Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

Efficiency and legitimacy in inter-local agreements: why collaboration has become a default choice among councils

Over 97 per cent of English local authorities cooperate with one another, providing common public services across separate council areas. Ruth Dixon and Thomas Elston consider how and why this occurs. In a follow-up to their previous post, they find that propensity to collaborate is unpredictable, but partner choice can be partly explained by geographical proximity of councils and similarities in organizational and resource characteristics. Contrary to the view that collaboration is a wholly ‘rational’ strategy chosen simply to improve service costs or quality, therefore, this analysis suggests that both efficiency and legitimacy influenced reform choices.

Historically, English local councils aspired to be self-sufficient. Despite engaging in thorough collaboration with agencies outside of the local government system, local authorities have exhibited a remarkable aversion to the kinds of inter-municipal collaboration commonly practised in Europe and the USA. But this changed markedly after 2010, with the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government enthusing about shared services and ruling out – temporarily, as it turned out – other types of scale-achieving reforms like the creation of more unitary authorities. ‘I am not at all interested in the structure of local government’ said Eric Pickles while shadow Secretary of State for Local Government, ‘but we will expect councils to … cooperate and work together’. In government, his wish was granted. By 2017 more than 97 per cent of councils participated in at least one inter-council collaboration, providing services such as social care, waste collection, libraries and back-office administration. Our study examined how this significant and ‘un-English’ collaboration was implemented, and what motived such long-resisted reforms.

In our earlier work, we found no evidence of councils attaining the promised financial benefits from sharing back-office or tax collection services across local authority areas. Although savings may have been achieved in particular instances, efficiency did not appear to be a self-evident motivation for shared services (despite this reform being strongly recommended by central government and others as a way to cut costs during the age of austerity). In this follow-up work, therefore, we use social network analysis to investigate other possible drivers of inter-council collaboration, and the characteristics of the resulting networks.

Organizational theory and empirical work on international cases indicate that ‘resource’, ‘organizational’, and ‘political’ considerations may lead to inter-local collaboration and affect partner selection. For example, councils may be motivated to collaborate because of budget constraints or small population size, in order to achieve economies of scale or to share expertise. Conversely, councils that already exhibit a high level of structural complexity may find collaboration less attractive. Choices over partner selection may also be predictable. Do councils favour partners who are most geographically proximate, in order to reduce coordination costs? Or do councils choose collaborators similar to themselves with respect to resources, organizational factors or politics? Partner similarity is often thought to aid the cooperation process; for instance, smoothing the process of reaching decisions and resolving disagreements. On the other hand, councils may seek partners with contrasting experiences and expertise, in order to achieve maximum value from the alliance. To explore these questions, we conducted an exploratory rather than hypothesis-driven study of the English shared services network as it existed in 2017 according to the Local Government Association’s shared services dataset, which we used for this analysis and to prepare Figure 1.

Figure 1: Map of Local Authority shared services partnerships in England in 2017.

Of the 338 partnerships reported, 182 had frontline (‘programme’) functions, 127 were administrative, and 29 were mixed. Frontline services thus occupy the larger part of the network; although, relative to the volume of administrative support actually performed in councils, back-office work is significantly over-represented. An approximate breakdown of functions is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Approximate breakdown of shared service functions

Propensity to collaborate

Councils belonged to between one and 33 partnerships (median = 3, mean = 4). This number was used as the measure of propensity to collaborate. (This is a count of partnerships rather than activities. Some partnerships cover several council activities, so councils that took part in only a few such partnerships might nonetheless be sharing a significant amount of activity. We did not attempt to assess the level of shared activity represented by each partnership.)

Social network analysis revealed very few significant predictors of propensity to collaborate (less than 5 per cent of the variance was predicted by resource, organizational or political factors, alone or in combination). Among resource considerations, only ethnic diversity (as a measure of social need) showed a weak negative relationship. Given the marketing of shared services as a cost-reduction mechanism, the non-significance of financial health measures is surprising, although may be explained by lack of resources necessary to invest in and manage such innovations. And despite fairly consistent international evidence of inter-local collaboration being used to address diseconomies in small jurisdictions, population does not predict shared services adoption in England.  Among the organizational variables, only council type was significantly related to collaboration.  Metropolitan districts partnered less than others, despite being legally required to cooperate with one another since the 1980s. Neither opportunities for collaboration within a thirty-mile radius nor internal coordination burden (‘complexity’) predicted collaboration. And, contrary to expectations, political control, partisan alignment with the national government, and electoral stability were not associated with the level of collaboration.

Partner selection

Turning to partner selection, we explored how similar (or different) councils were to their partners using homophily analysis. Homophily occurs when individuals choose partners with similar characteristics; heterophily describes dissimilarity. We found that substantial homophily was demonstrated for organizational variables, with region, geographical proximity, and council type each remaining significant when tested with the others. Intra-regional partnerships (e.g. within the North West) were much more common than expected from proximity alone, even though the nine English regions have largely lost their former coordinating functions. Further analysis found that intra-county relationships were also highly significant. This suggests that sense of local identity, not merely physical convenience, conditioned reform choices.

Resource similarity in 2010-11 (the time when many partnering decisions were made) was associated with partner selection for the variables ethnic diversity, age diversity, external income ratio, and financial reserves, although these variables did not add a great deal of explanatory power to the model containing region, council type and proximity only. When tested alone, councils did seem to partner on the basis of political similarities, as expected. But politics varies greatly between regions. The North East, for instance, had no Conservative councils in 2010, while the South West had no Labour councils. Thus, political homophily disappeared when region was accounted for; indeed, slight heterophily was shown. Given the strong correlation between region and politics, politics may still contribute to the observed regional homophily.

Despite these indications that homophily is important in partner selection, a considerable amount of variance remained unexplained, with no more than 24 per cent of the variance being accounted for by the predictors.

Does partnership activity matter?

