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Mon 29 November 2021

The Government’s U-turn is reassuring but should be viewed within the wider context of consistent attempts to dodge scrutiny by Boris Johnson’s administration, says Adam Bienkov

The Government was forced to backtrack after its attempt to overturn the suspension of Conservative MP Owen Paterson led to a furious backlash.

It signalled on Thursday that the vote to overthrow Paterson’s suspension would be re-run, while an attempt to rip up the current standards regime would also be reconsidered.

Within hours Paterson had resigned as an MP, bringing an end to any attempt to save his career.

Yet it is worth considering what brought us to this point and what it says about the threat Boris Johnson’s administration still poses to democratic institutions in the UK.

The entire episode began after an independent committee found earlier this year that former minister Paterson had been guilty of multiple “egregious” breaches of anti-corruption rules and recommended that he should be suspended from the House of Commons for 30 days.

The vote to overturn Paterson’s suspension, which led to cries of “shame on you” from the opposition benches on Wednesday, also began the process of ripping up Parliament’s existing standards regime and replacing it with a new Conservative-dominated committee led by another former Conservative minister and close ally of the Prime Minister’s wife.

Not content with this success, the Government also sought to oust the independent investigator who had found against Paterson.

The Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, took to the airwaves this morning to call on Kathryn Stone to consider her position, telling Sky News that it was “difficult” to see a future for her in the role. But, within hours, Johnson appeared to have abandoned all of his attempts to save Paterson, due to a growing public and media backlash.

This is not the first time that the Government has been forced to backtrack from the Prime Minister’s attempts to undermine those seeking to hold him and his Government to account.

His ongoing attempts to undermine the independence of the BBC have had some success, with Theresa May’s former aide Sir Robbie Gibb placed on the broadcaster’s board. However, his attempts to prevent the appointment of the journalist Jess Brammar to a senior position at BBC News ultimately failed. Another attempt to prevent critical media organisations from attending Downing Street press briefings was also abandoned following co-ordinated protests from UK newspaper editors.

Other attempts by Johnson to undermine the accountability of his Government have been much more successful, however. Indeed, ever since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has successfully sought to undermine and overturn the systems designed to prevent corruption and bad behaviour by those in power.

Last year, Johnson’s former independent advisor on ministerial standards, Sir Alex Allen, was forced to resign after his report concluding that the Home Secretary Priti Patel was guilty of bullying staff, was rejected by the Prime Minister. The former Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick also kept his job despite admitting to making an “unlawful” approval of a housing project which financially benefited a Conservative donor.

Johnson also overruled official advice not to hand a peerage to the disgraced Peter Cruddas, who then proceeded to give the Conservative Party £500,000 just days later.

Meanwhile, the appointment process for choosing the new chair of the independent media regulator Ofcom was recently relaunched by the Government after the original panel rejected the Prime Minister’s favoured candidate, former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.

The timing of the bid to save Owen Paterson and undermine the standards regime also came ahead of a reported potential fourth investigation by Kathryn Stone into Boris Johnson himself having previously criticised him for failing nine times to declare his own earnings.


On the Road to Orbanism?

In all of these cases, the common thread is the Prime Minister’s apparent contempt for the routine democratic checks and balances faced by himself and his Government.

This contempt extends way beyond the behaviour of individual ministers and MPs.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has repeatedly sought to undermine and overrule Britain’s legal, democratic, educational, and media institutions.

From his early unlawful attempt to suspend Parliament; to ministerial attacks on the judicial system, civil servants and universities; to ongoing attempts to legislate against public protests, there has been a clear pattern of seeking to first delegitimise, and then overturn, any institution or opponent which might act as a check on his actions.

This pattern has led to comparisons between Johnson’s administration and that of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Over the course of a decade, Orbán has weakened and undermined the democratic structures in Hungary, packed its political and judicial systems with supporters and cronies, and undermined and bought out its independent media outlets.

While clear parallels can be drawn between Orbán and Johnson, Britain is not Hungary and much would still need to happen before Britain could fairly be labelled an autocracy.

The failure of Johnson’s bid to overturn Owen Paterson’s suspension should therefore be reassuring. But, for every step back Johnson takes from his attempts to undermine those seeking to hold him accountable, he is likely to take several more in the other direction.

And, while not all of Johnson’s attempts to undermine the UK’s democratic structures have been successful, his determination to keep attempting them should worry everyone concerned about the ongoing strength of British democracy.

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