Boris Johnson and parliament: an unhappy tale in 13 acts

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliament returns from its summer break today. During Boris Johnson’s 13 months in office as Prime Minister his relationship with parliament has often been rocky. In this post, Unit Director Meg Russell reviews 13 episodes during these 13 months which illustrate Johnson’s difficult relationship with parliament. His Number 10 has often resisted parliamentary oversight, and faced down significant parliamentary opposition – including from his own backbenchers. With growing indications of backbench discontent, she explores the dangers of this situation.

As the Commons reassembles today, it’s a good moment to reflect on the relationship between Boris Johnson’s government and parliament so far. Johnson has now held office for just over a year, and rumours are emerging of significant discontent on the Conservative backbenches. From the outset, Johnson’s relationship with parliament has been beset with controversy. As he enters his second parliamentary year, what have been the key flashpoints, and what do they add up to collectively?

This post looks back at 13 episodes in the past 13 months, before reflecting on what they teach us, and what the future may hold. It suggests that while existing flashpoints have resulted from Number 10’s bold assertions of executive power, there are risks for Johnson that the tables could soon start to be turned.

1. The first day: two hours of scrutiny before recess

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on the afternoon of 24 July 2019, following his victory in the Conservative leadership contest. On that day, Theresa May took her final Prime Minister’s Questions. Johnson thus had just one day to face parliament, which was about to break for its summer recess. The hot topic was Brexit; May had been forced out after failing to gain adequate support from her own MPs for her Brexit deal, which was defeated three times in the Commons between January and March. Johnson had been among those voting against it. The big question was how he could succeed where Theresa May had failed. On 25 July there was a brief potential window for MPs to quiz him on his Brexit strategy. But he chose instead to make a far more general statement on ‘priorities for government’. After two hours of questions ranging across all policy topics, the Commons moved to adjourn until September. An attempt by MPs to delay adjournment had failed, as did a later attempt to recall parliament over the summer to discuss progress on Brexit. Recall is impossible without the agreement of the government.

2. The prorogation crisis 

The most notorious parliament-related episode of Johnson’s premiership was the attempted prorogation, which was announced on 28 August, before MPs had returned. The original plan was that parliament would be prorogued for five weeks, between mid-September and late October – with ‘exit day’ at that time planned for October 31. Prorogation had been a topic of debate during the leadership contest, following a suggestion from Dominic Raab that he might prorogue parliament to force a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Other candidates condemned the proposal, but Johnson was more guarded, simply stating that he was ‘not attracted’ to it. The prorogation was subsequently ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, in a case where those challenging the government’s position included former Conservative Prime Minister John Major. 

3. Response to the Benn-Burt Bill

The prorogation announcement strengthened the determination of those MPs who opposed ‘no deal’ to force the government into a further extension of the Article 50 Brexit period if agreement failed to be reached before 31 October. The vehicle they used was the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill, sponsored by Labour chair of the Exiting the EU Select Committee Hilary Benn and Conservative former minister Alistair Burt. On 3 September 21 Conservative MPs voted for a rebel motion that provided time for the bill to be debated. Johnson immediately stripped them all of the Conservative whip. The bill went on to pass, requiring Johnson to seek an extension to 31 January if parliament had failed to agree either a withdrawal agreement or a ‘no deal’ exit. There followed various suggestions in response from government sources, including that Johnson, who claimed that he would ‘rather die in a ditch’ than request an extension, might flout the law, and thereby ‘dare the Queen to sack him’. The Prime Minister’s inflammatory language attracted criticism, as he consistently referred to the legislation passed by parliament as the ‘surrender Act’. He ultimately did comply, but pointedly did not sign the letter requesting an extension and made clear that he opposed it.

