The Johnson government, and the Prime Minister himself, have been much criticised for their propensity for breaking rules, laws and conventions. Tim Bale argues that the government seems bent on freeing itself from the constraints that we used to take for granted, and has embraced populism in a reckless manner. He calls on ministers to reconsider their attitude to the rules of the constitutional system before it is too late.
I’m no expert on the constitution, the courts or the more arcane aspects of parliamentary procedure. But I can, I suppose, claim to know a bit about the Conservative Party. And I’m growing increasingly concerned.
The party has always been protean – shifting its shape, changing its colours like a chameleon to best suit the conditions in which it finds itself. But there have always been limits.
Margaret Thatcher may have been a disruptor, particularly when it came to undoing the post-war settlement to which her predecessors reluctantly agreed. Yet one always felt she had a basic respect for the conventions of representative democracy and the rule of law, even on those occasions where she and her governments pushed against them.
And the same went for her successors as Conservative premiers, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May. But Boris Johnson? I’m not so sure.
Wherever you look now, you see a government seemingly bent on freeing itself from the constraints that we used to take for granted – and that, in some ways, our uncodified constitution and parliamentary conventions left us little choice but to take for granted.
The examples are legion. The foreseeably illegal prorogation of parliament. The insouciance over the possibility of breaking international law and effectively reneging over commitments so recently made on Northern Ireland. The point-blank refusal to take action against a Cabinet colleague found to have breached the Ministerial Code. The brushing off of court judgments concluding that a succession of ministers have acted unlawfully. The casual willingness to mislead parliament. The way that PMQs has become even more of a farce than it was before. And most recently the proposal to strip powers from the Electoral Commission, which comes on top of plans to insist on voters having photo ID to combat a problem that the evidence suggests doesn’t really exist.
You may scoff at the idea that we live in a post-truth era. But, when it comes to politics, I’m afraid we’re not just heading in that direction; we’ve have already arrived.
As a middle-aged history buff I’m naturally inordinately fond of telling people with all the patronising pomposity at my command that ‘We’ve been here before.’ But in this case I’m honestly not sure that we have. Respect for the rules of the game or, at the very least, the fear of getting caught breaking them no longer seems to be widespread in the upper echelons of government. Before Matt Hancock resigned as Health Secretary, the last Cabinet minister to fall on their proverbial sword was Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns, who went in early November 2019, his offence (endorsing a former aide as a candidate for the Welsh Assembly despite allegedly knowing he had played a part in the collapse of a rape trial) being so egregious that he really had no choice.
It is just about possible, of course, that Hancock being forced out might give some pause for thought. But I doubt it. It took an unknown whistleblower to go as far as to pass footage from a CCTV camera inside a ministerial office to a tabloid to catch the former Health Secretary in a ‘steamy clinch’ – and even then, it’s abundantly clear that he and the PM were initially convinced that he could and should hang on to his job.
It’s as if Johnson and his colleagues, buoyed up by a largely supportive (if occasionally tetchy) print media, a cowed broadcast media, and an apparently unassailable Commons majority, have realised that – except in the most blindingly obvious, ‘caught in the act and on camera’ cases – the emperor has no clothes. They’ve woken up to the fact that the checks and balances we’ve rather naively assumed would always impose limits on any government, Tory or Labour, can be ignored with little or nothing in the way of consequences, electoral or otherwise.
Given the traditional weakness of the opposition in the UK system, whether this continues to be the case will depend in large part on whether Conservative backbenchers are willing to go the way of their Republican counterparts across the pond – sticking to a Faustian pact with a populist leader that sees them saying and doing (and putting up with) pretty much anything that leader does, even when at least some of them know in their hearts that what he’s doing may be damaging the very democracy they purport to uphold.
True, there are a bunch of Tory MPs willing to challenge their government over COVID-19 regulations. But ask yourself this: how many of them are protesting purely to preserve civil liberties rather than because they’ve somehow convinced themselves that lockdowns don’t actually work?
According to John Stuart Mill, ‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.’ I know I can’t be the only one to worry that this might be precisely what is happening on the right of the political spectrum in Britain – just as it’s happened in other places previously and (as other contributors to this blog have noted) is happening again, both in East European countries like Hungary and Poland and in the United States of America.
The British Conservative Party, perhaps more so than most other mainstream centre-right parties in Europe, has long flirted with populism – even (her critics would doubtless say ‘especially’) under Margaret Thatcher. But it has never embraced it as fully, and as recklessly, as it seems to be doing right now. Let’s just hope it comes to its senses before it’s too late.
This post is one of a series of posts by speakers at the Unit’s conference on the government’s constitutional reform agenda. Professor Bale appeared during the final panel of the conference, entitled Rebalancing between parliament, executive and the courts, alongside Unit Director Meg Russell, former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve and Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The panel is available free of charge on YouTube and on our podcast.
About the author
Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.