The State of the Constitution: Constitution Unit Conference 2022

This two-day conference is free to attend and will take place via Zoom webinar. It is organised by UCL’s Constitution Unit, in collaboration with the Oxford Constitutional Studies Forum, the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, and UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE).

Constitutional tensions are high. There are various contributing factors: the UK government’s approach to governing and its relationship with parliament and the courts; the continuing aftermath of Brexit including tensions over Northern Ireland; very different constitutional visions emerging from London, Edinburgh, and Cardiff; and scandals about standards in public life. What is the state of the constitution in 2022? What further changes are coming, and what should happen next?

This conference brings together an impressive range of speakers, including parliamentarians, academics and commentators to discuss many of the key issues in a series of subject-specific panels and a keynote address.


Day 1 – Wednesday 22 June

13:30-14:45 Constitutional Standards
The Johnson premiership has sparked numerous concerns about constitutional standards – from respect for checks and balances and the rule of law, to standards of behaviour among ministers, officials, and parliamentarians. A major review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2021 proposed significant change. These debates take place within a wider framework of concern about ‘democratic backsliding’. How can constitutional and democratic standards best be upheld, and norms of good behaviour be maintained?

Sir Jeremy Wright QC MP – Conservative MP for Kenilworth and Southam, and member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life
Professor Elizabeth David-Barrett – Director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex
Sir Peter Riddell – former Commissioner for Public Appointments and Honorary Professor at UCL
Professor Petra Schleiter – Joint Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford
Chair: Professor Meg Russell FBA – Director of the Constitution Unit, UCL

14:45-15:00 Break

15:00-16:15 Northern Ireland: how can power-sharing be revived?
Northern Ireland finds itself again without a functioning Executive or Assembly. All mainstream voices agree that the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement offers the only viable framework for politics in Northern Ireland in the coming years, but the risk of breakdown is severe. How can Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements be restored in the coming months? How far are solutions to be found in changes to the Protocol or to the 1998 Agreement? And what role should the government in London play in seeking a healthy outcome?

Julian Smith MP – Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon, and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Dr Mary Murphy – Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork
Dr Clare Rice – Research Associate, Department of Politics, University of Liverpool
Alan Whysall – Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit and former civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office
Chair: Professor Alan Renwick – Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, UCL

16:15 End of Day One

Day 2 – Thursday 23 June

09:15-10:30 The Future of the Union and Devolution
The UK’s ‘devolution settlement’ is unsettled. Alternative visions abound for how to achieve stability: through ‘muscular unionism’; by reforming intergovernmental relations; through wholesale federalisation; or by breaking up the Union. What is the current state of each of these options? How are they likely to develop in the foreseeable future? In so far as they are implemented, what impacts are they likely to have?

Lord (Andrew) Dunlop – Conservative peer, and former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Scotland Office and Northern Ireland Office
Professor Laura McAllister – Wales Governance Centre, University of Cardiff, and co-chair of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales
Sarah Sackman – Public and environmental lawyer, Matrix Chambers
Professor Michael Keating – Emeritus Professor of Politics, University of Aberdeen, and Fellow of the Centre on Constitutional Change
Chair: Professor Alan Renwick – Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, UCL

10:30-10:45 Break

10:45-12:00 The Role of the Courts
The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised to review the relationship between government, parliament and the courts. In particular, ministers had concerns about the growth of judicial review. Since then, there have been consultations on judicial review and the Human Rights Act, the Judicial Review and Courts Act has reached the statute book, and the government has proposed a new Bill of Rights. Simultaneously, some detect a ‘chilling’ effect on the courts. So, in the third year of the Johnson premiership, how much rebalancing has taken place, and what might still lie ahead?

Joanna Cherry QC MP – Scottish National Party MP for Edinburgh South West and former party spokesperson on Justice and Home Affairs
Sir Bob Neill MP – Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, and Chair of the Commons Justice Committee
Helen Mountfield QC – barrister and Principal of Mansfield College, University of Oxford
Martha Spurrier – Director, Liberty
Chair: Joshua Rozenberg QC (Hon) – legal commentator and journalist

12:00-12:15 Break

12:15-13:30 Parliament: the decline of scrutiny?
Johnson’s premiership has been marked by various controversies about parliament. On COVID-19, the government was accused of overusing delegated powers – adding to already long-standing concerns in this area. Subsequently, some primary legislation has been rushed, and the relationship between whips and backbenchers often difficult. Most recently, the proposed fast-track procedures for amending Retained EU Law and on human rights risk further sidelining parliamentarians. How concerned should we be about these developments, and how best can parliament respond?

Baroness (Angela) Smith of Basildon – Labour peer, and Shadow Leader of the House of Lords
William Wragg MP – Conservative MP for Hazel Grove, and Chair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
Dr Ruth Fox – Director of the Hansard Society
Dr Hannah White – Deputy Director of the Institute for Government
Chair: Dr Tom Fleming – Constitution Unit, UCL

13.30-16:00 Break

16:00-17:00 Keynote Speech: Rory Stewart
Rory Stewart was Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border between 2010 and 2019. He served in government under David Cameron and Theresa May, including as a Home Office minister and Secretary of State for International Development. As a former diplomat, he served on the House of Commons Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees, the latter of which he chaired from 2014 to 2015. In 2019, he contested the Conservative Party leadership against Boris Johnson, before being stripped of the party whip over Johnson’s approach to Brexit, and then stepping down from parliament. Among other things he is currently the co-host, with Alastair Campbell, of the popular podcast ‘The Rest is Politics’.

17:00 Conference close