Is this the worst parliament in history?

The delinquent members of the 2019 parliament have supported three disastrous governments—and three failing leaders

August 23, 2023
The “Brexit Parliament”. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
The “Brexit Parliament”. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A depressing summer talking point, typifying this fairly ghastly year, has been the remark by Labour MP Chris Bryant that we are ruled by “the worst parliament in our history.”

There are strong competitors for that accolade, including the Addled Parliament of 1614, which lasted two months and passed no bills, and the Short Parliament of 1640, dissolved after three weeks, both of them stepping stones to the Long Parliament and civil war of the 1640s. But to be fair, Bryant’s actual claim was carefully qualified. He was referring to the 23 MPs (so far) who have been suspended by the House or resigned their seats since 2019: “statistically the worst record of any parliament in our history, by a long chalk”.

Since those members include Boris Johnson, the prime minister of 2019, it is hard to disagree. The only modern PMs in history to have suffered an obviously worse fate are George Canning, who died in office, and Spencer Percival, who was assassinated. And neither of them died of shame.

In his new book Code of Conduct, Bryant sets out proposals to police parliamentary standards more effectively, instituting tighter controls on lobbying, second jobs and blatant lying, Boris Johnson-style, to the House of Commons. They are all very sensible, coming from the chair of the standards committee of the House of Commons.

However, without claiming it is the worst ever, I do believe the 2019 parliament is a catastrophe, judging not only by its most delinquent members but in the three governments a majority of its members have supported, two of which imploded and the third of which is likely to be defeated at an election.

One of the three governments—Liz Truss’s—was the shortest-lived in British history, disintegrating after only 44 days. Assuming Sunak loses next year, the other two would have lasted for just three and two years respectively, the highest rate of turnover in modern British history. If Keir Starmer wins next year, he will be the sixth prime minister in eight years.

The reason for the high turnover is that all five prime ministers since 2016—Cameron, May, Johnson, Truss, Sunak—failed (or are failing) in office so badly that they were forced to resign early (or, in Sunak’s case, is almost certain to be defeated in a general election). And the common factor in this failure isn’t for the most part ethics, but rather a single disastrous policy—Brexit. In Johnson’s case, of course, the two were linked: his Brexit campaign and policy were based on a tissue of untruths and half-truths. But plenty of perfectly upright politicians, and the entire Conservative Party, were caught up in his Brexit web.

The 2019 parliament will probably go down in history as the Brexit Parliament, to mark the most disastrous policy of the British state since appeasement in the 1930s. The roots of this parliament’s failure go back to David Cameron and his ludicrous decision to hold a Brexit referendum in 2016, when his own government opposed Brexit and there was no actual Brexit policy on the table. But without Johnson and his populist lunge to hard Brexit as a device to undermine Theresa May, seize the Tory leadership and win the 2019 election, this need not have led to the scale of the catastrophe to follow.

Both of Johnson’s successors in the 2019 parliament embraced the same hard Brexit, and the culture of half-truths and denial of reality it necessitates. Worse still, in the bid for Johnson’s crown after he was forced to resign last year, Truss emulated his Brexit populism and took it to an even higher level. She told Tory members they could have their cake and eat it, offering unaffordable tax cuts for the better off—which is why she lasted only 44 days. Sunak then became the weak tail-end Charlie.

How does one guard against politicians having mad and bad ideas which take over whole parties and parliaments? That’s much harder than a Code of Conduct against lobbying and lying. But two things stand out.

First, we need a media more addicted to truth than propaganda. Second, we need much better citizenship education in schools, votes at 16 and compulsory voting, so that young people take politics seriously and learn to separate good and bad arguments—and identify the charlatans who are populist liars.

Alas, I doubt the populist media is going to improve—or be better regulated—any time soon. But just maybe the next Labour government will protect the BBC and take the young seriously, enabling them to save the country from long term effects of Johnson and the Brexit Parliament.