Boris Johnson and parliament: misunderstandings and structural weaknesses

On 21 January Unit Director Meg Russell appeared on a panel with two former Conservative Chief Whips, reflecting on Boris Johnson’s troubled relationship with parliament as Prime Minister. In this post she presents her central arguments – that the Johnson government in its early months has seemed to demonstrate some basic misunderstandings about parliament and its role; but also the government’s behaviour has highlighted some of parliament’s key weaknesses.

In early September 2020 I wrote a blogpost on Boris Johnson and parliament, which documented 13 unhappy episodes in 13 months. I had originally aimed at producing a list of 10 such episodes, but found that there was just too much material. Some of the incidents were obvious – such as the attempted prorogation the previous September, ultimately ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Others have continued to bubble along unhappily in the subsequent months – including the persistent refusal by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to provide time for MPs to debate and agree proposals from the Procedure Committee to allow them to work virtually during the pandemic (frequently covered on this blog – see here and here), and the sporadic suggestions from government sources that the House of Lords should move to York. Some incidents were more obscure, but worth recalling for the record – such as Downing Street’s attempt to impose Chris Grayling as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (which rather dramatically backfired).

Of course that post was written five months ago, and the list continues to gets longer. It predated, for example, the dramatic showdown with former Conservative leaders over the government’s Internal Market Bill. It predated the announcement of the new Christmas lockdown rules during Commons recess, and the government’s refusal to allow a recall to debate them – despite protests by numerous Conservative backbenchers. It noted Johnson’s excessive first round of Lords appointments, but not his second within six months – both in clear breach of the Lord Speaker’s hardfought attempts to control the size of the chamber. It predated Johnson’s overruling of the House of Lords Appointments Commission’s recommendations on propriety, for the first time by any Prime Minister in the Commission’s 20-year existence.

Each of these episodes is undoubtedly both eye-catching and troubling. But rather than extending the list, this post seeks to explore the bigger and more interesting question of what patterns they suggest. What do these episodes tell us both about Johnson, and about parliament itself? It does so by drawing out three main themes. Two of these indicate both problems and a kind of robustness in the system, which has shown an ability to bounce (or perhaps bite) back. The third, however, indicates areas that need attention.

The benefits of parliamentary scrutiny

The first theme is a seeming general failure on the part of the Johnson administration to appreciate the value of policy oversight and scrutiny. A naïve reading would suggest that when you’re in government parliamentary scrutiny is essentially a nuisance that slows you down. Obviously, some party-political point-scoring – designed simply to embarrass a government, or delay things – does go on at Westminster. But there’s much, much more to parliamentary scrutiny than that.

Scrutiny, from your own side as well as your opponents, and from external observers including the media and specialist groups when things are discussed in the public forum of parliament, is an essential means of spotting policy flaws, loopholes or unintended consequences. The very process of a minister having to defend policy on the floor of either chamber, or in front of an expert select committee, provides a useful stress test to make sure that they’ve got the policy right. And it’s not just a matter of parliament winning through tripping a minister up – often scrutiny has a preventative effect

The fact that a policy faces cross-examination forces ministers and officials to properly think it through in advance. They will look harder for the loopholes themselves if they know these could be exposed under parliamentary examination. Hence, for various reasons, robust scrutiny leads to better and more robust government policy.

The best politicians recognise this, and welcome dialogue with parliament and stress testing of their policies. It is often the less capable – and potentially more dangerous – politicians who prefer just to assume that they know best.

Similar arguments can be made about the value of other checks and balances in the constitution, such as regulators and courts. Untrammelled executive power is rarely a route to good policy.

Behind-the-scenes interactions and the role of government backbenchers

My second theme relates to another kind of naïvety about how parliament works. 

It’s a frequent caricature of Westminster that parliament is weak, government always gets its way, and backbenchers mostly do what they’re told. But that’s a myth, and politicians who fall for it tend to wind up in trouble. Theresa May perhaps fell for it over her Brexit deal – which was subjected to the biggest government defeat ever recorded, with more than 100 Conservative MPs voting against it. Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg certainly fell for the myth when leading the coalition government’s proposals on Lords reform – which were withdrawn after numerous Conservative backbenchers indicated their opposition. In both cases these politicians sought to lead where government backbenchers just weren’t prepared to go.

