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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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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The Queen’s speech, the Johnson government, and the constitution – lessons from the 2021-22 session

As a new session of parliament commences, Lisa James discusses what constitutional lessons can be learned from its predecessor. She argues that the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms are fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership.

A new parliamentary session began last week, with a Queen’s speech that laid out a highly ambitious volume of new bills. Many of these are likely to prove controversial – including planned constitutional measures.

To assess how the government might proceed, and how this might play out in parliament, it is useful to look back at the 2021-22 session. This was the first of Boris Johnson’s premiership not wholly dominated by Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic – offering insight into both the government’s constitutional agenda, and its broader legislative approach. Since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has been accused of a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms. In earlier sessions, his supporters could blame the exigencies of Brexit and the pandemic – citing the need for rapid action in the face of fast-moving situations. But the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that these are more fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership. And whilst Johnson has thus far been successful in passing his constitutional legislation, his rocky relationships with both MPs and peers mean that he may face greater difficulties in the future.

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Improving standards of conduct in public life

In November, the Constitution Unit hosted Lord (Jonathan) Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to discuss its new report, ‘Upholding Standards in Public Life’. Lisa James summarises the discussion.

In November, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) published its report Upholding Standards in Public Life, the result of a year-long review of the system of standards bodies regulating the UK government. Following the report’s publication, the Constitution Unit hosted a webinar with CSPL’s Chair, Lord (Jonathan) Evans, to discuss the findings. The event also followed closely behind the parliamentary standards scandal over then-MP Owen Paterson, in which the government was forced to U-turn after trying to overturn the House of Commons Standards Committee’s findings against Paterson on allegations of inappropriate lobbying.

The summary below reflects Lord Evans’ remarks and conversation with the Unit’s Director, Meg Russell. A full video of the event, including the audience Q&A, is available on our YouTube page.

Lord Evans began by introducing CSPL and the reasoning behind the Standards Matter 2 inquiry. CSPL is an independent advisory body, with an independent majority and a minority of party-political members. Established by then Prime Minister John Major in the wake of the cash-for-questions scandal, it was originally conceived as an ‘ethical workshop’ for the public sector. Continuing the metaphor, Lord Evans suggested that CSPL’s recent inquiry might be seen as an ‘MOT’ of the regulatory system for government: a wide-ranging review of the whole system, in an attempt to identify problems and suggest improvements. Focusing on ethical standards, the committee did not recommend radical change, but identified a number of moderate, ‘common-sense’ reforms to strengthen the system. These fell into three broad categories: stronger rules; greater independence for regulators; and a stronger compliance culture within government.

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The hybrid House of Commons: the problems of government control

For much of last year, the government resisted MPs’ calls for full reinstatement of virtual participation in House of Commons proceedings. In this post, Daniel Gover and Lisa James review the development of the ‘hybrid Commons’. They argue that full virtual participation, including remote voting, must now be reinstated, and that recent events reveal broader problems of government control over the Commons agenda.

Last spring, the House of Commons adapted quickly and successfully to the challenges presented by COVID-19. The so-called ‘hybrid Commons’ – combining in-person proceedings with simultaneous virtual participation – was one of the first responses of its type globally, and widely praised. But within weeks, the government unilaterally abandoned the virtual element, provoking anger amongst backbench MPs and violating the core parliamentary principle of the equality of all members. It was only on 30 December – well over six months later – that virtual participation in key debates was reinstated, while even now ministers refuse to restore remote electronic voting.

At the start of a new year, the UK’s public health crisis is at least as serious as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, and this will continue to restrict physical participation at Westminster. It is therefore essential that MPs be enabled to participate virtually in as wide a range of Commons proceedings as possible – including in remote divisions. The fact that ministers have been able to block this until now also reveals deeper problems with the House of Commons’ governance, and where power lies, which should urgently be addressed.

The development and collapse of hybrid arrangements

In March and April, consensus between the parties produced rapid adoption of new systems to enable parliament to perform its essential functions. The Commons first authorised its select committees to meet virtually, followed by hybrid arrangements for the Commons chamber itself – initially for ‘scrutiny’ proceedings (questions and statements), followed by ’substantive’ business (motions and bills). Soon after, intensive work began on an electronic voting system, with the first ever online Commons division held in mid-May.

Yet these arrangements began to unravel shortly before the late-May Whitsun recess, barely a week after the first online vote. Despite significant anger from backbench and opposition MPs, ministers refused to facilitate a decision to extend the time-limited orders that had enabled virtual participation in the chamber, and as a result the rules simply lapsed.

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