Serious people on all sides of politics now worry about the way Boris Johnson is undermining the British constitution. Decisions have been centralised in No. 10 Downing Street, with a team of unelected advisers under Dominic Cummings pushing the Cabinet to one side. They expect the Commons to do what they tell it, relying on obedience from its Conservative majority, while punishing those (like Julian Lewis) who step out of line.
A succession of top officials have been dismissed. Local government has been left out of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, while multinational companies have been contracted – often without any open competition – to handle local testing and tracing. Media management is tight: press conferences are preferred to parliamentary questions, as easier to control. Boris Johnson speaks to the Daily Telegraph, which formerly paid him a generous salary, but boycotts the BBC.
Four years ago, Vote Leave won the Brexit referendum on a platform that included the ‘restoration’ of parliamentary sovereignty. As soon as Boris Johnson became prime minister he broke that pledge, attempting to suspend the sitting of parliament for several weeks before he had faced his first prime minister’s questions. Last December’s election, in which the Conservatives won a majority of 80 seats with 43 per cent of the votes cast, is now regarded by ministers as a second referendum victory, justifying executive control without parliamentary criticism. ‘We are the real people’s party’, ministers declare, disregarding the predominance of rich and privately-educated men within the government or their dependence on financial support from ultra-wealthy supporters, including a number of Russian billionaires resident in London.
Boris Johnson is prime minister, but does not direct government policy in any detail. Like Trump, Johnson makes speeches promising that life will get better and everything will be fine, but without explaining how or why. A participant in one recent Downing Street meeting told the Financial Times that he came away unsure whether Johnson or Cummings was running the government. Cummings reportedly holds meetings in the Cabinet room, in a subtle but clear indication of his central authority. Senior officials and advisers report to him, as do ministerial press teams. The Cabinet lacks talent, with the clear exception of Rishi Sunak. Several of Theresa May’s ministers were expelled from the parliamentary party last year, and stood down at the election. The most talented Conservative MPs are now on the back benches.
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All this might matter less, in the middle of a major national emergency, if the government were competent and following its own rules. The contrast in responding to coronavirus between Britain and Germany, where local governments were given the lead in handling local outbreaks and test and tracing, has been stark. Johnson himself was absent from key early meetings in how to handle the virus; Cummings broke the lockdown, acting as if rules were only for ordinary people.
Meanwhile on Brexit, the passionate priority of this Vote Leave government, the UK is moving to an outcome sharply different from what the referendum campaign promised. Instead of ‘frictionless trade’ and a close continuing relationship, we are heading towards a hard break. Michael Gove, along with Cummings the effective leader of the government, promised in 2016 that Brexit would save Britain £9bn, to spend instead on the NHS. Now he’s admitted that the management of border controls with the EU will cost business at least £7bn a year, with border taxes likely to increase costs further.
Johnson’s conjures up the image of a ‘Global Britain’, sending its aircraft carriers to support the Americans in the South China Sea. But mismanagement of the Northern Irish dimension of Brexit, and the deep unpopularity of this English nationalist government in Scotland, is weakening the integrity of the United Kingdom. A shrunken England and Wales would lack vital submarine and RAF bases that underpin its claims to great power status, and its right to a UN Security Council seat might come into question.
Democratic government is not simply a matter of holding national elections every five years. It should be a continuing dialogue between government, parliament and public, in all the diversity of public interests and opinion. It needs to respect the rule of law, to prevent abuse of power, or corruption, by those in government. It needs to include effective local democracy, with representatives close to ordinary voters responsible for services that matter more to citizens in their daily lives.
Britain’s unwritten constitution rested on ‘the good chaps’ principle: that elected politicians would always behave honourably, within the accepted rules. Dominic Cummings’ blog has made it clear that he despises parliament, the civil service, and most ministers. One of Johnson’s schoolteachers wrote that he didn’t think the rules applied to him. The defence of our democratic constitution now depends on the willingness of Conservative MPs, many of them elected for the first time six months ago, to refuse to be bullied by the Whips and No. 10. Conservatives elected from Yorkshire, alongside their colleagues, must stand up for constitutional democracy against an increasingly authoritarian government.
William Wallace is a Liberal Democrat Peer and is spokesperson for the Lib Dem cabinet.
This article first appeared in the Yorkshire Post on 25 July.