Boris Johnson and parliament: misunderstandings and structural weaknesses

On 21 January Unit Director Meg Russell appeared on a panel with two former Conservative Chief Whips, reflecting on Boris Johnson’s troubled relationship with parliament as Prime Minister. In this post she presents her central arguments – that the Johnson government in its early months has seemed to demonstrate some basic misunderstandings about parliament and its role; but also the government’s behaviour has highlighted some of parliament’s key weaknesses.

In early September 2020 I wrote a blogpost on Boris Johnson and parliament, which documented 13 unhappy episodes in 13 months. I had originally aimed at producing a list of 10 such episodes, but found that there was just too much material. Some of the incidents were obvious – such as the attempted prorogation the previous September, ultimately ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Others have continued to bubble along unhappily in the subsequent months – including the persistent refusal by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to provide time for MPs to debate and agree proposals from the Procedure Committee to allow them to work virtually during the pandemic (frequently covered on this blog – see here and here), and the sporadic suggestions from government sources that the House of Lords should move to York. Some incidents were more obscure, but worth recalling for the record – such as Downing Street’s attempt to impose Chris Grayling as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (which rather dramatically backfired).

Of course that post was written five months ago, and the list continues to gets longer. It predated, for example, the dramatic showdown with former Conservative leaders over the government’s Internal Market Bill. It predated the announcement of the new Christmas lockdown rules during Commons recess, and the government’s refusal to allow a recall to debate them – despite protests by numerous Conservative backbenchers. It noted Johnson’s excessive first round of Lords appointments, but not his second within six months – both in clear breach of the Lord Speaker’s hardfought attempts to control the size of the chamber. It predated Johnson’s overruling of the House of Lords Appointments Commission’s recommendations on propriety, for the first time by any Prime Minister in the Commission’s 20-year existence.

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The Charter review should take steps to enable the BBC to work independently and without government interference

Jack_Sheldon

With the BBC’s Royal Charter up for renewal Lord Fowler, who chaired the Lords committee scrutinising the last review, came to The Constitution Unit to talk about the future of the BBC. He argued that the Royal Charter affords too much power to the government and that the BBC should therefore be established as a statutory corporation, enabling it to work independently and without government interference. Jack Sheldon reports.

Four days after the general election it was widely reported that the new government was ‘at war’ with the BBC ahead of the renewal of its Royal Charter, due by 2017. Downing Street sources were quoted as saying that the new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, intended to ‘sort out ’ the national broadcaster and some media outlets indicated that the future of the licence fee was in doubt. Whilst David Cameron has since dismissed these suggestions much uncertainty continues to surround the BBC’s future governance structure, funding and programming.

As Robert Hazell has explained on this blog the formal responsibility for Charter renewal lies with the Privy Council, which can be expected to approve without discussion an Order in Council drafted by the government. It is not necessary for the Charter to be taken through any formal parliamentary process, though select committees in both Houses have embarked on inquiries (to be undertaken by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the Commons and the Communications Committee in the Lords). On 14 July Lord Fowler, who chaired the Lords committee last time the Charter was up for renewal in 2005-06, led a debate in the upper house titled ‘Future of the BBC’ in which he warned that the corporation ‘is under unprecedented attack’. Fowler came to The Constitution Unit on 19 October to talk about the renewal process and his hopes for the current review.

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Video: In the thick of It: What do special advisers do – and does it make government better or worse?

Duncan Brack and Michael Jacobs

Venue: Archaeology Lecture Theatre G6, Gordon House

Special Advisers are now an established feature of British government: there are currently over 80 of them in Whitehall. But what do they actually do? What relations do they have with ministers and civil servants? Are they – as some have claimed – a threat to the impartiality of the civil service? Or are they essential to make democratic government work well?

Michael Jacobs is Visiting Professor in the School of Public Policy at University College London and in the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE.  He was a Special Adviser to Gordon Brown at the Treasury (2004-07) and at 10 Downing St (2007-10).  His major field of responsibility was energy, climate change and environment policy, but he also worked at the Treasury on health, public service reform and the third sector.  Beginning his career as a community worker and adult educator Michael has variously been an economic and environment consultant, an academic environmental economist at Lancaster University and the LSE and (from 1997-2003) General Secretary of the Fabian Society.  His books include The Green Economy: Environment, Sustainable Development and the Politics of the Future (Pluto Press, 1991), Greening the Millennium? The New Politics of the Environment (ed, Blackwell, 1997), The Politics of the Real World (Earthscan 1996) and Paying for Progress: A New Politics of Tax for Public Spending (Fabian Society 2000).

Duncan Brack is a freelance environmental policy researcher. He is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) and an Associate of Green Alliance. From 2010 to 2012 he was special adviser to Chris Huhne at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, focusing mainly on UK, European and global climate policy and low-carbon investment. Before that he worked for Chatham House, and from 1998 to 2003 was head of its Sustainable Development Programme; his work included international environmental regimes and institutions, the interaction between environmental regulation and international trade rules, and international environmental crime, particularly illegal logging and the trade in illegal timber. He was also a specialist adviser to the House of Commons Environment Select Committee and Environmental Audit Committee. From 1988 to 1994 he was Director of Policy for the Liberal Democrats.

Find out more about the Constitution Unit’s special advisers project or the SPP seminars