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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After an unsuccessful legal challenge by All the Citizens and the Good Law Project, where next on WhatsApp use in government?

Cassandra Somers-Joce and Joe Tomlinson discuss the use of instant messaging technologies within government, arguing that good government does not mean the eradication of such technology from government practice, but that it must be used in a way that is sensitive to the state’s duties to maintain a record.

The last few years have seen several prominent examples of instant messaging technologies – some with the capacity to auto-delete messages – being used within the UK government. Examples ranging from the articulation of the rationale behind the controversial prorogation of parliament to the securing of government medical device contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic have arisen in the press. Instant messaging technologies clearly play an important role in government communication and decision-making. These technologies are seemingly utilised daily across all levels; for instance, the BBC has reported that since November 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been sent a summary of his ‘red box’, containing prime ministerial business to attend to, via WhatsApp. These reports of high-profile usage have been followed by the emergence of a Cabinet Office policy that arguably encourages the use of self-deleting instant messaging, and research from the Institute for Government that shows divergent policies on this issue across government.

What should we make of these quickly evolving practices? Instant messaging technologies such as WhatsApp undoubtedly have their benefits for public officials, and the effective functioning of government overall. Perhaps most notably, they can enable officials to exchange messages and share information more easily than other systems. However, they create a range of complexities as regards the preservation of the public record, particularly where these technologies are used in place of documented meetings or official email communications. Not least amongst these complexities is that the use of these technologies engages a variety of public law norms related to governmental record-keeping and the disclosure of information. As practices have emerged, it has become increasingly clear that the use of WhatsApp by the UK government may be at risk of being in violation of these public law norms.

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The House of Lords amendment to the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill returns appropriate power to MPs: they should accept it

The House of Lords has amended the government’s Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill to require House of Commons approval for early general elections. Tom Fleming and Meg Russell explore what MPs should consider when the bill returns to the Commons. They argue that the Lords amendment deserves support, as it provides an important limit on Prime Ministers’ power to call early elections, and avoids drawing either the monarch or the courts into political controversy.

Background

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill seeks to change how early general elections are called in the UK. Specifically, it aims to restore the Prime Minister’s control of election timing, by repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA).

Before 2011, general elections were required at least every five years. However, the Prime Minister could ask the monarch to dissolve parliament during that period, resulting in an earlier election. The FTPA removed this personalised power, and instead handed control to the House of Commons. Under its provisions, early elections would occur only if two-thirds of all MPs voted to support one, or if the Commons expressed ‘no confidence’ in the government and no government could regain confidence within two weeks. Subsequently, in 2019, the two-thirds majority was shown to be unenforceable, when Boris Johnson presented the Early Parliamentary General Election Bill. This temporarily overrode the FTPA requirement in order to stage the December general election, and both the Commons and the Lords supported it.

The government is now seeking to permanently reverse the FTPA with the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill. This bill passed through its Commons committee and remaining stages in little over two hours last autumn, with limited opportunity for detailed consideration, and was approved without amendment. However, it has since faced more extended scrutiny in the House of Lords.

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Riding the populist wave: the UK Conservatives and the constitution

At a recent Constitution Unit event (available in video and podcast form), Tim Bale discussed the challenges posed to mainstream conservatism by the recent rise in successful populist politicians. Here, he sets out those challenges, how conservatives have traditionally faced them, and concludes that the UK Conservative Party is so determined to ‘unite the right’ and supress support for a challenger party that it risks transmogrifying into a populist radical right party.

A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with costochondritis – a minor and surprisingly common condition involving the cartilage that joins your ribs to your sternum but which produces chest pains that make some people suffering from it worry they’re having a heart attack.

The standard treatment is to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. For me this presented a bit of a dilemma. Like many other people, I don’t tolerate ibuprofen: it irritates my gastrointestinal tract – something I’m wise to avoid doing because I also suffer from something called Barrett’s oesophagus, which, if you’re unlucky, can turn cancerous. So, on the assumption that the costochondritis would eventually resolve itself, and given the fact that the discomfort involved was irritating but far from overwhelming, I decided just to put up with it.

I’m sharing this bit of my recent medical history not because I particularly enjoy talking about it but because it produces a useful analogy for a question that I want to ask – namely, are politicians on the mainstream right so concerned about countering the rise of populist radical right parties that they end up proposing things that risk doing more harm to society and to the polity than if they were simply to admit that those parties are now a normal rather than a pathological feature of contemporary politics?

The background to this is the book I’ve recently co-edited with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, called Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis. We look at how mainstream right parties – which aren’t written about anywhere near as much as their counterparts on the left or, indeed, on the far right – have handled (or in some cases failed to handle) some of the challenges that they’ve been facing for the last three or four decades. Over that time, they’ve suffered significant electoral decline, although, as we show in the book, the extent of that decline varies not just between countries but between party families, with Christian democratic parties suffering more than conservative parties, which, in turn, have suffered more than (market) liberal parties, which have actually managed to hold pretty steady.

We argue that the difficulties they’ve faced are partly down to their having to cope with something of a double whammy.

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