This government has unleashed something far worse than “sleaze”

The scandals of the Major years do not compare with the debasement of democracy currently underway

November 09, 2021
Photo: Uwe Deffner / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Uwe Deffner / Alamy Stock Photo

Even by the standards of Boris Johnson's government, last week was a particular constitutional low point. No matter how you try to justify the government's ham-fisted attempts to rewrite the rulebook in order to protect one of its own (and the prime minister, which shouldn't be forgotten), there was no universe in which such a painfully transparent scheme could end in anything but failure. It was simultaneously smug, sinister and incompetent—and above all, unconstitutional.   

The narrative has quickly shifted to a general one of Tory corruption and sleaze, with the media focussing on the question of second jobs. Yet by lumping the actions of Johnson's government in with moonlighting MPs and the scandals that rocked John Major's government in the early 1990s, the real issue is missed.

The notion that MPs (many of whom are former ministers) are worth the ludicrous amounts some are paid for their workload as “political consultants” is, in fairness, absurd. But while the headlines over “Tory sleaze” might write themselves, they ignore the fact that Johnson has once more attempted to subvert constitutional norms with the aim of insulating himself and his party from independent scrutiny—viewing the rules, as one of his teachers once prophetically wrote in his school report, as something that merely "binds everyone else."

Eliding this with the question of political corruption allows Johnson's actions last week to be seen as part of “politics as usual” rather than what they truly were—an exceptional attempt to shield himself from political accountability. Not only does this narrative feed the low expectations that people already have of MPs, further establishing their reputation as being constantly on the make and interested only in private gain instead of the public good, but it normalises what should be outrageous—another effort by the prime minister to violate constitutional norms and the rule of law.  

Few principles are more foundational to the rule of law than the need for those who make laws to also be bound by them. This was what the government sought to trample on in attempting to rewrite the rules to prevent Paterson from being suspended, after he was found to have breached Commons rules on lobbying by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.    

Regardless of any concerns that the government may have had over the processes of the Commons Standard Committee, which recommended Paterson's suspension, the only constitutionally acceptable way of reforming the system would have been prospectively, rather than retrospectively. Any future decisions would have been reached through the new process, with Paterson left to rue his misfortune.

But even if the government had made the reforms prospective, it would not have been beyond reproach. Paterson's suspension may have been the ostensible reason for the government's intervention, but one can speculate that the prime minister was more concerned with the Commissioner's potential investigations into his own conduct, including the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat, than with protecting Paterson from a 30-day suspension.  

This is why, rather than viewing this scandal as a throwback to the nineties and the Major era, last week's events should be seen as of a piece with Johnson's attempts to undermine and degrade liberal democratic norms. Throughout his entire premiership, Johnson has shown contempt for anything and anyone who subjects him to independent scrutiny or who holds him to account. In anticipation of opposition from MPs, he tried to prorogue parliament in the weeks leading up to Brexit, and after the Supreme Court struck down his decision, turned his fire on the courts, trying to intimidate the judiciary into a more deferential stance—something which has arguably been achieved, given government ministers' praise of recent decisions.

Meanwhile, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is laying siege to the BBC, suggesting at the Conservative Party conference that the broadcaster may not be here in ten years’ time, and reportedly claiming that Nick Robinson's instruction to Johnson to “stop talking” in an interview last month had “cost the BBC a lot of money.” Not content with this, ministers are still trying to force through former Daily Mail editor and Johnson ally Paul Dacre as the new chair of Ofcom, the media's regulatory body, despite the first interview panel finding he was “not appointable.” 

Tension between governments and those who hold them to account is nothing new. But what is new is this government's inability to tolerate such scrutiny, preferring to degrade and diminish countervailing institutions, if not hobble them outright, rather than respect their role in a liberal democracy. This is the real scandal, not the quotidian political sleaze—no matter what the headlines might say.