4. The first Withdrawal Agreement Bill 

Johnson did secure a withdrawal agreement, which required parliamentary approval via the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. This passed its House of Commons second reading on 22 October. However, MPs had concerns about the timetable. The bill was scheduled for just three days’ scrutiny in the Commons for its remaining stages, which fell well short of that afforded similar large and complex bills. Ministers offered no flexibility, so MPs rejected the programme motion for the bill. Rather than return with an alternative timetable, Johnson chose not to proceed and instead demanded a general election, ultimately achieved through the Early General Election Act.

5. The manifesto 

The election that followed was strongly focused on Brexit, but also with much negative rhetoric from the Conservative side about parliament’s role. Johnson himself, launching the election campaign, suggested that ‘our MPs are just refusing time and again to deliver Brexit and honour the mandate of the people’. Similar words were repeated in the manifesto, which lamented the ‘failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit – the way so many MPs have devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people in the 2016 referendum’. This was, at the very least, debatable – Johnson himself, and other members of the Cabinet, had voted repeatedly against Theresa May’s Brexit deal. It is more accurate to describe the battle over Brexit as one between different elements of the Conservative Party, rather than one between government (or ‘the British people’) and parliament.

6. The second Withdrawal Agreement Bill

After the general election, won handsomely by the Conservatives, a new EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill was introduced to facilitate a 31 January exit. The new bill was in many respects similar to its October predecessor, but among the most notable changes were the ways in which it significantly weakened parliamentary oversight over the next stages of the process. No longer would parliament have a formal role in agreeing the government’s negotiating objectives over the future relationship with the EU. Parliament’s role in oversight of any resulting treaty was also to be diminished.

7. The Liaison Committee 

The House of Commons Liaison Committee brings together the chairs of all other select committees, and has an important role not only in overseeing the committee system, but also in holding evidence sessions with the Prime Minister. The primary controversy regarding the committee concerned the appointment of its chair. Previously, the chair had always been formally chosen by members of the committee. Instead, the government tabled a motion explicitly appointing Bernard Jenkin to the role. This delayed establishment of the committee, and provoked a backbench rebellion, but ultimately achieved its goal. Controversy surrounding the committee did not stop there. At Johnson’s first appearance in May, Jenkin repeatedly pressed that he should appear again before the summer recess, but these suggestions were ducked. Johnson had previously postponed or cancelled three appearances in front of the committee, angering its former chair, and has attended just once in 13 months.

8. COVID-19 regulations 

Much of the period of Johnson’s premiership has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This has placed huge and unique pressures on policy-making. But concerns have been expressed that policy is too often being made at short notice and with inadequate oversight, via delegated legislation. The Hansard Society’s analysis shows that over 200 statutory instruments have been laid to date on coronavirus-related matters. The great majority of these have used the ‘made negative’ procedure, so that they come into force before parliament has had to scrutinise them, and require no explicit parliamentary approval. Of these, two thirds have breached the standard expectation that instruments are laid at least 21 days before coming into force. There have been various cases, such as the introduction of the requirement to wear face coverings in shops, which were mooted in the media for weeks before publication of the relevant statutory instrument, but where the instrument finally published came into effect almost immediately, with no formal debate and approval of the matter in parliament. Experts have warned that such episodes ‘undermine the rule of law’.

9. Dominic Cummings and lockdown regulations

The controversy over the trip to Durham made by the Prime Minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings during lockdown was not strictly a parliamentary matter. But it was very striking that the Prime Minister chose to stand by Cummings despite public criticism of him by at least one in four Conservative MPs. I referred to this in a previous post as seeking to ‘defy the political laws of gravity’, as the Prime Minister ultimately depends on the confidence of his MPs, and their cooperation to deliver policy. More on this dynamic below.

10. The ending of the ‘hybrid’ House of Commons 

Another well-documented controversy concerned the way in which the government chose to end the operation of the ‘hybrid’ House of Commons during the pandemic – against opposition from other parties, many of its own backbenchers, and the Procedure Committee. Virtual proceedings began for committees over the Easter recess, and hybrid proceedings were agreed by MPs by consensus in April. However, cross-party agreement broke down immediately before the Whitsun recess when the Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg refused to renew the temporary orders that made hybrid proceedings possible. As a consequence, many MPs (including those who were ‘shielding’ from the virus, or living with others in this position) were prevented from voting in the decision in early June on whether to revert to physical proceedings. This raised serious concerns among experts about the breaching of democratic principles.

