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Johnson, Truss, Sunak: The Longest Parliament with the Lowest Results

Seemingly lasting an eternity, Professor Chris Painter dissects the failures of governance of the 2019-2024 Parliament, in response to momentous events

Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Liz Truss in Parliament. Photo: Gavin Rodgers/Alamy

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The 17th Century English Parliament lasting from 1640 until 1660 was known as the ‘Long Parliament’. We can only hope that we are not about to see anything comparable. Yet, the UK Parliament that first met on 17 December 2019, following a general election which gave Boris Johnson a thumping 80 seat majority, feels, in perception, like the longest Parliament ever.  

The next general election can be delayed until five years after that initial meeting which, allowing for a minimum of 25 working days for campaigning, means as late as 28 January 2025. That would, however, impinge on the 2024 Christmas festivities, hardly a recipe for incumbent electoral success. Therefore, realistically, we will have a 2024 election, in all probability in the autumn given the current dire standing of the Conservative Party in the polls.

But Parliaments entering a fifth year, as in 1992-97 or 2005-10, rarely sustain their utility. The 2010-15 Parliament proved an exception because odium could be deflected onto the Liberal Democrats as Conservative coalition partners. It was also an ephemeral era of fixed term parliaments agreed as part of that Coalition deal.

Nonetheless, the 2019-24 Parliament is in a class of its own. It has become embarrassingly light on significant Government legislative business after all the turmoil of 2022. The Roman Empire had its years of multiple Emperors. Recent UK political history has come close to matching it, Number 10 Downing Street consecutively occupied by Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Then 2023 became almost one for rejoicing, with Sunak able to survive as Prime Minister until the very end. 

Taking the current Parliament as an entity, what stands out are not just the momentous events with which it grappled, but how poorly they were handled. This applies to a self-inflicted debacle, two external shocks, and a globally shared existential imperative: Brexit, Covid, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and environmental apocalypse moving ever closer.

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Trade, Economy and Public Health

Johnson released a triumphant fist pump on confirmation of his 2019 electoral success, convinced that thereafter he could do much as he liked. He had promised to ‘get Brexit done’ through an ‘oven-ready’ deal. Negotiations produced something much more problematic than that implied, including a de facto trading barrier down the Irish Sea to prevent a hard border on the Irish mainland from undermining the Good Friday Agreement. Even Sunak’s mitigating 2023 Windsor Framework failed to entice the DUP into restoring power sharing institutions in Northern Ireland, albeit a party needing few pretexts for politically sulking, with its majority hold on the province’s electorate looking increasingly tenuous.

Concern mounted about the wider impact on the UK’s trading position from the greater friction inevitably introduced with prime European markets. New agreements negotiated wider afield only compensated for a fraction of the damage caused. The scheduled 2026 review of the 2021 EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement will therefore require more than token fine-tuning if the disruptive effect of Johnson’s cavalier Brexit are to be further alleviated.

No sooner had the UK withdrawn from the EU in early 2020 than a pandemic was looming over the horizon. The delayed response in March 2020 was repeated during a second infection wave in the autumn, leading to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths. Sunak, as Chancellor, had been instrumental in resisting further lockdowns, enlisting the aid of barely credible dissenting scientific voices, falsely positing a clash between the economy and public health when, in fact, they were interdependent. The ongoing Covid Inquiry has revealed in graphic detail, too, evidence of a toxic and dysfunctional working environment rampant in Johnson’s Number 10.

When it was divulged that public health regulations had been ignored in Downing Street, in what became infamously known as Partygate, it contributed – along with other scandals – to the premature demise of Johnson’s Premiership in September 2022, precipitating a slump in the Conservative Party’s poll ratings from which it is yet to recover.


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Cost of Living and Climate Breakdown

As Chancellor, Sunak had put together a substantial package of employee and business support to cushion the impact of the pandemic; one marred however by high levels of fraud, and with unlawful preferential routes used for granting public procurement contracts. As a lockdown-sceptic, he became more resistant towards the compelling arguments for extending this support until normal life resumed, despite being eventually obliged to accept that case. Similar hesitancy revealed itself in grudging willingness to approve state subsidies for consumers and the imposition of windfall taxes on fossil fuel producers to counteract a surge in energy prices consequent upon Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

With food prices also soaring, inflation peaked at over 11% in October 2022, higher than for four decades. Now subsiding, the rate has nonetheless remained above the official Bank of England target, an accompanying hike in interest levels piling further agony on mortgagees and renters, fuelling a serious cost of living crisis for millions of families. Supply chains are, moreover, at further risk from current developments in the Middle East. Liz Truss’s flirtation with trickle-down economics, during the briefest of stays as Prime Minister in autumn 2022, had merely served to exacerbate this financial instability.

Once Sunak seized the Premiership, any credit for international leadership on climate crisis was also gratuitously forfeited. Boris Johnson had at least paid lip service to this agenda though, as was often the case, his rhetoric far exceeded any concrete progress. Sunak, however, displayed extraordinary complacency, sanctioning new oil and gas licences in defiance of pleading from climate scientists to do precisely the opposite.           

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A Grim Scorecard        

There have been momentous challenges during the 2019-24 Parliament. We could equally have looked at crippling backlogs in the health and court services; severe capacity constraints in prisons; crises in social care and affordable housing; an increasing attainment gap in education; near bankruptcy of many local councils; constant disruption to public transport; or growing levels of relative and absolute poverty. All these maladies are a debilitating combination of economic stagnation, a high tax burden and deteriorating public services. In this context, the more emphasis is placed on future tax cuts, the greater will be an austerian squeeze on public services.

The bottom line is that average wages are projected to remain below their 2008 level, with reputable forecasters predicting that the current Parliament will be the first for several decades to oversee a decline in household living standards. Cultural issues of social identity have, moreover, been used to divert political attention from structural economic disadvantage with Sunak, a man of manifold riches, obscenely laying the blame on the most marginalised demographic groups for the country’s social ills.

The first of three Prime Ministers was an opportunistic maverick driven from office in disgrace; then came an ideological fanatic, forced out by financial chaos; followed by an occupant of Downing Street who will only countenance a proactive state as a very last resort. Indeed, on close inspection Sunak is, in many respects, just as culpable as Johnson for much that has gone wrong. All this has taken place in a Parliament moving inexorably towards a brutal electoral verdict on a period of painfully poor governance.

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