Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville (1742-1811), holds an infamous place in British constitutional history: he was the last person to be impeached. His acquittal by the House of Lords in 1806 marked the beginning of what has become a long pause in the use of an impeachment procedure against politicians or public officials. The last time that events got anywhere near interrupting this long pause came in 2004 when a number of MPs, including our present Prime Minister Boris Johnson, sought to impeach Tony Blair over the invasion of Iraq. The impeachment motion was co-drafted by experienced MPs and placed on the House of Common’s order paper, though proceeded no further (for the motion and background see J Simson Caird, ‘Impeachment’ House of Commons Briefing Paper).
But could it be that the turbulence of recent years when there have been many complaints about the government’s disrespect for accepted constitutional norms, now demands that we shake impeachment processes out of their sleepy historical stupor? It might be possible that reimagining impeachment at Westminster provides a way of ‘shifting the balance’ towards a healthier constitutional equilibrium. Such a shift might have positive effects beyond thinking solely in terms of the executive and the legislature. However, we would need to consider what a new blueprint for impeachment would actually look like. This is important for when we consider below the problem that needs to be addressed, which is an increasing trend for certain members of the executive to display behaviour that demonstrates a failure to show proper respect to the accepted constitutional norms.
The starting point is to address whether the executive is sufficiently responsible to the House of Commons for how it conducts the affairs of state and ministerial decision making.
The balance between the different branches of the state is key. This responsibility of ministers to Parliament is the lynchpin of the Westminster system of government and our unwritten constitution, developed over time through custom and practice, some of its principles are reiterated today in the Ministerial Code. In making a case for impeachment, I am concerned that the House of Commons, as it is empowered at present, is not fully capable of holding the executive to account in performing its basic function of ensuring ministerial decision-making and the conduct of affairs of state are undertaken in accordance with prevailing political morals, procedures and expectations.
In my view, there is now a tendency in executive conduct n either being not prepared to accept the traditional obligations imposed by the constitution and expressed in convention, or to be too willing to push constitutional boundaries. This undermines the political morality of the constitution and the centrality of ethics and obligations in our public life (see for example Andrew Blick and Lord Hennessy, ‘Good Chaps No More? Safeguarding the Constitution in Stressful Times’).
The accountability mechanisms that the Commons currently has as its disposal have inherent limitations. Ministerial question time and select committees, whilst used increasingly effectively in drawing attention to matters of constitutional controversy, can raise public awareness and so exert pressure, but are not directly capable of ensuring ministerial compliance with the accepted norms and principles of good governance. The last resort of a no confidence motion, which if successful will trigger a prime ministerial resignation or general election, is so self-destructive to backbench MPs of the governing party as to be arguably ineffective for the purpose of securing real accountability. This is because bringing down a Prime Minister could reek havoc within their own political party, risks electoral defeat if this is accompanied by a general election, will incur the wrath of constituency party members, and possibly see an MP lose their seat. It should be noted that a no confidence motion should be distinguished from the willingness of MPs to rebel against their own government, as is currently the case with the government and conservative MPs who do not support any further Covid-19 restrictions. This is because the intent is not to bring down the government, but rather to use the threat of undermining the government to influence policy.
A core problem is the lack of formal checks and balances in the UK’s unwritten constitution, and the dominance of the government over the legislature that has sovereign legal authority in the state. Where the Cabinet enjoys a comfortable majority in the Commons, as at present, and its own MPs and ministers are willing to accept or to ignore its leadership’s assault on the constitution, there is a virtual vacuum of accountability, however strenuous the attempts of the Supreme Court to fill the void.
There have been several well-catalogued cases of unconstitutional conduct in the last few years. They include the willingness of the present Prime Minister to abuse the royal prerogative to prorogue Parliament during the final crucial stages of the Brexit negotiations, and to undermine the reports of independent inquiries into cases of ministerial and parliamentary misconduct (see for example the criticism of the Prime Minister’s advice to the monarch concerning the prorogation of Parliament and the general background to the Supreme Court’s decision in R (on the application of Miller) v The Prime Minister).
This increased willingness to disregard constitutional norms for reasons of self-serving political expediency risks undermining respect for British political rules and customs generally. It poses potentially catastrophic consequences too if politicians come to believe that any course of conduct can now be justified and override constitutional niceties simply by reference to its electoral and parliamentary majority: this is pure populism, the antithesis of constitutionalism.
In my forthcoming book, Accountability, the Constitution and Impeachment: The Case for a Modernised Process in the United Kingdom (Routledge 2022), I argue that impeachment could provide a remedy. I envisage that the House of Commons could more overtly serve as the guardian of the constitution, possessing a modernised power of impeachment that focusses on breaches of the accepted norms of good governance, both in terms of competence and morality. It would not be concerned with allegations of criminal conduct which can and should be left to the ordinary courts.