In fact, the lack of conflict between ministers and their backbenchers that often characterises Westminster isn’t a result of blind loyalty. It’s often a result of lots of hard work and behind-the-scenes communication and negotiation. When that system works properly, policies lacking backbench support generally don’t get put at all.

Clearly under the pandemic, with lots of people absent, detecting the parliamentary mood has been more difficult than usual. But also, at least at the early stages, the Johnson administration simply didn’t seem to comprehend this dynamic. 

A politician who understood the importance of behind-the-scenes communication to winning and maintaining parliamentary support really wouldn’t suggest moving one of its chambers to the other end of the country. That would instantly fracture communication – both between government and parliament, and between the chambers – and hugely increase the risk of conflict. Hence, of 80 two-chamber parliaments around the world, just one sites the two chambers in different cities. And that’s essentially an experiment, in Côte d’Ivoire, which has only recently gone bicameral.

Likewise with respect to the Commons, it initially appeared that Johnson wasn’t really interested in listening to or responding to the mood. Moments like the rebellion on the coronavirus regulations led by Graham Brady, the 1922 Committee chair, have made clear that that simply will not do.

Perhaps someone who aspires to be world king not only assumes that they know best, but also that others will meekly follow their judgement. But to succeed as a leader in a parliamentary system – where you depend on MPs to keep your job – you need to be as good at listening as at pronouncing. Perhaps those lessons have to an extent now been learnt.

Key structural weaknesses of parliament

Those points were both about the strength of parliament. My third point is about its weakness. 

While backbenchers can bite back, and some rebalancing be achieved, recent episodes have also demonstrated parliament’s structural weaknesses when faced with an executive that seems determined to go its own sweet way.

With respect to the Lords, the problem of unregulated prime ministerial appointments has been obvious for very many years. In the early 20th century the chamber had around 600 members. By the end of that century it had more than double that. Only the Blair reform removing most hereditary peers brought its size down again. Indeed the first bill seeking to limit the number of Lords appointments was debated over 300 years ago.

Prime ministers just find it hard to resist handing out patronage, and trying to bolster their own side. Some, like Theresa May, are better at controlling these urges than others. Boris Johnson is worse. The only sure way of preventing the Lords collapsing under its own weight is to put statutory limits on appointments. 300 years is more than enough to wait.

With respect to the Commons, the Achilles heel is government control of when the chamber sits and what it can discuss. That explains how Jacob Rees-Mogg can repeatedly block the Procedure Committee’s proposals on extending virtual participation. It explains how ministers can deny debate on coronavirus regulations, and refuse a recall when MPs demand it. And of course, it explains the attempted prorogation of September 2019.

The Constitution Unit, with UK in a Changing Europe, has recently published a major report on those issues, entitled Taking Back Control. If Westminster is to be a sovereign parliament post-Brexit the Commons needs a far greater say over its own affairs, rather than having to beg time from the very government that it ostensibly controls. The report emphasises the unfinished business left from the ‘Wright Committee’ of 2009-10, some of whose proposals on government control were never put into effect. Most centrally the report suggests that the Commons should vote on its weekly agenda, as occurs for example in the Scottish Parliament. Various senior figures from across the political spectrum have welcomed these proposals, and the priority is now to put them into effect.

So in sum, the turbulence under the Johnson government has demonstrated – inadvertently, and sometimes to its own costs – key aspects of parliament’s strength that are often misunderstood. But it has also shown up key weaknesses in both chambers that urgently need to be addressed.

This text is an adapted version of Meg Russell’s introductory remarks at the recent joint Constitution Unit and UK in a Changing Europe event ‘Boris Johnson and parliament’, at which the other speakers were former Conservative Chief Whips Mark Harper MP and Lord (George) Young of Cookham. The recording of the event can be accessed here.

About the author

Professor Meg Russell FBA  is Director of the Constitution Unit and co-author of Taking Back Control: Why the House of Commons Should Govern its Own Time. 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’.

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