The UK’s constitutional norms and standards took a severe battering under Johnson: Labour should pledge to restore the system

There is no guarantee that the Johnson government’s dismal record on safeguarding our democracy will be improved upon by the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss. This creates big opportunities for Labour to offer a real alternative by restoring integrity and accountability to politics, writes Meg Russell.

Concerns about honesty and integrity and the erosion of constitutional norms were central to Boris Johnson’s dramatic downfall. The new Prime Minister’s attitudes in this area remain largely untested – though the omens during this summer’s leadership contest were not good. Meanwhile, public opinion research suggests that voters really care about these questions. That presents significant opportunities for Labour.

The charge sheet against Johnson was remarkably long. The journalist Peter Oborne, formerly political editor of the Spectator and a Telegraph columnist, dedicated both a website and a book to chronicling Johnson’s uneasy relationship with the truth. This trait was well known before he assumed the premiership and to an extent ‘priced in’. But the difficulties under his leadership went far wider, covering multiple aspects of integrity in politics and respect for the essential rules and norms that underpin UK democracy. This often put him at odds with regulators and non-political figures holding responsibility for maintaining the system, as well as with senior figures in his own party.

One glaring example concerned ministerial standards, and adherence to the Ministerial Code. Prime Ministers have an independent adviser who helps police the code, but two successive officeholders resigned in protest over Johnson’s behaviour. Johnson became the first Prime Minister to overrule the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission over the propriety of one of his peerage nominees (Peter Cruddas, a major Conservative donor). His appointments to the Lords were excessive (and often controversial), attracting harsh criticisms from previous Lord Speaker Norman Fowler – a respected former Conservative Cabinet minister. There were also persistent concerns about other public appointments, including an attempt to install former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as the Chair of Ofcom. When Johnson asked his MPs to overrule the findings of the cross-party Commons Standards Committee into his old ally Owen Paterson, they ultimately resisted and forced a U-turn.

Generally, Johnson’s relationship with parliament was difficult, reflecting his reluctance to face scrutiny and accountability. The most famous manifestation was 2019’s attempted five-week prorogation, subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court. Although it was denied at the time, those close to Johnson subsequently admitted that this was done to allow the pursuit of a no-deal Brexit, which MPs had explicitly rejected. This desire to avoid checks on his powers was also demonstrated through disproportionate use of delegated legislation (over which MPs have limited control) to impose COVID-19 restrictions, rushed timetables even for key government bills, and heavy-handed whipping. This all fed ill feeling on the backbenches; but more importantly it overlooked the fact that scrutiny is essential to good policy: ill-considered measures risk storing up trouble later.

Johnson’s threats to flout conventions went even further when it came to protecting his own position. In 2019, Downing Street briefed that he might respond to a no confidence motion by ‘daring the Queen to sack him’, and in 2022 many feared he might evade his MPs by calling an early general election if they insisted on his removal. In a system with a core principle that government is accountable to parliament, Johnson seemed to believe that he possessed a personal presidential mandate that simply did not exist.

Finally, there were worrying signs of disrespect for the rule of law, particularly regarding plans to legislate domestically for changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol integral to his Brexit deal, notwithstanding that it formed part of an international treaty that Johnson himself had signed. On the first occasion, this triggered the resignation of the head of the Government Legal Department, Jonathan Jones, and protests from former Conservative leaders, including Theresa May and Lord (Michael) Howard of Lympne. Those plans were dropped, but subsequently re-emerged.

In the end, it was the lying that brought Johnson down. He faced persistent allegations of misleading parliament (itself a breach of the Ministerial Code) over ‘partygate’, for which he was referred to the House of Commons Privileges Committee. But the final straw came when he apparently asked ministers to cover up what he had known about the behaviour of former deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher. This sparked an unprecedented wave of ministerial resignations, starting with that of Sajid Javid, whose resignation letter observed that ‘The British people… rightly expect integrity from their government’. Multiple subsequent letters made similar points. 