This would be a statutory mechanism, established by my proposed Impeachment Act. It would enable a quorum of MPs, which would be twelve, to initiate investigation of serious ministerial misconduct, provide a framework through which investigations would remove fruitless or politically motivated actions, and an independent means of adjudication and outcome, further elaborated on below. At this point it is worth noting that the quorum of twelve MPs was chosen as the number would ensure that there was always the possibility that an impeachment could be brought, but the relatively low number required would be balanced out against the checks and balances within the statutory framework.
Its principal value would be as a form of deterrent. My proposed modernised procedure would certainly make it easier to bring an impeachment action (removing uncertainty over the existence of impeachment, drawing MPs attention to its utility, and stipulating parliamentary time and resources beyond the gift of government), but in practice it would be rarely used. Its main purpose would be as an ultimate sanction if ministers choose to ignore constitutional conventions, or are simply inept.
Its use as a deterrent would be further strengthened by including in the Impeachment Act a retrospective sanction, operating as a punitive sanction when the prime minister or minister is no longer protected by a government majority in the Commons. This would clearly distinguish it from a no confidence motion. It is clear that there could remain a valid reason for the House of Commons to proceed against former Prime Ministers, such as the continuing sustained criticism of Sir Tony Blair’s conduct over the invasion of Iraq (see for example the petition to rescind Blair’s knighthood). In the case of serving ministers backed by the government majority, an impeachment process could allow a small number of MPs to commence a time limited examination into allegations of unconstitutionality or incompetence. The point of this would be a high-profile case being made for impeachment that would be accompanied by a report by leading experts, which in itself could serve as a deterrent in the first place, even if the minister was in the short-term protected by their party’s majority in the Commons.
What would a modernised form of impeachment look like?
My proposals for a modernised impeachment process would be set out in an Impeachment Act. This reimagines impeachment, identifying its rationale and normative purpose, attempting to steer clear of the problems long associated with impeachment. For example, to address concerns over partisanship and MPs using impeachment to proceed against former ministers without merit for purely party-political purposes, I provide procedural safeguards. These include a central role played by the Speaker of the Commons, and a preliminary inquiry by an Independent Panel of Experts, followed by a report by an Impeachment Committee of the Commons. This committee would be specially created to carry out this purpose and would be independent of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
Historically, once the Commons voted to impeach an individual, then that individual was tried before the House of Lords under the presidency of the Lord Chancellor. Clearly this process has become an anachronism and the involvement of neither the Lords nor Lord Chancellor are desirable today.
If we are to draw up a modern impeachment process, it should draw on the experience of other comparative legislatures. A useful model is Denmark, where a minister who has been impeached by the legislature is then tried before a specially constituted Court of Impeachment. It was successfully utilised in 1995 in a gross case of illegal ministerial tampering with visa applications to prevent Tamil refugees entering the country.
The House of Commons would fulfil its role as the guardian of the constitution by calling out unconstitutional conduct and impeaching those responsible. The impeachment is not the final determination of guilt, and it is important that there is a separate forum for reaching a verdict, which would be the Court of Impeachment. In my book I suggest the Court for UK purposes be composed of seven senior judicial office holders and seven suitably qualified lay (non-parliamentary) members serving ten years terms of office. After the lengthy pre-trial processes in Parliament, it would fall to the Court to determine whether a violation of the constitution as set out in the letters of impeachment had occurred. If the answer was yes then, then unlike the traditional operation of English impeachment in times past, there would be no custodial sentence or fine. I envisage that the remedies available to the Court be limited to a declaration of misconduct and/or disqualification from holding public office.
The proposals for reform in my book, Accountability, the Constitution and Impeachment: The Case for a Modernised Process in the United Kingdom, may appear radical, controversial and out of time. However, an impeachment process operating to support and strengthen the authority of the legislature and sanction ministers to comply with ideas and practices of good governance operates successfully elsewhere and should be seriously considered for the UK. As a concept it was pioneered in England in former times and subsequently emulated in other countries in modernised forms.
A new impeachment process for the UK, working in the way set out at length and in detail in my book, is not designed to replace existing political accountability mechanisms, but rather to buttress and support those mechanisms, and draw attention to the great importance for ministers to respect the fundamental principles of good governance and our constitution.
Chris Monaghan is a Principal Lecturer in Law at the University of Worcester. I am grateful to Professor Robert Blackburn, Professor Matthew Flinders, Professor Alison Young and Professor Mike Gordon for their extremely helpful feedback.
Accountability, the Constitution and Impeachment: The Case for a Modernised Process in the United Kingdom will be published by Routledge in June 2022.
(Suggested citation: C. Monaghan, ‘Reimagining impeachment: A new blueprint for our challenging times’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (12th January 2022) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))