Councils may prefer to share services that are less politically salient. We found some support for this in the over-representation of back office services in our dataset. To explore this further, we re-analysed subsets of the whole network containing either front line or back-office services. Very similar associations were found as for the whole network above, with partner selection again being more predictable than propensity to collaborate. (One difference was that front-line partnerships were arranged at markedly shorter distances than back-office administrative partnerships.)

The overall pattern: efficiency–legitimacy trade-offs

Given that we were unable to explain council decisions to collaborate, and yet partner selection did prove more predictable, the question occupying councils since 2010 appears to have been not whether to collaborate, but with whom. So why has inter-local collaboration become a ‘default choice’ among councils after such long-standing resistance?

The pursuit of legitimacy provides an account of public service collaborations that seem to lack the kind of ‘instrumental’, efficiency-related explanations that we tested for. According to institutional theory, organizations strive not only for efficient operations, but also to achieve legitimacy among valued stakeholders, especially when efficiency is hard to attain or difficult to demonstrate. Such legitimacy helps to secure resources from the environment and autonomy from oversight agencies.  Separate to the effect of organizational decisions on technical efficiency or goal achievement, the actions of organizations affect external perceptions – whether their behaviour is seen to comply with generally accepted norms and beliefs, for example. This can lead to reform agendas that lack justification from a purely technical point of view, are poorly tailored to individual organizational needs, and do little to enhance, or may even damage, organizational efficiency.

In the case of the reforms in England over the last decade, the unpredictability of the ‘collaborate/don’t collaborate’ decision suggests that councils have adopted the shared services approach regardless of their local circumstances. As Hugh McLaughlin noted, “[t]o argue for the importance of partnerships is like arguing for ‘mother love and apple pie.’ Partnership working has an inherently positive moral feel about it and it has become almost heretical to question its integrity.” Yet despite its fashionable status, collaboration is a perilous strategy, exposing organizations to the risk of conflicting goals, delayed decisions, third-party failures and opportunism. As Huxham and Vangen argued, collaboration is also ‘a seriously resource-consuming activity … only to be considered when the stakes are really worth pursuing.’

Careful selection of collaboration partners is a sensible approach to managing these risks, reducing the chance that pursuit of legitimacy will undermine organizational performance. Homophily among partners reduces the difficulties of securing agreement, for example, while geographical proximity increases trust through familiarity and ease of monitoring. Both were observed in the data, suggesting that councils have engaged in actions to manage the downsides associated with conforming to the collaborative template demanded by the institutional environment.


Note: The above draws on the authors’ work published in Public Administration. The analysis was funded by the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust, and the University of Oxford John Fell Fund.

About the Authors

Ruth Dixon is Research Fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.



Thomas Elston is Associate Professor in Public Administration at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Jack Hamilton on Unsplash.

How individuals’ social characteristics impact the likelihood to waste a vote

Corinna Kroeber, Cal Le Gall and Sarah C. Dingler analyse the similarities and differences of voters who vote for a party or candidate unlikely to win an election. Studying voting behaviour in three European democracies with different majoritarian electoral systems, namely the United Kingdom, Germany and France, they show that the archetypical ‘ballot wasters’ are the young and men.

In the UK’s general election in 2015, 25% of voters heading to the polls made choices that had no direct impact on the election result. They voted for candidates who neither won, nor were close to winning the election (i.e. the first loser). This type of behaviour is not a peculiarity of majoritarian systems, since even in a country with a highly proportional electoral system such as the Netherlands, 1.5% of all votes were cast for parties unlikely to enter parliament in the 2017 election. Who goes through the effort of voting but does not support parties with a high chance of winning a seat? These voters miss a chance to influence election outcomes and hence determine which parties and politicians set the agenda for the next term. If certain societal groups characterised by age, education, income or gender are more or less likely to do this, existing inequalities in the political process might be reinforced.

To understand the commonalities and differences among citizens who vote ineffectively, we analysed how individual-level characteristics affect the propensity to waste a ballot in our recent article published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties. By focusing on the attributes of voters, this study goes beyond existing research which concentrates on contextual factors. We argue that the voting motivation and the ability to correctly identify viable candidates might be shaped by these individual characteristics. In particular, gender, income and age should affect the chances of making tactically or expressively motivated choices and, in consequence, enhance the likelihood of someone voting ineffectively. Education might also impact the propensity to make false decisions about who is a viable contender.

Our research is based on survey data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) for six elections in three countries: the parliamentary elections in Britain in 2005 and 2015, the German parliamentary elections 2009 and 2013 (district votes), as well as the French parliamentary election in 2007 and the presidential election in 2012 (first rounds). This selection of cases is especially interesting as all elections under study are majoritarian in nature and provide a relatively easy context for voters to understand who has high or low chances of winning compared to proportional systems.

Figure 1: Marginal effects of education, income, gender and cohort (age) on the likelihood of wasting a vote in Germany, France and Great Britain

Note: 95% confidence intervals based on a logistic regression of social characteristics on the likelihood to waste a vote. See the authors’ full article for details.

The article presents two main findings: first, income and education only play a minor role. As Figure 1 shows, and contrary to our expectations, the level of formal education does not impact on the likelihood of voting ineffectively. This result also holds for political knowledge. Neither the more educated nor those with high levels of expertise of political processes are particularly unlikely to waste their votes. Individuals’ capacities to correctly asses the chances of candidates are hence not decisive for making their vote count in majoritarian elections. This is particularly surprising given that education is one of the most powerful explanations for turnout. Income also has only a limited influence on vote wasting and we do not find solid evidence supporting a relationship between financial resources and (in-)effective voting. Even though earlier studies found a link between income and protest, we cannot be certain that the described pattern holds beyond our sample.

The second remarkable result is that two groups stand out as the archetypical ‘ballot wasters’: the young and men. The effect of gender is especially strong and straightforward. Women are much less likely than men to waste their vote, in particular if they sincerely prefer a minor party. This insight points to support for small, extreme parties as an explanation for gender differences in (in-)effective voting. As these parties and candidates are less likely to win seats than ideologically moderate ones, men’s larger sympathy for them leads to higher likelihoods of wasting a ballot by voting for them. Gender differences in attitudes, policy preferences, and acceptance of extreme parties’ mode of communication thus tend to shape the chances of choosing to make a vote count or not.

