with Labour's plans, the Mayoral Combined Authority, I think there is a very strong rhetoric about the desire to continue the approach that's been taken to finish the map of devolution, so that everywhere has a male combined authority and to further empower them, especially in areas like skills and Labour market activation policies and planning. 00:41:43:14 - 00:42:08:10 But what there has been much less of is really facing up to the intricacies of the kind of institutional framework in which all this sets. So thinking about how this looks as a system, how does this new tier regional government look as a system, how does it fit in with the existing constitutional arrangements? Those questions are actually very complicated and technical, and Labour haven't yet given any clear indication of where they might go. 00:42:08:12 - 00:42:33:11 What we have so far is we we have some indications in Gordon Brown's review of the Constitution, which flagged up this idea of replacing the House of Lords with the chamber of the Nations and Regions. That looks very unlikely to happen. But also in that report was this idea of a Council for England, which would bring together kind of local leaders into one body, but how that would look, how it would be composed, what it functions, would be, etc. is yet to be decided. 00:42:33:13 - 00:42:42:02 Clearly an issue that's going to dog the next government. Jack Newman, thanks very much for joining us on the pod. Thanks so much. 00:42:42:04 - 00:43:05:01 So, Mark, we've had a few questions in from our listeners. So I thought we'd go through these. some of them touch on issues that we've already talked about a little bit, wanting a few more specifics. So Julia Cushman, who is the policy and advocacy manager at my society that we've mentioned on the podcast before, she's a regular listener and she says, what, if anything, will happen in Parliament 00:43:05:01 - 00:43:24:17 between state opening on the 17th of July and the House rising on the 23rd of July. Now, we touched on that earlier. We're not sure that the House will rise on the 23rd. We think that's doubtful. But she's particularly interested in what will happen with things like the registration deadlines for the Register for members interests, for all party parliamentary groups. 00:43:24:23 - 00:43:44:07 Will that happen after recess? And essentially, we're looking at MPs spending the summer setting up their offices and the real business kicking off in September. Well, as we were saying earlier, I think that a bit of real business may well get done before MPs rise for the summer, but there's also be as she's rightly talking about, there, quite a lot of bureaucracy for MPs to get through. 00:43:44:07 - 00:44:05:23 They all have to do their submissions to the Register of Members interests so that we know what their interests are, and they can steer clear of any kind of conflict of interest in their parliamentary activities. Setting up All-Party Parliamentary Groups. I suspect that those groups won't really get going until possibly into the autumn, and then a register of them will doubtless emerge. 00:44:05:23 - 00:44:29:10 But I think that there will be so much to do at the start of a new Parliament. And getting APPGs together is low down most people's priorities at the moment. Yeah. And then we've had another question from A1 bloke on Twitter, no idea who that is. And he says, is it possible to cancel the dissolution of Parliament? Well, theoretically, yes. 00:44:29:12 - 00:44:48:01 Practically I think anything much short of canceling the dissolution because World War Three is broken out would make Rishi Sunak look pretty silly. You would need an enormously important, major reason that the public could sympathize with for that to happen. And then you would need to get His Majesty to sign a new order in council, essentially canceling the previous one. 00:44:48:03 - 00:45:07:23 So it's a very, very, very big ask and the politics around it. You know, Rishi Sunak can't wake up tomorrow morning saying, oh, maybe not such a good idea to have an election. Yeah, it has to be. It has to be done through a new royal proclamation of you didn't go through all of that process. And as you say, ultimately the King acts on the Prime Minister's advice as his constitutional adviser. 00:45:08:00 - 00:45:30:02 But it would be a very, very high bar. And this ridiculous story about conservative MPs trying to mount a last minute leadership coup to call off the election. I mean, the politics of that are even more absurd, and the practicalities of that are non-existent. I just don't think it can practically be done in the time where enough conservative MPs bonkers enough to attempt it. 00:45:30:04 - 00:45:54:07 So we've had a couple of questions about purdah and about this period of sensitivity for the government, for the civil service. One is from Fiona McIlroy, who is a strategic comms adviser used to work in Whitehall, according to her Twitter profile. And she says what happens if high profile, sensitive commercial contracts reach a point that doesn't fit with the parliamentary cycle for announcements, but still need to go ahead regardless of who's in government? 00:45:54:07 - 00:46:12:22 Can they be announced during purdah if a contract is signed during that time? And we had a similar one asking us about the timetable. This is from Daniel, also on Twitter. Got an interest in the modernizing support Green paper in relation to disability benefits, and he's asking what will happen to the green paper in the consultation. 00:46:12:22 - 00:46:34:10 Does the end of the parliament on the election period mean that the consultation is closed down, delayed, canceled? I think it's very much for the incoming government to decide whether it wants to pick up that consultation, whether perhaps it wants to consult on a different range of options or do something entirely different. All bets are off when you've got an election, and a government may change if the conservative government's reelected. 00:46:34:11 - 00:46:50:07 Maybe they'll just want to pick up where they left off with that consultation. If you've got an incoming Labour government, they might want something completely different. Disability benefit reform is clearly something everybody's got to try and find an approach to. But it may be that the Labour one is quite different to what the current conservative government is offering. 00:46:50:12 - 00:47:12:19 Yeah. And of course, Mark, there's also that question about sensitive contracts and whether they can still be awarded and completed during election period. And the answer I think is depends what the nature of the contract is, how much it's for and the hang time sensitivities. If it is time sensitive, then yes, it could be concluded, but if it's of a sufficient scale, it may well be something that the minister has to consult his or her opposite number him. 00:47:12:21 - 00:47:40:24 I think that's probably all we've got time for this week. Yes, we will of course, be reporting on election issues and particularly on any proposals that emerge for the reform of Parliament to try and make the creaking machinery of Westminster work a little better. And we've also got a special edition of this podcast coming up, which takes a look at one very specific area new proposals to reform the law around dealing with health emergencies, the kind of legal framework that involves the lockdown and restrictions on people's movements. 00:47:41:03 - 00:48:01:08 We've been talking to Adam Wagner, who's a member of the commission, looking at how those laws could be improved. He's the author of a book, Emergency State, which detailed exactly how the powers work during Covid 19. We'll look forward to that. Fun. We'll see you soon. Bye for now. 00:48:01:10 - 00:48:21:08 Well, that's all from us for this week's episode of Parliament Matters. Please hit the Follow or Subscribe button in your podcast app to get the next episode as soon as it lands, and help us to make the podcast better by leaving a rating or review on Apple or Spotify and sharing your feedback. Our producer tells us it's important for the algorithm to give the show a boost. Tell us more about the algorithm. 00:48:21:10 - 00:48:47:21 What do I know about algorithms? I write my scripts with a quill pen on vellum and then send it in by carrier pigeon. Well, before we go, a quick reminder also that you can send us your questions on all things Parliament by visiting We'll be discussing them in future episodes, including our special Urgent Questions editions dedicated to what you want to know about Parliament, and you can find us across social media @HansardSociety. 00:48:48:01 - 00:49:03:04 to get more content related to the show and the wider work of the Hansard Society. 00:49:04:19 - 00:49:17:17 Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. For more information, visit or find us on social media @HansardSociety.

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