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Boris Johnson unbound: A British tragedy?

The British have assumed our democratic traditions would restrain brute prime ministerial power. That complacency could now be tested like never before

By Tom Clark  

Photo: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

As the electoral college votes for Donald Trump began to clock up back in 2016, David Remnick of the New Yorker set down to tap out a howl of anguish on behalf of his liberal compatriots, pronouncing “a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution.” After three years of race-baiting, bench-packing and journalist-bullying, it is not hard to understand why.

And yet, within a very few months of his election, Trump was finding he could not do just as he pleased—the “Muslim ban” was soon grinding through the courts and being rewritten; funds to build the infamous border wall could not be summoned by whim; and, the clock was ticking down to an election which would see Trump’s opponents take charge of the House of Representatives, from where they have now set about impeaching him.

Boris Johnson may not quite be Donald Trump, but nor is the formless British constitution something which can endure a “tragedy” as easily as its codified American cousin. The traditional reading of the British constitution is summed up in the phrase “the Crown in parliament is law,” which means that a government with a chunky majority, a pliant party and few scruples can do whatever it pleases.

We have already seen enough of Johnson during his 141 days in No 10 to know that scruples are unlikely to be an obstacle to him playing fast and loose with the ground rules of our politics. Even though he had no majority, he was uninhibited, and instead moved to shut parliament down. As Rafael Behr has just written for us, he “rummaged around in the dressing-up box of the British constitution, plucked out the ceremonial sword of prorogation and used it for partisan aggression.” The Supreme Court unanimously ruled it unlawful and parliament was recalled, but he just shrugged and argued that the judges had got it wrong. The American social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, was visiting Prospect at the height of the saga, and confessed to being amazed—he thought the US had it bad, he said to me, but “the closing down parliament bit, Trump couldn’t do that.”

Nor is there any longer much of a check on Johnson likely to come from party; his stunning purge of the moderates—such as Ken Clarke, Rory Stewart and even Philip Hammond—has seen to that. For many years Margaret Thatcher had to worry about the “wets,” but from tomorrow we will be confronting Boris Johnson unbound.

Everything we have seen of him, from his two-article dithering over whether to support Brexit in the first place, to his delayed grand-standing against Theresa May’s Chequers deal (which he had initially endorsed) suggests that his over-riding concern is his own advancement.

During the election campaign, the Johnson regime engaged in the most naked power play against broadcasters. No sooner had Channel 4 responded to the PM’s no-show in a climate debate by putting a lump of melting ice in his place, than muttering about its future began. Then, once Andrew Neil went on the attack against the PM over his wriggling out of the understanding that he would follow the other party leaders in being interviewed, murmurs about calling time on the license fee began.

There is, then, every reason to suppose Johnson will use his new freedom to entrench the power that he craves. And indeed, the Conservative manifesto drops dark hints about how this will be done. A strength of the British constitution, it observes, “is its ability to evolve.” The next evolution, it goes on to suggest, will include an introduction of a requirement for ID at polling stations, which will have the predictable and possibly intended effect of reducing turnout among people without passports or driving licenses, even though—Steve Bloomfield reports—at the last election only one person was actually convicted and prosecuted for impersonation at a polling station. There are promises, too, to look at “the relationship between government, parliament and the courts”; “the functioning of the Royal prerogative” that Johnson has so recently unlawfully abused; to “update” the Human Rights Act with an eye to giving the authorities more latitude in matters of national security; and, to reform judicial review to ensure it is no longer used (or as the manifesto prejudicially puts it “abused”) “to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delay.”

For too long, we have ignored the potential for the British way of governance to entrust untrammelled power in a single pair of self-serving hands. In a few years’ time, will liberals look back on this complacency as a British tragedy?

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