Post-truth – and post-conservative? How Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party poses a threat to the quality of our democracy

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.

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Ministerial standards in Westminster and beyond

Ministerial standards and the mechanisms for enforcing them have been in the news more than usual over the course of the last twelve months, making clear the limitations of the current rules and systems of regulating ministerial behaviour. In May, the Unit hosted an expert panel to discuss how the standards regimes work in the UK, and what reforms might be desirable. Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the contributions.

On 24 May, the Constitution Unit hosted an online webinar entitled Ministerial Standards in Westminster and Beyond. Unit founder Robert Hazell chaired the event, which had three distinguished panellists: Alex Allan, former independent adviser to the Prime Minister on ministerial interests; Susan Deacon, a former minister in Scotland who also sat on the Scottish Parliament’s Standards and Procedures committees; and Richard Thomas, a member of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), which advises ministers and senior officials on potential conflicts of interest when they take up appointments after leaving Whitehall.

This post summarises the main contributions of the speakers: the full event, including the lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page.

Alex Allan

Alex Allan started his contribution by offering a little bit of history about the ‘rather strange document’ that is the Ministerial Code. Something similar to the Code has been in place since the Attlee government, but perhaps the most significant changes came in 1995 when the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) produced its first report, and outlined ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’, which are commonly referred to as the ‘Nolan principles’.

Another significant change came in 2007, when the Brown government published a paper on the governance of Britain, which resulted in the creation of the role of independent adviser on ministerial interests, a title held by Allan from 2011 until his resignation in 2020. Where there is an allegation about the conduct of a minister that the Cabinet Secretary feels warrants further investigation, the matter will be referred to the independent adviser. However, most of the work of the independent adviser is of little media interest, and involves dealing with declarations of ministers’ interests, which are examined by their permanent secretary and the propriety and ethics team at the Cabinet Office, before being examined by the independent adviser.

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The anatomy of democratic backsliding: could it happen here?

The term ‘backsliding’ has been coined to describe the phenomenon by which leaders who come to office within a democratic framework, only to attack some of democracy’s core features when in office. Stephan Haggard and Robert R Kaufman outline some of the key features of ‘backsliding’, discuss how and why it can take hold, and whether there are warning signs that such a process could happen in the UK. 

During the presidency of Donald Trump, American democracy suffered the most serious challenge it has faced since the country’s Civil War. Trump and his administration inflamed divisions that jeopardise the rights of women and minorities; attacked the press; defied oversight; sought to stack the judiciary and law enforcement agencies with partisan loyalists; challenged the integrity of the electoral system, and ultimately stoked a violent challenge to the democratic transfer of power. These threats were different from conventional forms of democratic reversion, such as the coup d’etat. Instead, they reflected a more insidious process that has come to be known as ‘backsliding,’ in which illiberal leaders rise to power within a democratic framework and attack core features of democracy from within.

Because the United States occupies a unique position at the heart of the international system, backsliding there commanded worldwide attention. But the United States was hardly alone. In a new study, we identified at least 15 other countries in which duly-elected democratic governments recently moved along similar paths. Not all of these paths lead all the way to autocracy; in the United States, democracy survived the Trump era badly damaged but intact. But depending on the metric used, more than half of these cases slid into ‘competitive authoritarian rule’: systems in which elections persisted but were manifestly rigged. Notably, although many of the failed democracies we examined were weakly institutionalised at the outset (for example, Bolivia, Ukraine, and Zambia), others such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela were once considered relatively robust democratic regimes.

These cases raise the question of whether similar adverse developments could occur in other seemingly stable democracies. Could they perhaps even happen in the UK? 

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The public appointments system is under strain: it needs more clarity and transparency

In September, Peter Riddell will step down as Commissioner for Public Appointments after over five years in the role. In this post, which summarises comments made at a recent Unit seminar, he explains how the public appointments system is under strain, and how it might be improved. In particular, he calls for more clarity and transparency in both regulated and unregulated public appointments.

The public appointments system rests on two, at times, apparently contradictory principles — ministerial responsibility and selection by merit. These were set out both in the original Nolan report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995 and in the government’s Governance Code in late 2016. Their existence side by side — along with selflessness, integrity, openness, diversity, assurance and fairness — can cause confusion. Ministers and their advisers understandably want to appoint those who share their values and views, while critics allege cronyism and an undermining of the merit principle.

In reality, as with so much in public life, the answer lies in a balance between the principles, as envisaged in the 1995 report: ‘responsibility for appointments should remain with ministers advised by committees which include independent members’. The system is inherently political, and always has been, but patronage is constrained. The process of competition acts as a filter to identify candidates assessed as appointable in relation to the published job and person specifications. It is then up to ministers to pick one of these candidates.

The integrity of the system is now under strain. The appointment of political allies has happened before and is consistent with the Governance Code. What is different now is the breadth of the campaign led from the top of the government. This raises questions about the overall pluralism of arms-length bodies. That is a matter for ministers to explain and defend.

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FTPA Joint Committee lays down marker for the future

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 placed a legal obligation on the Prime Minister to make arrangements for a committee to review the legislation before the end of 2020. That committee was duly created, and published its report last month. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell offer a summary of the committee’s report, which was rightly critical of the government’s draft repeal bill, but argue that the committee ‘ignored’ the weight of the evidence in some key areas.

On 24 March the parliamentary Joint Committee to review the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) published its report. The committee was established last November under section 7 of the FTPA, which required the Prime Minister in 2020 to make arrangements for a committee to review the operation of the Act, and if appropriate to make recommendations for its amendment or repeal. The review was carried out by a Joint Committee composed of 14 MPs and six members of the House of Lords, and chaired by former Conservative Chief Whip Lord (Patrick) McLoughlin.

The government pre-empted the review by publishing a draft FTPA (Repeal) Bill a week after the committee was established. The Conservative and Labour manifestos in 2019 had both contained a commitment to get rid of the FTPA. As a result the committee focused a lot of attention on the government’s draft repeal bill. But the report devotes almost equal space to the FTPA and how it might be amended, in case parliament prefers to go down that route, now or in the future.

There was clear interest in the committee for retaining but improving the FTPA. The government had a bare partisan majority (11 out of 20 members), and not all Conservative members supported the government line. But the committee managed to avoid any formal votes, instead referring in parts of the report to the majority or minority view. On some key issues the majority view went against the weight of evidence received.

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