11. The House of Lords and York

Not all controversies have related to the House of Commons. Since soon after the general election there have been suggestions from government sources that the House of Lords might be moved to York. This has attracted criticism in the Lords itself, including during a Private Notice Question tabled in July by the former Conservative Cabinet minister Lord (George) Young of Cookham. This forced the government to concede that any such move would require parliamentary approval, but elicited no information about the extent of government resources being spent on the plans. Subsequently Boris Johnson suggested – again without parliamentary debate – that both chambers might move out of London to facilitate the planned ‘Restoration and Renewal’. But this proposal has effectively been rejected by the sponsor body organising the work.

12. The Intelligence and Security Committee 

A second spat regarding the chairing of a key committee occurred in July when Number 10 attempted unsuccessfully to install Chris Grayling as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. When members of the committee instead selected fellow Conservative Julian Lewis as chair, the Prime Minister responded by stripping him of the party whip. This once again demonstrated a determination to control from inside government matters which are fundamentally for parliament to decide. The overturning of Number 10’s choice was welcomed by many parliament-watchers, and the retribution against Lewis was seen as an overreaction.

13. Johnson’s 36 peerage appointments 

The most recent controversy concerned the long list of new peers announced by Downing Street on 31 July (conveniently, just after the Lords had gone into recess). While the pressure in recent years has been to manage the size of the House of Lords down, and committees in both the Commons and the Lords have agreed that appointments should be limited, with careful attention to party balance, these agreements were flouted by the new appointments, which bring the size of the Lords to well over 800 members. This led to sharp criticism from the Lord Speaker, former Conservative Cabinet minister Lord (Norman) Fowler. Such developments are worrying enough, but there have been suggestions that a further round of appointments may be coming, and that the Prime Minister intends to defy recommendations from the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which exists to ensure that new appointees to the chamber meet basic standards of propriety.

Conclusion

These 13 episodes involve a wide range of parliamentary structures and decision-making, but demonstrate some common themes. Frequently, the Number 10 machine seeks to make decisions without parliamentary approval – and even in the face of explicit parliamentary opposition, including from the government’s own backbenchers. Frequently it has caused concerns about constitutional propriety among both external experts and Conservative grandees. Some aspects of Johnson’s anti-parliamentary rhetoric have raised anxieties about a slide into ‘populism’, which actively breeds contempt among voters against their political institutions. Populism is widely associated with the dismantling of constitutional ‘checks and balances’ – including legislatures, but also other forms of restraint on executive power such as the judiciary, independent civil service and media. As pointed out in the recent book by journalist Anne Appelbaum, these questions have divided politicians of the right in many countries – some of which are now sliding into authoritarianism. There are therefore risks of which Conservative politicians, in particular, need to be aware. At a more practical level, however, it is also questionable whether these tactics can work in a strongly parliamentary democracy such as Britain. The government after all depends on parliament’s support to get its policies agreed, and ultimately to remain in office. With reports this week that Conservative MPs are feeling increasingly shut out and frustrated by the government, a situation of tension between government and parliament may simply be, as 1922 Committee vice-chair Charles Walker has put it, ‘unsustainable’. Now entering his second full year, it may therefore be time for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to make peace with parliament, or risk its retaliation.

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About the author

Professor Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit. Her books include The Contemporary House of Lords (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Legislation at Westminster (Oxford University Press, 2017). She is currently a Senior Fellow with the UK in a Changing Europe, working on ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’.

2 thoughts on “Boris Johnson and parliament: an unhappy tale in 13 acts

  1. Pingback: MPs are right. Parliament has been sidelined | The Constitution Unit Blog

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