The prime minister got what he always wanted. Now, as the pandemic and its aftermath unfold, he is impotent to guide eventsby Rafael Behr / May 8, 2020 / Leave a comment
The way Britain’s constitution is set up, not much can get in the way of a prime minister in full command of parliament. The system was famously described as “elective dictatorship” by Lord Hailsham in the 1960s (although the term was not his original coinage). That power is now in Boris Johnson’s hands. What is he doing with it all?
The prime minister’s party is subserviently grateful for its 80-seat majority. Tory MPs elected last December in former Labour strongholds attribute their victories to the “Boris effect.” Old-timers in safe seats know they might easily be in opposition if forced to rely exclusively on the stale, unloved Conservative brand. Tories are in a loyal mood and the opposition hasn’t got the numbers to cause legislative mischief.
Besides, parliament is currently operating at half-steam, constricted by social distancing. Scrutiny is hard to apply by conference call. Emergency legislation giving the government extraordinary powers over every aspect of the nation’s economic and social life has been nodded through. Downing Street reigns supreme.
That institutional vigour has additional cultural momentum. Even before the pandemic struck, there was probably some appetite for national coalescence after years of hyper-partisan aggression around Brexit. When the country was then plunged into an emergency the automatic gravitation of support to incumbency kicked in. Political scientists call it “rallying round the flag.” That effect is not indefinite, but it appears still to be shielding Johnson from serious polling damage that might otherwise have been inflicted by Covid-19.
Even the most generous analysis would find the government’s handling of the situation inconsistent. The highest death toll in Europe invites harsher judgment. But Johnson’s own tussle with the virus also gives him a certain immunity, as if he briefly became the personal incarnation of a national trauma. He isn’t quite the centre of a personality cult, but he enjoys a lofty position over the rest of politics that few of his predecessors have experienced and none have sustained for long.
There is a catch. Johnson’s power is vastly inflated by the crisis and strangely circumscribed by it. Debate in recent weeks has been consumed by the question of how and when to ease lockdown restrictions. The prime minister has decided whether people should be allowed to visit garden centres; how long they might be allowed to walk…