In parallel, younger cohorts are less prone to directly influence election outcomes. By supporting parties like the Greens, they tend to express their identity through votes irrespective of their choice’s chances of winning. By this means, the young show their sincere support for smaller parties either to signal to the remainder of the electorate that these are viable choices in future elections or for expressive reasons without any tactical intentions.

Future research can build on this original work to study the motivation(s) to waste a vote more closely. Understanding the motivations that different individuals have when they decide to vote for unlikely winners matters because it has profound implications for the legitimacy of established players and their electoral strategies. Notably, it seems important to know whether these wasted ballots aim to influence future outcomes, whether they are rooted in disaffection toward available options or simply because individuals prefer unlikely winners.


Note: This article was first published on Democratic Audit. It draws on the authors’ recently published work in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties. Featured image credit: Adapted from photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash.

About the Authors

Corinna Kroeber is a junior professor at the University of Greifswald studying the representation of women, citizens of immigrant origin, and ethnic minorities. The effects of electoral systems on different facets of representation are of particular interest for her research.

Cal Le Gall is a post-doc at UCLouvain in the ERC project entitled QualiDem. His research focusses on voting behaviour and public opinion; globalization and European integration.

Sarah C. Dingler is assistant professor at the University of Innsbruck. Her main areas of research include the analysis of political institutions on women’s representation and the role of women as political actors in legislatures and the executive.

Constitutionally, Corbyn will leave the Labour Party in a similar state to how he found it

Lewis Bassett discussess the organisational changes that took place within Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He argues these reforms were a house of cards that now appears ready to collapse, leaving little in its wake.

Politically, Jeremy Corbyn may have been right when he said that Labour under his leadership had ‘won the argument’. The current contenders to replace him are all far to the left of those who stood in 2015. And signs that the Conservatives are willing to tax and spend a little more, as well as borrow and invest, are policies that since early 2016 had been the life blood of ‘Corbynomics’ (although the more innovative and transformative side of this agenda – Labour’s industrial strategy, for example – are absent). Austerity, too, is not what it used to be with both voters and economic elites changing their former preferences.

But constitutionally, Corbyn will leave the Labour Party in a similar state to how he found it. Despite all the talk of democratisation that accompanied his leadership, very little has actually taken place. In September 2017, Corbyn announced a Democracy Review that would be a precursor to sweeping party reforms. Most Labour leaders tend to conduct such reviews but only Corbyn had promised to put ‘members at the heart of the party’. The Review captured over 11,000 submissions, including from Labour’s complex web of affilated organisations and trade unions; it was nevertheless rushed owing to perceptions of the need to stabilise Corbyn’s mantle and was ultimately watered down by the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).

In 2018, at Labour’s conference – nominally the party’s sovereign body – delegates could vote on a package of rule changes drawn up by the NEC, rather than the direct recommendations of the Review. The result was little more than tinkering. On important issues, such as the number of seats on the NEC or the rules for leadership elections, small changes widened the franchise to give greater power mainly to the party’s affiliated trade unions.

The issue of how Labour selects its candidates for Westminster was a live topic since the moment Corbyn found himself on the leadership ballot in 2015. Reform here was also an outcome of conference in 2018, although not the purvey of the Review. These changes again testified to the party’s pluralism, giving greater power to local branches (both members and unions) to ‘trigger’ a sitting MP to face a local contest before standing for Labour in a general election. The proof of radicalism, however, was in the eating: before the 2019 general election, only six out of a total 242 sitting Labour MPs faced such a contest, including the Corbyn-loyalist Kate Osamor. Of this, two survived their members’ votes and the rest, other than Roger Godsiff, were re-imposed by the NEC without a choice. Considering how the whip was withdrawn from 21 Conservative MPs last year, Boris Johnson achieved more for party discipline in a single day than Corbyn did in nearly five years.

At the local level, there has been little change in the political composition of Labour councils, typically considered the domain of the party’s ‘old right’. Regional offices have remained largely unaltered. As for the Labour’s HQ in London, a very slow move away from New Labour’s bureaucratic legacy has occurred, including the party’s general secretary being drawn from the sympathetic trade union Unite. However, these changes are unstable, especially where employment contracts for central office staff are fixed-term.

Of course, Corbyn’s support has always been strongest among the members, yet here too the picture is increasingly mixed. In order to understand this, a distinction must be drawn between the organisation of members at the local level and their preferences as individuals, registered in one-member-one-vote (OMOV) plebiscites. Although historically introduced to undermine the party’s left, Corbyn supporters were always stronger in the latter.

So much, in fact, seems clear in the current state of local party ‘nominations’ for future leader (the final outcome of which is decided by an OMOV ballot). Among local branches, Rebecca Long-Bailey, seen to be the Corbyn-continuity candidate, trails behind Keir Starmer, the man who led Labour in the direction of a second referendum on Brexit. More worrying for Corbyn supporters, however, will be that Starmer’s lead over Long-Bailey is reflected in polling of members as well. The Corbyn movement appears to be shrinking among members, potentially costing it the leadership.

The slim majority of Corbyn’s supporters on the NEC is under threat as well, but not only as a result of a shift in members’ preferences. After two Corbyn-supporting delegates on the committee became MPs in 2019, an OMOV by-election for their replacement has seen division appear over exactly who would be the left’s candidate, with the preferences of the pro-Corbyn Momentum clashing with those of other left-wing factions. On 7 February, Labour’s compliance unit suspended two of the left-wing candidates, one of whom was previously embroiled in the party’s anti-Semitism crisis – an area where a distinct lack of leadership continues to cause havoc among the Corbyn movement’s grassroots.

Although pending the result of the leadership contest in early April, there is already enough evidence to suggest a major weakness of the Corbyn movement among members. In this light, the political commitments of the latter appear to have been centred upon one man, rather than any deeper socialist ideology, such as Long-Bailey claims to represent.

