Tuesday, March 28, 2023

After years of breaking the rules, Boris Johnson must now hope that his MPs will not change the only one holding him in office

Britain does not have a single document setting out what its democracy looks like. The British Constitution consists of large amounts of legislation, all of which can be rewritten if necessary, and rules and traditions that are widely accepted by all politicians.

This reliance on tradition and accepted standards works if everyone accepts it. When rules are broken, politicians resign, whether they are backbenchers, cabinet ministers or party leaders and prime ministers. Without this acceptance of gentlemanly (or gentlewomanly) standards, the parliamentary system would be unworkable and require more rigid standards.

For his supporters, this flexibility is one of the strengths of the UK’s parliamentary system – everyone plays by the rules without the need to write them down and reason about them. It is a system that has served the UK well to date. The constitutional arrangements bent when necessary – though critics would argue that it creates an archaic system with only limited room for meaningful change. But the system has survived and evolved over time. So what happens if the leader does not play by the rules? And what happens when they change it and the system has no way of challenging it?

This is the situation in which MPs currently find themselves. In Boris Johnson, they have a prime minister like no other. Previous leaders were experts at bending the rules – but not breaking them – to fit their purposes within the parliamentary system. The very purpose of a three-line whip is to get your party to accept your policies and the whips have historically used every tool at their disposal to make rogue MPs.

There are legendary stories of the whip office. From Gavin Williamson’s pet tarantula to the dreaded black books of previous indiscretions, the whips were and are experts at persuading MPs to support their legislation.

But there are supposed to be some parliamentary rules. The Ministerial Code, for example, was supposed to set a minimum standard for conduct in public life. And it came with the expectation that anyone found to break it would be punished – and that they would accept their punishment, even if they did not like it or agree with it.

Play fast and loose

Parliament’s appointment in 2019 was the first clear indication that the Johnson government would not allow any awkward rules to stand in the way of its plans. At the end of August 2019, Johnson advised the Queen to prorogate, or close, parliament for five weeks at the height of the Brexit crisis, to prevent MPs from blocking the government’s agreement to leave the EU. This advice was later ruled by the Supreme Court as “illegal”. It was just the first rule break with little or no punishment ahead.

In November 2021, Conservative MP Owen Paterson, backbench, was suspended from parliament for 30 days after it was found that he lobbied for two companies he worked as an adviser to outside parliament – hardly the heaviest penalties. The government machine came into force to force a vote on whether a new committee, crammed with Tory MPs, should decide on its fate and the future of the Standards Committee. It turned out to be one violation of the rules too far and, despite winning the parliamentary vote, the government agreed to new cross-party talks and another investigation into Paterson, which caused him to resign his seat.

More rule violations followed, including the Partygate scandal. The prime minister broke one line after another and in some cases refused to resign or even apologize. Individual words have been repeatedly interpreted and reinterpreted by backbenchers trying to provide some defense of their leader. But at what cost?

In some ways, there was no cost. Johnson remains prime minister with a 80-seat majority.

But public confidence in UK politicians is at its lowest level on record. Labor leads in many polls and Johnson has just faced a vote of confidence in which 148 of his MPs voted against him.

Read more: Boris Johnson wins ‘mistrust’ vote: but the margin will make him nervous

Hoist by his own petard

Ironically, the very thing that keeps Johnson from breaking can come to his rescue: the rules. The rules of the Conservative 1922 committee of backbenchers make it clear that a leader can only face one vote of confidence every 12 months – so, until June 2023, Johnson’s position cannot be disputed by the 1922 committee. However, there has been much mumbling that this rule could be changed.

The chairman of the 1922 committee, Sir Graham Brady, does not appear to be in favor of changing the rules. But never say never. The Conservative Party is excellent at recognizing when a leader is an asset and, perhaps more importantly, when they are a lame duck.

Sir Graham Brady, Chair Of The 1922 Committee, Leaves 10 Downing Street After Talks With Prime Minister Theresa May In London, Britain, 17 January 2019.
Decisions: Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee, leaves Downing Street during the final months of Theresa May’s first ministry, January 2019.
EPA-EFE / Andy Rain

They will expel any leader – no matter who they are – if they feel it benefits the party and its members. Margaret Thatcher discovered this when she asked her cabinet whether she should fight a second round during a leadership contest in 1990 after 11 years in government and 16 years as party leader.

But while Johnson may be in an awkward position, he is not in an unbearable one. While other prime ministers would almost certainly have resigned over many of these rule violations, Johnson continues to cling to his position. He can not be forced by the Labor Party, not even the voters at present – at least not until the next election, which takes place in December 2024.

Until this election, only the Tory party can punish this rule-breaker in any meaningful way. While they may not do so today or tomorrow, they will not hesitate to fire him if they believe he has become an election disaster. Upcoming by-elections in Wakefield, Yorkshire and Tiverton and Honiton in Devon on June 23 could prompt many MPs to reconsider their current charity towards their leader and rule-breaker.

Nation World News Desk
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