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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Boris Johnson’s constitutional legacy

Boris Johnson’s premiership is expected to end on 6 September, when it is anticipated that he will offer his formal resignation to the Queen at Balmoral and make way for the winner of the Conservative Party leadership election. Lisa James demonstrates that his time in office has been marked by an impatience with constitutional checks and balances and a willingness to depart from convention. She argues that his legacy risks being the normalisation of such behaviour.

What have been the major issues and challenges during Johnson’s premiership? 

Constitutional controversy has been a consistent feature of Boris Johnson’s premiership. His first months in office, amid the turmoil and acrimony of the late-2019 Brexit deadlock, were marked by the unlawful prorogation of parliament, suggestions that he would defy the law, and briefings from allies that if the Commons withdrew its confidence he would ‘dare the Queen to sack him’.

Thankfully, the monarch was not dragged into Johnson’s resignation this summer. But the Prime Minister stepped down only after a tense standoff with his own party, as it forced him from office over a series of standards-related scandals. The most prominent of these, partygate, will outlast Johnson’s premiership – with the Privileges Committee’s investigation into whether the Prime Minister misled parliament ongoing.

Though the intervening years perhaps lacked such obvious constitutional fireworks, these topics were never off the agenda. The Johnson government’s reform programme, and behaviour, often provoked controversy; the COVID-19 pandemic raised questions about how the country should be governed in times of crisis; and the fallout from Brexit heightened tensions over the territorial constitution, as discussed elsewhere on this blog – particularly in Northern Ireland.

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Rebuilding constitutional standards: five questions for the next Conservative leader

Boris Johnson yesterday fired the starting gun on a Conservative leadership race which should make the winner Prime Minister. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell pose five key questions which Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to ask the party leadership candidates, based on recent public, parliamentary and expert concerns.

Boris Johnson’s premiership has been marked by ever-growing concerns about the maintenance of various constitutional standards, which in recent days have reached fever pitch. These were echoed repeatedly in ministerial resignation statements and calls for him to go. Recent opinion polls meanwhile show strong public support for constitutional standards of integrity and accountability.

Conservative MPs now have an opportunity to choose among candidates to take Johnson’s place, which also creates an important constitutional responsibility. A high priority when picking the next Conservative leader should be to restore the standards essential to UK democracy, in order both to rebuild integrity in politics, and to work towards rebuilding public trust.

This blogpost sets out five key questions for Conservative leadership candidates, reflecting concerns raised by the public, independent expert organisations, and MPs themselves. Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to prioritise these questions, and raise them with the candidates when the party is making its choice.

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What is democratic backsliding and is the UK at risk?

Concerns about the health of UK democracy and the risk of democratic backsliding are rising. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James warn that MPs, who are the ultimate democratic safeguard, cannot afford to be complacent if we wish to prevent backsliding and safeguard our democracy.

Commentators, civil society groups, think tanks and academics are increasingly warning about the health of UK democracy. Such warnings often draw on the concept of ‘democratic backsliding’.

But what is democratic backsliding? And is there good reason to worry about a risk of it in the UK?

What is democratic backsliding?

Democratic backsliding is, in its simplest form, the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic over time. Scholars emphasise that no cataclysmic state collapse or overthrow is required for backsliding to take place; instead, it is a gradual process, coming about through actions of democratically elected leaders.

Democratic backsliding has been observed internationally, and extensively catalogued by scholars including Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, 2021) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die, 2019). Such accounts generally define backsliding as involving the reduction of checks and balances on the executive. This might include:

  1. breakdown in the norms of political behaviour and standards;
  2. disempowerment of the legislature, the courts, and independent regulators;
  3. the reduction of civil liberties and press freedoms; and/or
  4. harm to the integrity of the electoral system.

Backsliding has been identified in multiple countries, with frequently cited cases including Poland, Hungary and the United States. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has significantly reduced judicial independence, and put pressure on the independent media. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has repeatedly assumed emergency powers allowing him effectively to bypass the legislature, undermined press freedom, and – as in Poland – curbed judicial independence. Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the 2020 presidential election, as well as longer-term patterns of voter suppression, have shown how backsliding can affect even very well-established democracies.

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What can be done about the House of Lords?

More than 20 years has passed since the hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords in what was billed as the first phase of wider reform, and little has happened in the intervening decades. The Unit hosted a webinar to ask three long-serving parliamentarians what should change about the House of Lords, and how realistic is hope of major reform? Tom Fieldhouse summarises the discussion.

House of Lords reform is one of those issues that never seems to go away – in part because very little ever seems to happen.  

This perennial, complex, and often contentious issue was the subject of a Constitution Unit webinar, held on 13 January, entitled ‘What can be done about the House of Lords?’, where a distinguished panel of parliamentarians discussed the difficulties that hinder reform, whether new approaches are needed, and what those might be. 

The event was chaired by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Professor Meg Russell, herself an expert on the question of Lords reform. Speakers were Baroness (Angela) Smith of Basildon, Labour’s Shadow Leader of the House of Lords; Lord (Michael) Jay of Ewelme, Crossbench peer and former Chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission; and Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Conservative chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee and former chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which has reported on Lords reform

The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions. The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast.  

Baroness Smith of Basildon 

Baroness Smith began her remarks by suggesting that whereas most debates about Lords reform tend to focus on ‘form’ (namely, who is in the second chamber and how they get there), we should begin by focusing on ‘function’ (what we want the chamber to do, and how it can best achieve that).  

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