Ideologically, history may judge the Corbyn-movement harshly in terms of deepening members’ commitment to socialism, insofar as that was actually the goal. Momentum may have taken its members for granted, depending on them for donations, votes, likes and shares but failing to generate deeper and broader levels of ideological engagement. Such a task, in a post-modern, individualised context, without strong trade unions or significant class conflict, may be hard to achieve at scale, perhaps impossible. On the continent, ‘left populists’ (as Corbyn was also branded by his staff) like Podemos in Spain or La France Insoumise have also struggled to develop and sustain deep roots, both ideologically and institutionally. It is Britain’s majoritarian electoral system that explains the appearance of a renewed anti-austerity left inside of Labour, rather than the taking shape of a new insurgent party.


About the Author

Lewis Bassett is a PhD researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Manchester.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Jack Hamilton on Unsplash.

Repealing the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is a tidying-up exercise, not a major constitutional change

The 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was the most successful of the constitutional reform measures championed by the Liberal Democrats during their period in coalition with the Conservatives. Nine years after the Act was passed, a new Conservative government introduced a Bill to repeal it. But, argue Charles Pattie, Ron Johnston, and David Rossiter, the Act was in many respects a dead letter long before the official repeal process began.

On 3 February 2020, with very little fanfare and almost unnoticed, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (Repeal) Bill began its passage through Parliament. Repealing the 2011 Act was a Conservative manifesto commitment in the 2019 General Election, and had featured in the new government’s first Queen’s Speech. Given the party’s very substantial parliamentary majority following that election, the bill’s successful passage seems assured. Spare a thought for the Liberal Democrats, however. Legislation for fixed-term parliaments had been something they had insisted on as part of their 2010 coalition agreement with the Conservatives, who had accepted it as part of the price of forming a government. Repealing the 2011 Act will remove one of the few tangible legacies from their ill-fated period in government as part of the 2010-2015 coalition. But in truth, that legacy was already, if not quite dead, certainly very shaky.

The 2011 Act had a clear reforming purpose. It set a strict timetable for Westminster elections. The next general election, it stipulated, was to be held on 7 May 2015, and each subsequent election was to take place five years after the last, on the first Thursday in May. By legislating for a fixed electoral cycle, the Act removed an important prerogative power enjoyed by previous prime ministers – their ability to call a general election at any point within the lifetime of a parliament (subject to the monarch’s approval – which is very unlikely to be withheld). Previous legislation had controlled the maximum length of time a parliament could sit between elections (the Septennial Act 1715 set that maximum at seven years, and the Parliament Act 1911 reduced it to five). As long as he or she could command a majority in parliament, quite when within that period an election was called was the Prime Minister’s call.

Not surprisingly, successive prime ministers used that power to hold elections at times they thought were most propitious for them and their parties. Where conditions looked good for their party (perhaps a run of good opinion polls, or local and by-election results) many prime ministers opted to go to the country early, often around four years after the previous election. But when their party seemed to be in trouble (adverse polls, poor economic conditions, scandals), they held on longer in the Micawber-esque hope that something might turn up to improve their lot.

By and large (though there were exceptions), PMs’ instincts on whether to go early or not were well-founded. On average, governments forced to continue through their full term were less likely to be re-elected than those which sought re-election early. Between 1945 and 2010, the average parliament lasted for 45.8 months. Only four out of the 17 contests (1959-1964, 1987-1992, 1992-1997 and 2005-2010) went virtually the full five years, give or take a month or so. Strikingly, the incumbent party lost power at the end of three of these. Of the 13 parliaments over the same period which ended before reaching the five-year deadline, incumbents won re-election after nine. The average lifetime of a parliament which ended with the incumbent being defeated was 50.1 months, while parliaments which ended in the re-election of the government lasted an average of 42.7 months.

The option of choosing an early election when conditions looked promising clearly gave governments a potential advantage over oppositions, which were largely unable to force an election. By removing PMs’ discretionary power to fight an election at a time of their choosing, therefore, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act sought to level the playing field between governments and oppositions. (It also had a less principled purpose, as an insurance policy against David Cameron trying to ditch his junior coalition partners by calling an early election.)

But in practice, things have not worked out as planned. We have had three Parliaments since the Act was passed eleven years ago. Only one of them (the 2010-2015 Parliament) went full term. The other two were among the shortest parliaments since 1945. The 2015-2017 Parliament lasted just over two years, and the 2017-2019 Parliament two and a half years. Only the 1950-51 (20 months), 1964-66 (17 months) and February-October 1974 (8 months) parliaments were shorter. The average lifespan of the three parliaments affected by the Act was 38.3 months – almost 8 months shorter than the average for post-war parliaments before the Act.

So what happened? The answer lies in a loophole in the legislation. If no government could command the confidence of the House of Commons, waiting out the full parliamentary term before an election could be called would be very undesirable. A means was therefore needed to bring an early end to parliaments in which no government could get its business through. Section 2 of the 2011 Act contained two mechanisms for achieving this:

  • A motion for an early election could be put to the Commons, which would then need the support of a supermajority to pass; or
  • A new election would also be triggered if a government lost a vote of no confidence, and no alternative government capable of holding the confidence of the Commons managed to form within 14 days of that vote.

However, this raised the risk of prime ministers choosing to manufacture an early dissolution. One – slightly bizarre – route would be for a PM to force a vote of no confidence in his or her own government (losing which might necessitate whipping some of the government’s MPs to vote against it – try explaining that to the voters!).

But such contortions were not, in fact, really needed. As noted by Chris Bryant MP (then Labour’s Shadow Constitutional Reform Minister) during the 2011 Act’s passage, the first mechanism offered an entirely viable means for governments to obtain early elections if they wished. The supermajority requirement sounds on paper like a difficult hurdle, but in practice was always likely to be easily met. The practical politics are clear. A Prime Minister would be unlikely to put a motion calling for an early general election unless quite confident there was something to gain electorally from doing so. And despite this, opposition parties would find it practically very hard not to support such a motion: if they opposed it, they would face the potentially damaging accusation of being afraid to face the voters – a position few opposition leaders would want to be put in. Section 2, in other words, restored the PM’s room for discretionary action – without having to go for the odd expedient of forcing a vote of no confidence in his or her own government.

