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.

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Must a caretaker government be a zombie government?

During the recently concluded Conservative leadership contest, the government appeared to be in a holding pattern, taking little or no action of substance until the election of Boris Johnson’s successor. But did the government, which had a substantial parliamentary majority and an electoral mandate, need to act as if it was merely a ‘caretaker’? Robert Hazell explains that the rules around a ‘lame duck’ PM remain fuzzy, and argues that steps must be taken to clarify the position as soon as possible.

Something very strange happened at Westminster over the summer: a government which enjoyed a comfortable working majority of 71 seats was declared to be a caretaker which could not take any major decisions. It was variously accused of being a ‘zombie government’ ‘asleep at the wheel’, and incapable of taking urgent decisions required by the energy crisis. In its defence the government might have responded that as a caretaker it was precluded from taking such decisions. But the Whitehall rules on this are far from clear. So, what are the Whitehall rules about caretaker governments, and the principles underlying them? And given the confusion this summer, do the rules need clarifying or updating?

‘Caretaker government’ is not a term to be found in any UK government guidance. The Cabinet Manual talks instead about ‘restrictions on government activity’. A leadership election in the governing party is not one of the circumstances when the Cabinet Manual says government activity must be restricted. It envisages just three such circumstances when governments are restricted:

…governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character in the period immediately preceding an election, immediately afterwards if the result is unclear, and following the loss of a vote of confidence.

Paragraph 2.27.
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Prime Minister Liz Truss and the short, unhappy fate of the ‘takeover leader’

Following her appointment as Prime Minister yesterday, Liz Truss has become the third Prime Minister in a row to take office directly as a result of a party leadership election. Ben Worthy explains that taking office in the middle of a parliament has historically not gone well for the incoming Prime Minister, with none of the last three ‘takeover Prime Ministers’ able to complete a full parliamentary term in office.

There are two routes to becoming Prime Minister in the UK. You can either win a general election or triumph in a party leadership election to become head of the largest parliamentary party when a predecessor leaves. As section 2.18 of the Cabinet Manual puts it:

Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor.

Prime Minister Liz Truss is a ‘takeover’ leader, securing the post via the second route rather than the first. Remarkably, she will be the fifteenth takeover since 1916 and the second woman appointed mid-term since 2016.

There are some downsides to being a takeover. As the table below shows, takeovers’ time in office tends to be relatively brief. UK prime ministers in the last 100 years have lasted an average of just over five years, equivalent to the maximum length of one parliamentary term. Takeover tenure was considerably shorter at just over 3.6 years, compared with an average of 6.6 years for those who came to office following a general election. The longest takeover premiership was that of John Major, which lasted seven years, and the shortest was Andrew Bonar Law’s seven months (due to ill health).

The most recent takeovers are bywords for difficult, if not failed, premierships. Major (1990–1997), Gordon Brown (2007–2010) and the successive takeovers of Theresa May (2016–2019) and Boris Johnson (2019–2022) stand out as dysfunctional and struggling leaders. All led deeply divided parties and their names are linked to deep crises, whether economic (the Winter of Discontent or Black Wednesday), political (Maastricht or Brexit) or global (COVID-19).

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Boris Johnson and the myth of ‘getting Brexit done’

In departing the premiership, Boris Johnson and his supporters will present a key part of his legacy as ‘getting Brexit done’. But, Meg Russell argues, this claim is distinctly dubious. Johnson helped secure the Leave victory in 2016, but was subsequently central to blocking Theresa May’s efforts to implement the result. Meanwhile his own Brexit deal was agreed despite his own team recognising its flaws, and leaves major ongoing problems regarding Northern Ireland.

As Boris Johnson steps down, how will his time in office be remembered? His premiership collapsed in July under a weight of allegations about honesty and integrity, which had dogged his record and were cited by a flood of ministers resigning from his government. His constitutional legacy was a troubled one, and his attitude to upholding important norms was lamented by many key figures. But these qualities were often seen as the Achilles heel of a Conservative leader otherwise imbued with winning qualities. In particular, many would cite his most important legacy as ‘getting Brexit done’, and using that pledge to win his party a sizeable majority in the general election of December 2019. During the first Sky debate of the recent Conservative Party leadership contest, while none of the five candidates raised their hand to say that they would be happy for Johnson to serve in their Cabinet, Penny Mordaunt nonetheless interrupted to insist that ‘he got Brexit done’. In his own valedictory tweet following the election of Liz Truss, Johnson celebrated ‘winning the biggest majority for decades, [and] getting Brexit done’.

But actually, what was Johnson’s Brexit record? A closer inspection shows good reason to question this epitaph, as the leader who succeeded where others had failed, delivered Brexit and discovered a winning election formula. Certainly, Britain’s membership of the EU ended on his watch; and yes, the election victory was resounding. But to a significant extent, these achievements rested on the selfsame qualities that came to dog him later. Ultimately, Johnson’s hastily-agreed deal generated major tensions over the status of Northern Ireland which remain highly problematic today.

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Constitutional standards matter: the new Prime Minister must not forget that voters care about the honesty and integrity of their leaders

Tomorrow, it is expected that the UK will have a new Prime Minister. Whoever is appointed will have a number of high priority issues competing for their attention. Peter Riddell argues that constitutional standards should be near the top of the new PM’s to do list. He calls for a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests to be appointed, and warns against interfering with the Privileges Committee investigation into Boris Johnson.

The new Prime Minister is going to have such a large in tray of urgent decisions that there is a danger that the ethical and constitutional issues that largely brought down Boris Johnson will be neglected. There is an even worse risk that the wrong lessons will be learned from these events and that the future standards regime will be weaker than before, particularly over the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests.

During the regional hustings meetings of the past few weeks, there have been hardly any references to the controversies over standards that so dramatically undermined Johnson’s position among Conservative MPs. As striking, and worrying, have been the recurrent attacks by Liz Truss’s supporters on unelected advisers and regulators, whether the civil service, the Bank of England, City and business regulators, or ethical watchdogs. In particular, while Rishi Sunak has said that he would quickly appoint a new Independent Adviser to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Lord (Christopher) Geidt in mid-June, Truss has been more equivocal.

Truss has so far refused to commit to appointing an ethics adviser, arguing that she personally has ‘always acted with integrity’ and understands the difference between right and wrong. She has said that ‘one of the problems we have got in this country in the way we approach things is that we have numerous advisers and independent bodies, and rules and regulations’. While she would ‘ensure the correct apparatus is in place so that people are able to whistle-blow’, she believes that ‘ethics and responsibility cannot be out-sourced to an adviser’.

This view confuses the roles of advisers/regulators and ministers. In the case of the Independent Adviser, there is no outsourcing of ethics and responsibility. What the Adviser is being asked to do is to establish the facts about whether the Ministerial Code has been broken, while an elected politician, in this case the Prime Minister, decides whether a minister should be punished and what form any sanction should take. In that sense the Prime Minister is the guardian of the final judgement on ethics and responsibility. And there is now general agreement that there should be a range of sanctions, and not just resignation.

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