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The Downfalls of Johnson and Truss ‘Have Not Brought UK’s Constitutional Chaos to an End’

Nearly 100 areas of concern for UK democracy are highlighted in a worrying new report

Boris Johnson’s shadow looms large. Photo: UK Parliament/Andy Bailey

The Downfalls of Johnson & Truss‘Have Not Brought UK’s Constitutional Chaos to an End’

Nearly 100 areas of concern for UK democracy are highlighted in a worrying new report seen by Byline Times, Josiah Mortimer reveals

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An independent democracy watchdog led by some of the UK’s leading constitutional thinkers has warned that ministers are exploiting weaknesses in the UK’s democracy “to the detriment of the public interest.” 

The United Kingdom Constitution Monitoring Group (UKCMG) will release its biannual report today (23 March) tracking shifts in the UK’s changeable constitution. The group is composed of key experts including former permanent secretaries of the Civil Service, professors of public law and a former lord chief justice of England and Wales.

The report highlights that despite Boris Johnson leaving office, the UK is witnessing the “continuing degradation” of constitutional standards under the Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak administrations. Worryingly, the group suggests this decline in constitutional standards may indicate that the constitutional abuses witnessed under the Johnson premiership marked only part of a wider and continuing trend. 

Across seven areas, the UKCMG highlighted almost 100 incidents of concern. These included the sacking of Tom Scholar, the rapid reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary following leaks of sensitive government information, issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol, problems surrounding the selection of Prime Ministers, contempt by the UK executive towards the House of Commons, and sleaze and bullying scandals among Cabinet Ministers.

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Johnson Era Continues

In all the group’s previous reports, they noted “widespread concerns” about a decline in integrity in public life. The UKCMG notes that “prominent” among the sources of this collapse was the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

“However, the departure of Johnson in itself should not be assumed to have brought these problems to an end. The successor administrations of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have included within them numerous ministers and officials who were in different ways involved in the problems that manifested themselves under Johnson,” the researchers write.

They add that despite warm words about improving standards from Rishi Sunak, “serious efforts to address underlying flaws in the system for the maintenance of public integrity appear so far to be lacking.”

Boris Johnson’s tainted legacy will live on in the upper chamber, where the disgraced PM used political peerages during the last six months of 2022 to appoint 13 additional peers. “This took the total number of Johnson appointees to 86, double the total of Theresa May and more than 10% of the entire House of Lords. This figure, moreover, excludes those to be appointed as part of Johnson’s resignation honours list.” Dozens of new peers have been proposed by Johnson, reportedly including key backer Nadine Dorries MP. 

The total number of Johnson appointees [is] 86, double the total of Theresa May and more than 10% of the entire House of Lords

UKCMG report

Many of the appointments are being viewed as a “thank you” for loyalty to the ex-PM during his time in office. 

The authors also point to the continued reliance on so-called Henry VIII powers by ministers, which allow major legislation to be passed while bypassing full parliamentary scrutiny. 

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill which introduces “sunset clauses” to phase out hundreds of pieces of EU legislation is a “further extension” of this power-grabbing tendency, the authors write, adding: “Immense legal changes can take place – either because a wide range of laws are simply allowed to lapse, or are replaced in some way – with a circumscribed role for Parliament.” 

The government’s controversial Rwanda migrant deportation plans also receive little parliamentary scrutiny as there is no legislation backing the deal between the two countries.

The Truss Disaster

The authors highlight the Truss premiership as an example of what can happen when Parliament is ignored, as she did not have the confidence of the majority of Tory MPs. Rishi Sunak had beaten her in the Tory MP ballot, but party members chose her in the final vote. 

“This position called into question conventional conceptions of the UK government being formed out of Parliament. The final decision over who should become Prime Minister was transferred to a self-selecting group of Conservative Party members, numbering 173,437 in total,” the watchdog warns. 

“Such an event was significant in itself, and also had further implications of a constitutional nature. The premier and administration arguably did not rest in the full support of the Commons, nor had there been reference back to the electorate. Yet a radical change in policy direction, initially in the fiscal area, followed,” the report adds.

Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. Truss took power without clearly commanding a majority in Parliament, or among voters. Photo: Rory Arnold / 10 Downing Street

Truss’ short premiership shows, in the view of the monitoring group, that it is possible for an individual or group to secure leadership positions within the UK executive without a mandate from the public in a General Election, nor from the House of Commons. A dangerous or even dictatorial PM could operate, the authors suggest, “at least for a time, subject to few effective constitutional constraints”. 

There is also an element of potential hypocrisy in how Tory leadership races are conducted,  the authors suggest: “it is worth noting that the norms to which they are subject differ significantly from those that apply to public elections, and might in some senses be judged wanting.” For example, identification requirements for the Tory membership stage of voting “seemed not to be as rigorous” as those the government recently insisted on introducing via the Elections Act – in other words, mandatory voter ID. 

The leadership election rules could alter at short notice, and vary significantly from one election to the next, they add – for example, significantly limiting or expanding the franchise, or allowing thousands of non-UK members to vote.

‘Not Encouraging’ 

Professor Andrew Blick, head of political economy at King’s College London and editor of the report, said: “The United Kingdom Constitution Group has identified ongoing problems with adherence to key constitutional standards in the UK. We rely on holders of public office to know what the rules are, to follow them, and to encourage others to do the same. Some hoped that the removal of Boris Johnson would signal a return to more acceptable behaviour, but so far the signs are not encouraging.”

The report will be thrown into sharp relief by Boris Johnson’s continued profile in public life, with the ongoing privileges committee inquiry into whether he committed contempt of Parliament through his involvement in rule-breaking No 10 parties during the pandemic.

Johnson has been accused of seeking to undermine the investigation, leading the UKCMG authors to brand his behaviour “disappointing”. They criticised Johnson’s “less than satisfactory” levels of compliance with the committee’s evidence-gathering activities, and the issuing of legal advice challenging the legitimacy of the process.

And they note public anger over the fact that Johnson has been “supported from public funds in securing the most prestigious [legal[ representation available” despite making millions of pounds in speeches while remaining an MP. On Wednesday, Johnson continued to cast doubt on the inquiry, suggesting he wouldn’t accept its findings if it ruled he had misled Parliament. 

Acting in a personal capacity, the members of the UKCMG are Professor Linda Colley, Professor Katy Hayward, Professor Michael Kenny, Sir Thomas Legg, Professor Aileen McHarg, Sir Richard Mottram, Dr Hugh Rawlings, Professor Petra Schleiter, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd and Professor Alison Young. 

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