And so it has proved. Both Mrs May and Boris Johnson used this aspect of the Act to call early elections at times of their own choosing, less than two years after the respective previous contests. The parliamentary arithmetic facing both PMs helped focus their minds. Mrs May’s majority when she first became PM was narrow. Enough of her own MPs were restive on the main business facing the government (managing Brexit) to make her feel that a larger majority was desirable. And the polls looked (very) promising: a much larger majority seemed a certainty. She therefore put and comfortably won a motion for an early election – and then squandered her opportunity, increasing her vote share but losing her majority. Her successor, struggling to ‘get Brexit done’ without a majority, similarly used the Act’s get-out clause to challenge the opposition into supporting a motion for an early election. The election was called, and Johnson promptly won it (and then some), transforming both his own position and the Brexit debate.

In effect, therefore, the 2011 Act failed in its primary function. It has not restricted the PM’s capacity to choose when, within the lifetime of a parliament, to go to the country. All it has done, in reality, is to make that decision more visible. Where it once took place behind closed doors, and involved only the PM and the PM’s advisors (and the notional approval of the monarch), under the Act it has to also involve a public discussion in the Commons. But that parliamentary debate has proved, in effect, a ‘ceremonial’ rather than a ‘useful’ part of the British constitution. No PM will voluntarily move for an early election if conditions are not favourable. And no opposition is likely to risk being seen to turn down the opportunity for such an election.

Repealing the Act is a tidying-up exercise removing ineffective legislation, not a major constitutional change. It will merely bring the de jure situation back into alignment with the de facto. Supporters of fixed-term parliaments may regret the Act’s demise. But in truth, it has proved largely toothless, containing the means by which it could readily be circumvented. Those wishing to curb prime ministerial discretion over election timing need to go back to the drawing board – and may now have to wait a long time before they have another opportunity to legislate.


About the Authors

Ron Johnston is Professor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.


Charles Pattie is Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield.



David Rossiter is an Independent Researcher.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

All power to 10 Downing Street: Johnson’s first major reshuffle and the perils of presidentialism

Despite ups and downs in prime ministerial power over the years, the general tendency has been to expect the prime minister to do more than in the past, writes Archie Brown. He traces this tendency back to Margaret Tharcher’s premiership, which gave a huge impetus to the idea that political power belongs to the prime minister rather than to the government. He explains how an expansive interpretation of this idea was taken several steps further in Boris Johnson’s first significant cabinet reshuffle.

Creeping presidentialism has been a recurring phenomenon in British government over the past forty years. It became more pronounced during the prime ministership of Margaret Thatcher and her example influenced subsequent understandings of what the role of head of government in the UK involved. But an expansive interpretation of the prime minister’s role was taken several steps further in the February 2020 reshuffle.

There is nothing new about tension between a prime minister and a Chancellor of the Exchequer, nor is there any novelty in the staff of 10 Downing Street believing they should be more fully controlling government policy than they are. What is, however, radically new is the attempt to merge 10 Downing Street and Treasury policy-making teams by foisting on a Chancellor of the Exchequer advisers who have been chosen by an unelected 10 Downing Street aide.

Strong ministers in the past have made clear that they were running their departments and that they would resist the importunities of 10 Downing Street officials. When Margaret Thatcher added a foreign policy adviser and a defence policy adviser to the prime minister’s personal staff, Michael Heseltine, as Secretary of State for Defence, forbade his officials to take the defence adviser’s calls. Gordon Brown, as chancellor, stymied two Number 10 economic advisers by keeping Treasury officials away from them and starving them of information. Brown had no difficulty either in seeing off Blair’s desire to take Britain into the common European currency.

The breakdown of collegiality in the Blair-Brown relationship was troublesome for ministers who wished to remain on good terms with both and was hardly a model of good governance. But that does not constitute a case for more monolithic government, nor does it mean that the man or woman in 10 Downing Street knows best. No prime minister – still less, a premier’s unelected aides – was ever chosen because that person was believed to have a monopoly of wisdom.

Normally, a minister widely regarded as having been successful, does not have to fear dismissal, even if that person is not an acolyte of the prime minister. But this Cabinet reshuffle has contravened that convention. Julian Smith, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is the most obvious case in point. He was highly regarded by those most affected by his department’s decisions – the contending parties in Northern Ireland (who usually agree on little) and also by the government of the Republic of Ireland. They all believed he was doing a good job.

I began these remarks with Margaret Thatcher, for she was both a centralist and a power amplifier. Her style of rule gave a huge impetus to the idea that political power in Britain belongs, above all, to the prime minister rather than to the government or cabinet. The length of time Thatcher spent in 10 Downing Street, the extent to which she stamped her personality and policy preferences on the government, and the fact that she led her party for fifteen years and was prime minister for eleven and a half has had a lasting impact on perceptions of the prime minister’s role.

The political commentariat has largely bought into the Thatcher and post-Thatcher interpretations of the powers that belong to the prime minister individually and they, in turn, have influenced assumptions within the political class about what prime ministers are entitled to do. Such has been the change in the terms of political discourse that even senior Cabinet ministers have treated, and spoken of, the prime minister as their ‘boss’ in a way barely conceivable for their counterparts in the governments headed by Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill (even within the War Cabinet, and certainly in his peacetime premiership), Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson or James Callaghan.

Thatcher’s leadership style influenced expectations of British party leaders, including leaders of the Labour Party. There was a direct link between the governments headed by Thatcher and by the second longest-serving post-war British prime minister, Tony Blair. Margaret Thatcher’s closest aide was her private secretary, Charles Powell, of whom her foreign policy adviser, Sir Percy Cradock, said it was sometimes ‘difficult to establish where Mrs Thatcher ended and Charles Powell began’ and that Powell ‘frequently overstepped the line between the official and the political domains’.

