By Joanna George
Research Associate, University of Cambridge
Liz Truss’s first week as Prime Minister has been constitutionally and historically significant. The passing of the UK’s longest reigning Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, and succession of King Charles III only two days after she succeeded Boris Johnson as Prime Minister marks an important turning point in the UK constitution. It comes at a time when key constitutional issues – such as the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the future of the Union and ethical standards in public life – require her urgent attention.
As was the case with her predecessor, Boris Johnson, the intervention of fate diverted Liz Truss’ plans for her first week – and potentially first few months – in office as Prime Minister. It was only last Monday that Truss was celebrating her Conservative Party leadership victory. On Tuesday she was officially sworn in as Prime Minister after meeting the Queen at Balmoral where she was asked to form a new Government. By Thursday evening, Queen Elizabeth II had sadly died, and King Charles III immediately became the UK’s new constitutional Monarch. On Friday it was clear that a new dawn for both the Monarchy and Government had started to move into motion. Constitutionally speaking, it was ‘a moment’.
The silent yet significant role of the Monarchy has long provided a stable and consistent background to the UK’s (increasingly) volatile and reactionary politics. Whilst at this early stage it is not yet known how King Charles III will perform his constitutional duties as Head of State, there is growing interest in how well he will conduct himself as ‘Head of Nation’. In this representative role the Sovereign acts as a focus for national identity, unity, and pride – a role that Queen Elizabeth II performed particularly well. At a time of significant political division, this role is arguably especially important. Beyond the immediate and potentially longer-term issues arising from the succession of Queen Elizabeth II by King Charles III, there is no shortage of other constitutional issues in the new Prime Minister’s in-tray.
A looming constitutional issue for Truss to contend with is the Supreme Court’s decision on the Lord Advocate’s question of whether a draft Scottish Independence Bill relates to reserved matters. There are a number of scenarios that could play out here. But should the Supreme Court route not work to the benefit of the SNP-led Scottish Government (which we will know by mid-October) the SNP has said that it will use the next Scottish Parliament election in 2026 as a mandate for Scottish Independence. With new arrangements for intergovernmental relations now in place along with a UK Government manifesto commitment to ‘strengthen the great union between the United Kingdom’s four nations’, the new Prime Minister — and Minister for the Union — will need to pay close to each part of the UK and to relations between them to avoid it from being collectively – and constitutionally – divided.
Parallel to this is the highly contentious Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, initiated by Truss herself, which is currently working its way through the House of Lords. It’s likely that she will push forward with the Bill unless an agreement is reached with a willing EU which has launched seven legal cases against the UK on matters relating to trade with Northern Ireland. There is also a chance that Article 16 of the Protocol could be triggered which would lead to further tensions with the EU. The timing of this is urgent. Since the Northern Ireland Assembly election in May, the DUP has refused to sit in Stormont until the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is near implementation. If a First Minister and deputy First Minister are not appointed by October, Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State will be legally mandated to call new elections. This, combined with the Supreme Court’s hearing on Scotland, indicates that October will be a constitutionally uncomfortable month for Truss.
One piece of legislation that is likely to be put on the backburner (at least for a few months anyway) is the Bill of Rights Bill which was put forward by former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab. The Bill was set to have its Second Reading today, but with criticism from across the legal profession, academia, civil society and within the Government itself, it was announced last week that it would be shelved for the time being. With it being well known that the new Home Secretary – and others within Government – wish for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, human rights reform will not be far off the agenda, particularly with a more stringent stance on migration being proposed.
With attention over the next few weeks largely fixed on the passing of the Queen and the succession of King Charles III, it would be easy to overlook what brought Truss into her new role – the downfall of Johnson because of his ethical lapses and role in presiding over a culture which greatly undermined standards in public life. Addressing such matters will be fundamental for the good working of government as well as faith in the institution of Parliament. As highlighted in a recent report by The Constitution Unit, voters deeply care about the honesty and integrity of politicians. Resisting calls and prolonging the appointment of a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests based on the argument that Truss has personally ‘always acted with integrity’ misses the constitutional point.
As highlighted in an earlier post, constitutional moments – as well as historical ones like the one we are currently living through – provide a opportunity to take stock and to think carefully about the whether the UK’s constitutional framework is functioning well or fraying at the edges. Many would argue that it is fraying. What can this new Government do better? Why has the UK departed in recent years from its more orthodox stance on issues (respect for rule of law, the importance of abiding by international law, upholding standards in public life etc) that the country has developed a historic reputation for? What is the constitutional intention of this new Prime Minister, and how can all aspects of constitutional issues work in sync and harmony with one another? These are just a few questions worthy of consideration. Whether they will be given the mindful attention that they deserve is another.