It was surprising, then, that questions of propriety and constitutional standards were nearly invisible during the Conservative leadership contest. One early exception was the Channel 4 debate when all five candidates squirmed at the question ‘is Boris Johnson honest?’. Kemi Badenoch responded ‘sometimes‘, and Tom Tugendhat simply ‘no’, while Rishi Sunak said that ‘trust and honesty’ was a key reason for his resignation from the government. At a subsequent Sky News debate, no candidate raised their hand to indicate that they would accept Johnson serving in their cabinet. But after this, such issues largely disappeared. The final two candidates became reluctant to distance themselves from Johnson’s legacy, in the face of a backlash among party members about his removal, and a petition for his reinstatement – notably sponsored by the aforementioned Peter Cruddas. Sunak did make occasional references to the ‘need to bring trust and integrity and honesty back into politics’, and indicated that he would reappoint an independent adviser on ministers’ interests. But Liz Truss seemed to reject this. She also accused the media of ‘misrepresenting’ policy on which she had plainly done a U-turn – which did not bode well for moving on from post-truth politics.

The road ahead also looks troubling regarding parliament and the rule of law. As Foreign Secretary, Truss sponsored the follow-up bill to seek unilaterally to amend the Northern Ireland protocol, and remains committed to it. Both candidates enthusiastically embraced fast-track procedures to promote ‘Brexit freedoms’, which could result in parliament being locked out of decisions in crucial areas such as environmental and employment regulation.

Meanwhile, there is clear evidence that the UK public supports the restoration of higher standards in politics. A major survey of over 6000 people for the Constitution Unit’s Democracy in the UK after Brexit project found that the single most valued attribute in a prime minister was honesty. A whopping 75% of respondents believed that healthy democracy required politicians to ‘always act within the rules’, compared to just 6% who thought that this depended on ‘getting things done, even if that sometimes requires politicians to break the rules’. Both in the survey, and a subsequent citizens’ assembly to deliberate on options for the future of UK democracy, there was strikingly high support for the power of judges and independent regulators, for close parliamentary oversight over policymaking, and for tough punishment of politicians who mislead parliament.

This should provide clear signposts for what is needed in the post-Johnson era. But despite clear concerns from some Conservative MPs about the developments described above, and from many Conservative voters, there is limited indication that change will be forthcoming from the government side. Notably, some have drawn parallels between the current period and the ‘sleaze’ that bedevilled the Conservative government in the 1990s, and which helped to bring it down. But the response by then prime minister John Major was to seize the problem, embrace new regulation, and set up the Committee on Standards and Public Life (CSPL). Today’s mood feels rather different.

This is troubling, but does potentially provide an opportunity for Labour. There are important principled reasons for wanting to put the system right, but it could bring significant electoral benefits too. There is an increasingly clear menu of the changes needed. Notably, the CSPL last year proposed wholesale change to the landscape of constitutional regulation, including stronger powers for the independent adviser and a greater underpinning of various other regulators in statute. These are being pursued in a bill by Crossbench peer Lord (David) Anderson of Ipswich, which deserves widespread support. Labour should pledge an immediate clean-up of Lords appointments – a quick win, not even necessarily requiring legislation – as a necessary precursor to any further reform. Likewise, public pledges to restore standards of parliamentary scrutiny and respect for the rule of law from day one of a Labour government can be made right now and then followed through. Rather than talking down core institutions, such as parliament, the courts and regulators, there is a real public appetite for politicians who act as their defenders.

It is easy to be complacent about the robustness of UK democracy. But democracy is a fragile thing, and under attack all over the world. The UK’s constitutional norms and standards took a severe battering under Johnson. But the public wants better and may reward politicians who pledge to restore the system.

An edited version of this post appeared in the Fabian Review and is reprinted with permission.

About the author

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

Featured image credit: Prime Minister Boris Johnson Leaving No. 10, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by UK Prime Minister.

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