His younger brother, Jonathan Powell, was Tony Blair’s chief of staff and, though a political appointee, he was (along with Alastair Campbell) accorded the right to give instructions to civil servants in a break with traditional (and subsequent) constitutional procedure. Jonathan Powell’s capacious notion of the powers a prime minister was entitled to wield undoubtedly owed a good deal to the example of the Thatcher administration and to the experience of his elder sibling. Before Blair entered 10 Downing Street, Powell voiced his preference for a ‘Napoleonic system’ of government, one in which 10 Downing Street would not put up with ministers ‘who pay fealty to their liege but really get on with whatever they want to do’.

Yet even Margaret Thatcher – not to speak of Tony Blair, faced by the countervailing power of Gordon Brown – did not always get her way within government. Faced by Heseltine’s resistance, she had to give up on the idea of having a defence adviser in 10 Downing Street; that official’s duties were simply added to the portfolio of the foreign policy adviser who came to Number 10 from the Foreign Office. And even though she gradually replaced the most self-consciously ‘One Nation’ Tory ministers by those she deemed to be more ‘Thatcherite’, her style of rule eventually disillusioned even those whom she had promoted. It was, above all, lack of support from her own Cabinet which forced her resignation from office in November 1990.

The more problems are referred to the prime minister, the more decisions he or she is expected to make personally, the less time that leader has to weigh the pros and cons, and the more de facto power devolves to the premier’s principal aides. Unsurprisingly, they are the people most eager to concentrate ever more power in 10 Downing Street and the most enthusiastic advocates of dominating prime ministers. Thus, Jonathan Powell wrote that ‘The little secret of the British constitution is that the centre of government is not too powerful but too weak’, and he saw as a problem something that should be welcomed: the fact that a prime minister needs to use persuasion to get his or her way and can only lead a government ‘by building coalitions of support and by carrying his colleagues with him’.

The Powell view was shared by prime minister Theresa May’s unelected aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who wielded great power behind the scenes until the 2017 election outcome so weakened May’s authority that she was forced to part company with them. Earlier, the first minister to resign from May’s government in 2016, Jim O’Neill, expressed astonishment that ‘the whole cabinet was petrified’ of ‘two unaccountable people’.

The 2017 election was meant to do for Prime Minister May and her aides what the 2019 election did for Boris Johnson and his principal adviser – to strengthen the control of 10 Downing Street – and it did the opposite in May’s case. In a fleeting reference to the flaws of the election campaign in her speech to the Conservative Party annual conference in 2017, May noted that it had been ‘too presidential’.

If a prime minister feels no need to persuade cabinet colleagues of the merits of a case, but can issue orders to them, as an American president (especially one as overweening as Donald Trump) may do, that is very convenient for the prime minister’s aides who will often be the progenitors of the policy proposal. When a domineering prime minister acts as if he or she is indeed the ‘boss’, rather than captain of a team, a likely outcome is self-censorship on the part of senior colleagues. In the absence of intra-governmental challenge to the views of a prime minister’s coterie, we get 10 Downing Street groupthink and policies which have not received the critical scrutiny they require.

During Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, Geoffrey Howe noted that in Whitehall and Westminster, discussion would always come round to the question, ‘how will this play with the prime minister?’ Thus, policy proposals, and objection to policies, became based less on how ministers saw the merits of the case than on their acceptability to the top leader. Such self-censorship is the common currency of politics in authoritarian regimes and it is not conducive to good policy outcomes.

Acquiescence with the accumulation of ever more power in a premier’s hands owes much to an assumption that the only way to effect great change is through having one person driving it through in the way Thatcher led the 1979-1990 government. Yet the government headed by Attlee from 1945-51 changed at least as much as did the Thatcher government – in a different direction – though Attlee’s style was utterly different. He neither hogged the limelight nor tried to dominate his ministerial colleagues. If there was one area in which he had greater influence than any other, it was defence. But he did not try to usurp the authority of departmental ministers or claim a special prerogative for the leader. As he told the Labour Party conference in 1948: ‘Whilst every Minister is responsible for his own departmental decisions the collective responsibility both in home and foreign policy is with the Cabinet. We share the blame or the credit for every action of the Government’.

Curtailing the powers of departmental ministers or sidelining them does not mean that more radical change can be brought about, merely that is less likely to have been carefully thought through. Yet, the more widely it is taken for granted that prime ministers will take all the big decisions, the more they are emboldened to act on that assumption. Decisions are then made by that leader and a coterie of placemen and placewomen rather than through a more collective and collegial leadership exercised by politicians of standing within their party and the country. There is much to be said for a government that can get things done. The mistake is to conflate this with the more complete domination within cabinet, parliament, party and country of one person at the top of the political hierarchy.

Pulling rank should not be confused with political leadership, for leadership, as distinct from power, is most evident when, as Adam Smith observed, all members of a group are on an equal footing, but there is ‘generally some person whose counsel is more followed than that of others’. And in a democracy, a more collective leadership is not only normatively preferable to placing ever more decisions in one person’s hands, it is also less prone to costly error.


About the Author

Archie Brown, an LSE graduate (BSc.Econ., 1962), is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford. The arguments in this blog are presented at greater length, and the references provided, in his chapter, ‘The Top Leader Fixation in British Politics’, in Ivor Crewe and David Sanders (eds), Authoritarian Populism and Liberal Democracy. Professor Brown’s other relevant writings include The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (2014, with an updating new Foreword, 2018), chosen by Bill Gates as a Book of the Year. His latest book, The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War will be published by Oxford University Press on 24 March 2020.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Calculating or cavalier? Boris Johnson’s latest reshuffle

Nicholas Allen discusses Boris Johnson’s first major reshuffle and explains why it has resulted in a relatively high degree of continuity within cabinet. Nevertheless, the ‘constructive dismissal’ of Sajid Javid could have long-term repercussions: while in the short term Javid is unlikely to pose a threat from the backbenches, this may well change once Johnson is no longer associated with electoral success

Boris Johnson is an incautious prime minister. Since entering 10 Downing Street last summer, Johnson has chanced his arm in his dealings with MPs, ministers, the monarch and the electorate. His latest reshuffle is yet another indication of his penchant for risk-taking.

