Triple whammy: three court cases, three meaningful votes and three years since the Brexit vote, but not a lot of progress – a review of the political year 2019
At the risk of understatement, it’s an unusual parliamentary year that is bookended by a group of MPs taking the government to court over their powers, while in between, a former first minister does the same to the government he used to lead.
But then, there is nothing normal about the situation we now find ourselves in.
If Theresa May or Nicola Sturgeon were given to quoting Latin like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, they would no doubt describe this year as an ‘annus horribilis’.
For Theresa May, the nightmare is now over, she can take walking holidays to her heart’s content and sleep easy at night knowing she only has to throw stones at Boris Johnson from the backbenches, but for Nicola Sturgeon, many of the challenges remain.
In July 2018, which seems like a lifetime ago now, Theresa May presented her ‘Chequers deal’ to her cabinet, setting out the kind of relationship with the EU that she was looking to achieve in the Brexit negotiations.
The ministers involved had their phones confiscated while they were locked in the PM’s country retreat, like some kind of team-building exercise, involving an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery or a lock-in game.
But rising to the gravity of the situation, Dominic Raab described the plan as a “detailed proposal for a principled, pragmatic and ambitious future partnership between the UK and the EU”.
However, that positivity was short-lived, with then Brexit secretary David Davis resigning in opposition to it two days later and foreign secretary Boris Johnson following the day after that.
Raab succeeded Davis, only to resign himself in November 2018, after disagreeing with the deal that he had negotiated.
He has now become foreign secretary in Boris Johnson’s government, either a pleasing symmetry or a weird love triangle, depending on how you look at it.
September saw May looking forlorn in Salzburg at a summit as one by one, EU leaders piled on to rubbish her plan.
Donald Tusk said: “We all agreed Chequers proposals for economic co-operation will not work, not least because it will undermine the single market,” while he also issued an ultimatum for coming to an agreement on the Northern Irish backstop by October or the negotiations would be off.
As it became less and less likely that a deal could be reached, just months from when the UK was scheduled to leave the EU, a cross-party group of Scottish politicians took the UK Government to court over the UK’s power to unilaterally withdraw Article 50 and reverse its decision to leave the EU without the approval of other member states.
SNP MSP Joanna Cherry, SNP MEP Alyn Smith, Green MSPs Andy Wightman and Ross Greer and Labour MEPs David Martin and Catherine Stihler, along with lawyer Jolyon Maugham of the Good Law Project, challenged the UK Government in the Court of Session and UK Supreme Court to have the case heard by the European Court of Justice and they won, while the ECJ ruled that MPs could unilaterally withdraw Article 50.
Cherry called the ruling a “huge victory” and it fuelled calls for a second referendum, or ‘people’s vote’, on leaving the EU, with the possibility that the UK could decide not to leave after all.
Despite the period of doubt, May did come to a deal with the EU, but it was clear from the outset that the compromise she came to would not be popular.
Just as the ECJ ruling came in December, she postponed a vote on her deal amid widespread predictions that the UK Government would lose the vote.
This was widely criticised as running the clock down towards a no-deal Brexit, leaving MPs with little time to make changes or for a negotiation of alternatives.
May survived a vote of no confidence by her own MPs in December, giving her a year without the risk of future challenge.
When she brought the first of her ‘meaningful votes’ on 15 January 2019, the one that had been postponed from 11 December, she lost by 432 votes to 202, which will go down in history, but not for the reasons she might wish.
The 230-vote defeat was the worst for any government in modern parliamentary history, with 118 Conservative MPs, as well as 248 Labour MPs, the SNP, Lib Dems, DUP, Plaid Cymru, Green and independent MPs all voting against it.
Immediately after, Jeremy Corbyn called for a vote of no confidence in the government, which was held on 16 January, but the government won the vote by 325 to 306.
A second vote on May’s deal took place on 12 March, which reduced the UK Government’s margin of loss to 149.
Speaker John Bercow then caused controversy by intervening to block a third vote on the same deal, ruling that “the same proposition or substantially the same proposition” could not be brought back in the same parliamentary session.
The political declaration was then removed from the ballot in order to make it a slightly different proposition.
Meanwhile, although a clear majority of MPs voted against no-deal, a series of ‘indicative votes’ by MPs intent on finding a way forward only showed that it was impossible to get a majority of MPs to rally round any one alternative option.
This game of brinkmanship failed, though, at a third vote on the withdrawal agreement on 29 March.
In the end, May’s deal was voted down again, albeit by a smaller margin than in the previous two votes.
Instead, the UK Government was forced to ask for an extension to Article 50, initially until the end of June, and then until 31 October to allow more time to reach an agreement, much to the chagrin of those who voted to leave.
May had promised to resign if the deal was passed, but after losing the third vote, she considered the possibility of a fourth vote and promised she would bring the withdrawal agreement to the parliament.
However, due to huge opposition, she postponed the publication from 24 May to 4 June, and instead, resigned as prime minister.
Meanwhile in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon had her own problems.
Allegations that emerged at the end of August 2018 of former first minister Alex Salmond having sexually assaulted two women while he was first minister became a threat and an embarrassment to the Scottish Government.
Firstly, permanent secretary to the Scottish Government Lesley Evans came under fire after Alex Salmond complained that procedures had not been followed correctly and announced he would pursue a civil case, funded by crowdfunding, against the Scottish Government over its handling of the investigation.
