The Boris Johnson Era has Shown how Vulnerable the UK is to Electoral Autocracy
The ‘Partygate’ scandal has merely revealed a deeper structural problem with the UK constitution – it offers little protection against a leader determined to ignore convention and the rule of law, says Adam Bienkov
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The ‘Partygate’ scandal has exposed a series of gaping holes in the UK’s supposed constitutional protections against bad government.
From the police to the Civil Service, this story has shown what little protection the country actually has against any prime minister who is determined to simply act as they please, regardless of convention or the rule of law.
This reality was made clear on Tuesday with the publication of a report by Boris Johnson’s ‘Independent Advisor on Ministerial Standards’, Lord Christopher Geidt.
Lord Geidt came into the job after his predecessor, Alex Allan, resigned over the Priti Patel bullying scandal. Allan had found that the Home Secretary bullied staff and broke the Ministerial Code – which is designed to maintain high ethical standards in public office.
Yet, rather than sack Patel, Johnson simply ignored Allan’s findings and instead ordered his Cabinet to “form a square around the Pritster”. Faced with this situation, Allan had little choice but to resign himself.
A very similar scenario now faces his successor.
On Tuesday, Lord Geidt revealed that he believes that Johnson may have broken the Ministerial Code during the Partygate scandal. But rather than trigger an investigation into the Prime Minister, Lord Geidt revealed that he is unable to do so – due to Johnson’s blunt refusal to refer himself for investigation.
Absurdly, Lord Geidt also revealed that he is not even able to advise Johnson on how to better follow the Ministerial Code – because such advice would simply be ignored, thereby forcing his resignation.
“I have attempted to avoid the Independent Advisor offering advice to a Prime Minister about a Prime Minister’s obligations under his own Ministerial Code”, Lord Geidt said. “If a Prime Minister’s judgement is that there is nothing to investigate or no case to answer, he would be bound to reject any such advice, thus forcing the resignation of the Independent Advisor. Such a circular process could only risk placing the Ministerial Code in a place of ridicule.”
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In summary: the Prime Minister’s supposedly independent advisor on ministerial standards is neither independent, nor able to offer advice, nor able to uphold ministerial standards.
That this is the case was made even clearer by Johnson’s response to Lord Geidt, which stated merely that he did not believe he had broken the Ministerial Code because his law-breaking had been inadvertent.
In this way, the Prime Minister is able to act as his own judge and jury, with nothing in place to prevent him from simply changing the rules to make what limited protections are in place even weaker still.
The entire saga shows that, like much of what makes up the UK’s constitutional arrangements, the Government’s standards system is in reality a Potemkin arrangement designed merely to give the appearance of accountability, without there actually being any meaningful protections in place.
The UK’s Constitution In Crisis
It is easy to lay the blame for all of this at Boris Johnson’s door. Yet, while our current Prime Minister has helped to expose the flaws in the UK’s system more vividly than any of his predecessors, these flaws long predated his arrival in Number 10.
And if Johnson is soon ousted by Conservative MPs, his successor will be equally able to exploit the lack of any real effective checks and balances on their powers.
Such constitutional questions may seem peripheral as the UK heads into a possible recession, but it is precisely at times of crisis that we need the sort of strong constitutional checks and balances that the UK so obviously lacks. Instead, what we have is an increasingly antiquated and inadequate system, the flaws of which are only becoming more apparent by the day.
The inadequacy of the UK’s constitutional protections are thrown into even sharper relief by this week’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations.
While many people across the country celebrate the monarchy – which has been lauded for its supposed role as a ‘backstop’ against authoritarianism – the reality is that this claimed last resort against tyranny is yet another Potemkin defence that is not worth the paper it isn’t written on.
As Johnson himself showed when he succeeded in directing the Queen to unlawfully suspend Parliament in 2019, the monarch’s role as a supposed backstop is in reality no real protection at all. If a government is determined, as Johnson’s is, to simply ignore all of the constitutional checks and balances designed to protect the nation, then there is little that the monarchy either can, or will, do to prevent them.
The UK system needs a complete overhaul so that there are genuine protections against authoritarian rule put in place, rather than the merely illusory ones we are currently forced to rely upon.
So far, the Labour Party has been effective at highlighting Johnson’s disrespect for the UK’s constitutional protections and his disdain for the rule of law. Where it has been less effective is in explaining what should be put in place to prevent Johnson’s successors from simply acting in exactly the same way.
In some respects, this is understandable. Discussions about constitutional reform are not exciting and are unlikely to shift many votes. But there is now a strong possibility that the Labour Party could soon be back in government – potentially as part of a coalition with other smaller parties. If that happens, there would be a real opportunity to repair the weaknesses in the constitutional protections which have been so badly exposed by the Johnson era.
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A simple first step would be create a genuinely independent system of holding ministers to account for breaches of the Ministerial Code, so that no future prime minister can simply choose to ignore criticism of their actions.
A commitment to vastly greater government transparency on spending and ministerial interests would also do much to prevent the sorts of PPE scandals that were exposed during the pandemic from happening again.
The creation of an independent HR department in Parliament would also help to tackle the rampant sexual abuse and bullying of staffers, some of which has been exposed in recent months and years.
These are just a few examples of potential reforms. And while none of them would completely eradicate the threat from a prime minister determined to act with impunity, each would create another layer of protection against the sorts of behaviour we have seen over the past few years.
Boris Johnson’s Government has been keen to stress that it wants to “move on” from the Partygate scandal and tackle the “issues that matter” to people. However, unless the UK constitution is fundamentally reformed, then we can only expect to see many more similar scandals in the years to come.