Depending on how you define them – and there is no universally accepted definition – Johnson has conducted four cabinet reshuffles since becoming prime minister. The first came immediately after he assumed the premiership in 2019. In a calculated bid to signal both a fresh start and his own commitment to delivering Brexit, he dismissed around a dozen ministers from Theresa May’s cabinet. It was a brutal and risky assertion of prime ministerial power.

The second reshuffle came less than two months later, this time as a response to the fallout from other chancy actions. Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, and Jo Johnson, the universities minister and Boris’s younger brother, both quit over concerns about the Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit, specifically the (ultimately unlawful) decision to prorogue parliament for five weeks and the removal of the whip from 21 Tory MPs. Johnson was forced to plug the resulting gaps, which he did by bringing Thérèse Coffey and Zac Goldsmith to the cabinet table.

The third reshuffle, if you can call it that, followed the Conservatives’ stunning victory in December’s general election. Rather than overhaul the cabinet, as almost all successfully re-elected prime ministers have done, Johnson merely filled the vacancy created by Alun Cairns’ resignation as Welsh secretary in November. It was made clear that a more thorough reorganisation would happen after Britain exited the European Union on 31 January 2020.

The February 2020 reshuffle

The fourth reshuffle, the post-election reshuffle proper, finally came in mid-February. It was inevitably trailed by some commentators as the St Valentine’s Day massacre – and it largely lived up to the hype. Of the 33 ministers who had attended cabinet immediately before the reshuffle (which effectively began on 31 January with the abolition of the Department of Exiting the European Union), only 22 remained.

Nicky Morgan, the culture secretary, had already announced her intention to leave. Three others – James Cleverly, Zac Goldsmith and Kwasi Kwarteng – retained ministerial jobs but lost their cabinet-attending status. Five others – Geoffrey Cox, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, Julian Smith and Theresa Villiers – were sacked outright, while Jake Berry quit the government after being moved involuntarily from his role as minister for the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Last but certainly not least, Sajid Javid dramatically and unexpectedly resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Twenty-six ministers now attend cabinet. This number is not quite the ‘six or seven people’ that Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief special adviser, has advocated in the past. Nevertheless, it is a reduction of sorts, and it has been bought at the cost of several bruised egos and thwarted ambitions.

Amid the changes, there was a relatively high degree of continuity among the ministers who remained in cabinet. In terms of portfolio continuity – the proportion of individuals holding essentially the same job in the post-reshuffle cabinet as before – Johnson’s was the second least disruptive post-election reshuffle since October 1974. Only Theresa May’s cabinet saw less churn after she lost her majority in the 2017 election.

Man overboard

The reshuffle will be remembered for Sajid Javid’s shock resignation, however, not the relatively high degree of continuity. The general assumption had been that the chancellor’s position was secure. Johnson had only appointed him in July 2019, and Javid was due to deliver the budget in less than a month. But when Johnson asked the chancellor to sack all his advisers, Javid quit.

The Prime Minister had seemingly wanted to keep his chancellor in post and assert greater control over the Treasury. If that was the case, Javid was having none of it. In an apparent swipe at his successor, Rishi Sunak, Javid told reporters that he was unable to accept the Prime Minister’s conditions for staying on, and added: ‘I do not believe any self-respecting minister would accept those conditions.’

Prime ministers and chancellors

The relationship between a prime minister and his or her chancellor of the exchequer is of central importance to a government’s fortunes. The Treasury’s hand on the purse strings gives it a crucial role in coordinating policy across Whitehall. Its economic role gives it enormous potential influence over the government’s electoral fortunes.

The chancellor is also usually a significant politician in his own right and often a potential candidate for the top job. Prime ministers need to appoint and manage them with care. Excluding Rishi Sunak, 24 men have been appointed chancellor since the 1945 general election. Of these, ten left office either because their party lost an election or, in the case of Harold Macmillan, John Major and Gordon Brown, because they became prime minister. One chancellor, Iain Macleod, died in office, and another, Sir Stafford Cripps, resigned because of failing health. Six others resigned, all in very different circumstances. Otherwise, post-war prime ministers have moved or sacked a chancellor on only six occasions: Rab Butler, James Callaghan and Sir Geoffrey Howe were all moved, while Selwyn Lloyd, Norman Lamont and George Osborne were all dismissed. Prime ministers do not shuffle their chancellors lightly.

By some accounts, Sajid Javid’s departure was akin to a constructive dismissal. In this respect it bears a resemblance to the resignation of Nigel Lawson, who quit as Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor in 1989. Both departures involved advisers. But whereas Johnson wanted to deprive Javid of his, Lawson wanted Thatcher to dismiss her economics adviser, Sir Alan Walters, for publicly disagreeing with Treasury policy. When Thatcher refused, Lawson felt he had no choice but to go.

Where does the reshuffle leave Johnson?

There is more than a whiff of Dominic Cummings’s style of politics in Javid’s departure. The Prime Minister’s adviser is no respecter of convention or other people’s egos. Whether Javid was targeted or collateral damage in the reshuffle, Number 10 has clearly emerged stronger and with greater control over the Treasury.

There is also more than a whiff of Johnson’s risk-taking in the reshuffle. The Prime Minister must have known that his demands on Javid made the chancellor’s resignation a possibility. He must also have calculated that Javid, if he walked, would not pose a threat from the backbenches. That was probably a reasonable judgment given Johnson’s personal standing in the wake of the 2019 general election.

Yet, the long-term risks in Johnson’s handling of the affair are real. On the one hand, dispensing with rivals and centralising power in 10 Downing Street will make it harder for him to share the blame when things go wrong. On the other hand, every minister dismissed or belittled increases the pool of enemies on the benches behind him. Johnson will be safe for as long as he is associated with electoral success. But as Margaret Thatcher found to her cost, ambitious former ministers can strike against a prime minister when circumstances change.


