The government now has power to swipe away inconvenient safeguards. Vigilance is requiredby Tom Clark / January 30, 2020 / Leave a comment
Over three extraordinary years in the governance of Britain, the unthinkable has repeatedly become fact. Time-honoured understandings went out the window, conventions were trampled on, and it often felt as if the fundamentals of the constitution were being remade. MPs would never seize control of the parliamentary timetable from ministers, until they did. A modern speaker would never prevent a government from staging a vote it hoped to win, until John Bercow did. Of course, it was inconceivable for a 21st-century prime minister to shut parliament down at a critical moment, until Boris Johnson pulled that trick. And it was unimaginable for Britain’s proudly apolitical judges to march into the heart of an almighty power struggle, until the moment they struck down that prime ministerial decision as “unlawful, void and of no effect.”
As each arm of the state provoked others to do things they’d not done before, it was easy to imagine the underlying power balance was shifting radically. Easy, but wrong. Beneath the frenzy, a Newtonian equilibrium was maintained: every breathtaking action ran into an equal and opposite reaction. A cold new light dawned after Johnson got the election result he craved before Christmas. What is now apparent is not how much, but rather how little, has changed about our constitution. The basic ground-rule is still that a British government in possession of a serious majority can do as it pleases.
The most immediate effect is that Brexit is happening, and on the prime minister’s terms. We will live with the consequences for trade, diplomacy and Britain’s place in the world. But just as important, if not quite as obvious, is the potential power the new government now has to swipe away all of those pesky checks and balances which have created the drama. There can be little doubt that the appetite for untrammelled power is there. Johnson, after all, purged his own party with unprecedented brutality in September, withdrawing the whip from some of its biggest beasts; and, while the election was raging, No 10 issued barely coded threats against both the BBC and Channel 4. (The colliding worldviews of politicians and broadcasters is evident in this issue, where Theresa May’s former press chief, Robbie Gibb, draws swords with former BBC man, Roger Mosey, on the utility of fact-checking.) Meanwhile, Johnson’s top aide, Dominic Cummings, is openly agitating…