In response, Evans defended herself strongly, saying that Salmond’s statement contained “significant inaccuracies” and that the Scottish Government would “defend its position vigorously”.
However, it lost the case, with judge Lord Pentland ruling that the investigation was unlawful and “tainted with apparent bias”, which resulting in the government having to pay Salmond’s costs.
Nicola Sturgeon apologised on behalf of the government, saying it was “deeply, deeply regrettable” that the Scottish Government had to settle the matter and drop the investigation, and she apologised to the women who had made complaints against Salmond.
But in a further shocking turn of events, in January 2019, Alex Salmond was arrested and charged with 14 offences: two attempted rapes, nine sexual assaults, two indecent assaults and a breach of the peace. Salmond said he was “innocent of any criminality” and would defend himself “to the utmost”.
A date has not yet been set for the case, but there will be concerns about what may come out in the trial, or in the parliamentary enquiry which is to follow, about who knew what, when, and potentially it could be damaging for the party, and especially for Sturgeon.
Separately, her conduct has been under scrutiny after it emerged in February that three meetings and two telephone conversations had been brokered between the current and former first minister during which Salmond informed her of the Scottish Government case.
However, it had not been recorded in the ministerial diary and had only later been shared with the permanent secretary, leading to questions over her handling of the issue.
On a ‘day job’ level, there have also been questions about the SNP’s handling of both education and health, given the series of infections in the new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, the growing scandal over the Sick Kids Hospital in Edinburgh not opening on time, failure to meet waiting times targets, problems with teacher and doctor recruitment, P1 testing and a reduction in subject choices under Curriculum for Excellence.
Meanwhile, a deeper and more existential crisis than whether Scotland will remain part of the UK or the UK part of the EU hit the headlines as a new climate movement emerged following campaigning by the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, with young people skipping school to call for action and campaign group Extinction Rebellion staging publicity stunts that pushed climate change higher up the political agenda worldwide.
This led the Scottish Government to declare a ‘climate emergency’, but what that actually means in practice in terms of a change in policy direction remains to be seen over the next year.
Throughout the year, Sturgeon has also faced the challenge of negotiating the ‘now but not yet’ of a second independence referendum.
Having announced on the morning after the Brexit vote in June 2016 that she would call another referendum, but would wait until things were clearer on Brexit, likely to be late 2019 or early 2020, she has been under pressure from within her own party to follow that up with action.
A referendum bill was published in March, setting out the broad terms of any future referendums in Scotland and Sturgeon announced she would plan to hold another referendum before the next Scottish Parliament election in 2021.
Back at Westminster, as predicted, Boris Johnson was chosen to succeed May and that has been followed by a boost in the polls for the Conservatives, making the chance of holding an independence referendum before 2021 look unlikely, with neither Johnson nor any Conservative leader thereafter willing to grant the necessary Section 30 order, and the Scottish Government having ruled out some kind of Catalan-style wildcat referendum without the appropriate legislation.
This might suit Sturgeon fine, though, giving her time to build up support and fight an election explicitly on that issue.
In the meantime, a series of citizens’ assemblies will be held to find out people’s views on various issues, including devolution, but opposition parties are suspicious that they are more about the question of independence and have refused to be involved.
The possibility of indyref2 did open up again recently, were there to be a change of government, when Labour deputy leader John McDonnell, interviewed at a Fringe event in Edinburgh, said Labour would not block a second independence referendum if the people of Scotland wanted one.
“We would not block something like that. We would let the Scottish people decide. That’s democracy. There are other views within the party, but that’s our view,” he said.
No sooner had McDonnell’s remarks been made public than both Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard and a group of Scottish Labour parliamentary candidates separately issued comments saying that the party was opposed to a second referendum, raising questions about who is in control.
It has been a tough year for Labour. It’s been unable to find a clear line on Brexit, with the party voting to support a confirmatory vote on Brexit while Jeremy Corbyn followed a less clear line on a ‘people’s vote’ on no-deal or a Conservative deal, but the preference being for a general election and a Labour deal, as well as ongoing questions over its handling of anti-Semitism within the party.
But if it’s been a bad year for Labour, there has been much better news for the Lib Dems, with good results for them at the European elections in May and in opinion polls since, while they reduced the Conservative majority at Westminster to just one, including support from the DUP, after they took the Brecon and Radnorshire seat in a by-election.
And on a more positive note for Sturgeon, the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit, as well as the choice of Boris Johnson as Conservative leader, may have led to a boost in support for independence, although whether the one poll showing a majority now in favour of independence reflects a long-term trend or just an initial reaction remains to be seen.
We also learned a new word this year. Safe to say, few people knew the term ‘prorogue’ before, but following Johnson’s suggestion that he might suspend parliament during October to prevent MPs blocking no-deal, a second court case is being put to the Court of Session by a cross-party group of MPs, which again includes Joanna Cherry as well as Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and independent Heidi Allen.
They will put the case that asking the Queen to suspend parliament for political reasons is unconstitutional and beyond the powers of the UK Government.
But if the case succeeds, the question is whether it will make any difference.
Even without suspending parliament, there is little time left for MPs to produce any alternative to a no-deal Brexit, and little chance of them coming up with anything, beyond postponing it further, with the EU having made clear that it will not renegotiate and Boris Johnson’s government increasingly making preparations to leave without a deal, making this the most likely outcome.
If there’s one thing we can say, amidst this Byzantine complexity, it seems that at last, ‘something has changed’, but whether for the better or worse, we’ll find out in the coming months.