About the Author

Nicholas Allen is Reader in Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Boris Johnson’s first PMQs by UK Parliament, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Why the EU Settlement Scheme is not good enough as it is

Now the UK has formally left the European Union, and entered the transition period, Alexandra Bulat assesses the flaws in the EU citizens’ Settlement Scheme and argues that it still undermines the fundamental rights of those affected.

In the summer of 2019, I wrote to explain why the rights of EU citizens were not a done deal. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill has since passed all its stages in January 2020. After almost four years of uncertainty, Brexit will happen. Part 3 of the Bill puts the provisions on EU citizens’ rights into law. Surely, the debate on EU citizens’ rights is done and dusted? Well, not quite. The issues raised by citizens’ rights campaigners months ago are largely still unresolved, and this will certainly have consequences.

There is no doubt that EU citizens in the UK will have to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme if they want to stay after Brexit and the 2020 transition period. The EU Settlement Scheme is a far cry from the ‘automatic grant’ of all existing rights that was promised by Boris Johnson and others during the Vote Leave campaign, but the application scheme is here to stay. EU/EEA citizens and their family members have until 30 June, 2021 to apply.

Government ministers do not miss any media occasion to say that 2.8 million applications have been made to the scheme so far. However, these large numbers presented without context do not solve the outstanding issues. Most of the problems that have been raised for months still exist and will have a real impact in the near future.

During the debates on the Withdrawal Agreement, two key changes to the scheme were proposed: to change its legal basis to a declaratory registration scheme (as opposed to the current constitutive application system); and to include an option for physical proof of status. The government suffered its first parliamentary defeat when the amendment on the EU Settlement Scheme was passed by the Lords. Nevertheless, this was voted down when the Bill returned to the Commons.

Why is the EU Settlement Scheme not good enough as it is?

The arguments for a declaratory scheme and physical proof of status seem to be misunderstood by the government. More dither and delay on their part in responding to concerns raised by experts, lawyers and migrant rights groups will not make the problems disappear. Under the current application scheme, those whom the government fails to inform on time that they need to apply will be unlawfully resident in the UK after the deadline. Everyone working on the ground with migrant communities, including myself, is aware that there are still people who do not know about the scheme or think that the scheme does not apply to them, for various reasons. No similar system in the world has reached 100% of its target audience. It is simply inevitable that there will be people who will be left behind by the scheme, in particular more vulnerable groups. We do not have an exact number of EU citizens in the UK and therefore it is impossible to know exactly how many will find themselves without status – estimates range from thousands to hundreds of thousands.

The government has two responses to this concern, both unsatisfactory. First, Ministers claim that there will be ‘no automatic deportation of EU citizens’ who do not apply on time. But ‘automatic deportation’ is not the main concern of those campaigning for EU citizens’ rights. This is simply not how the system works. Before even considering someone for removal, the hostile environment policies impact that individual. Those EU citizens who will not have lawful status after the deadline will not be able to work, go to the doctor or rent a home, since all require proof of immigration status.

Moreover, it is not only about the deadline of 30, June 2021. Over 40% of EU citizens who have applied so far got ‘pre-settled’ status (limited leave to remain), which means they will have to go through the system again before their status expires in five years’ time. There will be around one million individual cliff-edges and EU citizens will need to be informed accurately and on time about their rights.

Second, Home Office spokespeople claim that late applications will be considered if the applicant has a ‘good reason’. But we do not know what these ‘good reasons’ are. Consider this example: Maria was born in the UK. Her parents, both EU citizens, were not permanently resident (or ‘settled’) in the UK when she was born. Therefore, Maria was not born automatically British – but her parents wrongly assumed she is. In ten years from now, Maria gets her first summer job and is asked to prove she is a lawful migrant. She realises her parents had to apply for her status years ago when she was a child. Would ‘My parents did not know they had to apply for me’ be considered a ‘good reason’? A declaratory system would avoid these situations where people become unlawful through no fault of their own.

The calls for physical proof of status have also been widely misrepresented. Having the option of physical proof does not mean scrapping the EU Settlement Scheme. In fact, under the current system, non-EU family members who are granted pre-settled or settled status do receive physical proof of status. It is also not true that EU citizens can simply print their settled status email letter and use it as proof. The PDF attachment clearly states, in bold, that it is not proof of status. EU citizens, as well as those who have to check migrants’ legal status, such as employers and landlords, will have to perform those checks through an online system. Compared to showing a physical document, this involves having some digital skills, more spare time, the right tech and hoping the system will work properly (which is not always the case).

Organisations like the3million have warned there will be increased discrimination with a digital-only status. Almost nine in every ten EU citizens in a recent survey with over 3,000 respondents were concerned about the lack of physical documents. The Residential Landlords Association (RLA) backed the proposals for physical documents. There is widespread support for this change, yet the government ignores expert advice and has decided to proceed with the system as it is.

What can still be done?

EU citizens need a legal safety net – firm, legally binding guarantees that the consequences of an application process with a strict deadline will not impact the most at risk in our society. A physical proof of status is not only what the vast majority of EU citizens want, but it will also reduce discrimination in right-to-work and rent checks and restore some trust in the system. The largest survey of EU citizens’ experiences of the EU Settlement Scheme revealed that even after receiving their status, the majority do not trust their status is secure and future-proof.

Trust was broken when the government failed to deliver on the automatic grant of indefinite leave to remain promised in the 2016 campaign. This trust cannot be restored if the government consistently avoids engaging with genuine concerns from migrants’ rights organisations and be honest about the issues with the current scheme and the consequences. There is still time for the government to listen and engage with EU citizens, instead of dismissing concerns and pretending citizens’ rights is a debate of the past.


Note: The above was first published on Democratic Audit and represents the views of the author. Featured image credit: European Union 2017 – European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence

About the Author

Alexandra Bulat (@alexandrabulat) is completing her PhD studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University College London (UCL). Alexandra has been an advocate of EU migrants’ rights since 2016 and is currently the chair of Young Europeans, part of the EU citizens’ rights organisation the3million. She is also a volunteer with the charity Settled, advising EU citizens on their rights in the UK.

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