Monitor 81. Johnson falls; what’s next for the constitution?

Today, the Unit published the 81st edition of Monitor, which provides analysis of the key constitutional news of the past four months. In this post, which also serves as the issue’s lead article, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on the collapse of Boris Johnson’s government, increasing concerns about ministerial and parliamentary standards, and continuing doubts about the future of the Union.

The preoccupying question in UK politics over recent months increasingly became when – rather than whether – the Prime Minister would be forced from office. In April, Boris Johnson was fined for breaching restrictions on social gatherings during lockdown, and the Commons referred him to its Privileges Committee for allegedly misleading parliament. In May, the Conservatives suffered steep losses in the local elections, and Sue Gray’s official report into ‘partygate’ was finally published, concluding that the ‘senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility’ for the culture of disregard for the rules that had emerged. In June, Johnson survived a vote of no confidence among his MPs and the loss of two parliamentary by-elections, followed by the resignation of the Conservative Party Co-Chair, Oliver Dowden. But the resignation of Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher in early July, and Number 10’s bungled reaction to it, finally brought the Prime Minister down.

While Johnson’s personal misconduct and dishonesty were the immediate triggers for his fall, there had long been disquiet over more systemic manifestations of his disregard for rules and norms of fair play. The former minister Jesse Norman, for example, in a letter withdrawing his support, said the Prime Minister was seeking to govern in a way ‘that is entirely foreign to our constitution and law’. Even in the nature of his departure, Johnson sought to defy the logic of the UK’s parliamentary system: claiming a personal mandate more akin to that in a presidential system, seeking to stay put when ministerial resignations showed that his government had all but collapsed, and causing concern that he might seek to appeal to the public over the heads of his MPs by demanding a general election. Perhaps his departure ultimately showed the robustness of the constitution, but his behaviour certainly put the system under significant strain.

In the months before Johnson’s resignation, his government’s actions had continued to imperil the rule of law. Few legal experts found ministers’ defence of the legality of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill credible. The Bill of Rights Bill, which seeks to replace the Human Rights Act, has been heavily criticised by legal experts – including former Supreme Court President Baroness (Brenda) Hale of Richmond – on numerous grounds. A policy of deporting selected asylum seekers to Rwanda was seen even by some commentators on the right as having been designed more to provoke a fight with lawyers than to solve the underlying problem.

Meanwhile, parliament continued to be sidelined. The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act, which became law in March, removed the requirement for parliamentary approval if the Prime Minister wants an early general election – generating the controversy above about Johnson seeking to circumvent his removal. Multiple bills before parliament – including the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and Online Safety Bill – contain significant new powers for ministers to act without detailed scrutiny. The promised ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’ threatens to do the same. Parliamentary oversight has been avoided on several international agreements. Multiple concerns have been expressed about the government’s treatment of select committees.

Independent regulators have also faced ongoing pressures. The Elections Act, passed in April, limits the independence of the Electoral Commission. Parts of the Online Safety Bill would have similar effects on Ofcom. Changes to the Ministerial Code implemented previous recommendations selectively – adopting those that solidified the Prime Minister’s freedom of manoeuvre, but setting aside those that would have limited it. The Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests resigned, apparently after being asked to provide a fig leaf for further law-breaking.

As several recent issues of Monitor – and the first in a new series of Constitution Unit briefings – have tracked, the Johnson government has sought to strengthen the executive at the expense of long-standing checks and balances. It has done so in pursuit of policy delivery. But strong checks and balances are essential to ensure that policy proposals are effectively thought through, diverse voices to be heard, and vulnerable minorities to be protected. The patterns seen in the UK in recent times closely fit the internationally recognised symptoms of democratic backsliding. As democratic nations seek to overcome Russia’s vicious autocratic attack on Ukraine, they must also keep their own houses scrupulously in order.

Beyond Westminster, battles over the future of the Union continue. In June the Supreme Court was asked to rule on whether the Scottish Parliament can call an independence referendum without Westminster’s consent – promising a vote in October 2023 if it says yes, and otherwise to treat the next general election as a de facto referendum. In May, Sinn Féin topped the poll in a Northern Ireland Assembly election for the first time. That entitles it to the position of First Minister, but the Democratic Unionist Party have blocked the creation of a new Executive, and the future of power-sharing teeters in the balance.

Meanwhile, some reforms outside Westminster have occurred. Strengthened arrangements for coordination among the governments in the UK, agreed in January, have been implemented. In Wales, Labour and Plaid Cymru agreed a package of reforms that should see a much needed expansion in the size of the Senedd – though at the expense of a new voting system that will please only the Labour machine. In Scotland, the government made progress towards implementing its pledge to build more public deliberation into the democratic process.

The Unit’s well-attended conference in June on the State of the Constitution explored many of these themes. The five panels – on constitutional standards, the Union, Northern Ireland, the role of the courts, and parliament – and the keynote address by former Conservative MP Rory Stewart are now available as videos and podcasts

This edition of Monitor is published as Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss campaign to become Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister. All candidates in the contest acknowledged that trust in the government will need to be restored. Our ongoing research into public attitudes towards the functioning of democracy in the UK – including the findings of the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK, published in April – show that people care deeply about honesty and integrity among their elected representatives and are distrustful of power concentrated in the hands of ministers. The Unit has set out five key questions for the candidates – on constitutional standards, parliamentary scrutiny, the rule of law, protection of norms and checks and balances – which they must answer if trust is to be restored, and our democracy put back on track.

Monitor 81 is available to download from the Unit website.

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About the authors

Meg Russell FBA is Professor of British and Comparative Politics and Director of the Constitution Unit. Constitution’. 

Alan Renwick is Professor of Democratic Politics at UCL and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit. He leads the Unit’s ESRC-funded project on Democracy in the UK after Brexit.

Featured image credit: The Prime Minister makes a statement in Downing Street (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by HM Treasury.