If the United Kingdom survives Boris Johnson’s disastrous premiership it may yet be grateful to him. No one man has done more, and in so short a time, to expose the absurdities of our archaic political system and the weakness of its ‘unwritten constitution’ in which vagueness has too long been mistaken for flexibility. Johnson’s only interest in rules is finding out what happens if he breaks them. In respect of our fabled ‘unwritten constitution’ the answer has proved to be, time and again, little or nothing. Johnson’s aide Cummings set the tone early on by refusing to attend a Parliamentary Committe when summoned to do so. That is ‘contempt of parliament’, which sounds ominous, but unlike contempt of court – for which you can be sent to jail – no actual penalty appears to attach to it – it is simply assumed that no-one would defy so august a summons.
Johnson has extended that contempt for parliament by continually announcing policy through his client press before bringing it to the House. The penalty for that? A loud bleat of reproval from the ineffectual Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle. Johnson, with an 80 seat majority of largely supine loyalists, can and does take the support of the House for granted and pays it scant regard.
He was already well-known to be a near-pathological liar before the Tories made him their leader, so it was no surprise to find that he rapidly ran into conflict with the unwritten rule about telling lies in the House. Lying to the House of Commons, we have been assured repeatedly (as often as Johnson has done it, which is many, many times) is a resigning matter: as a case in point, people cite John Profumo who did just that, when he was found to have lied to the House about his relations with Christine Keeler; but that was nearly sixty years ago and Profumo (as his subsequent lifetime of atonement demonstrated) was an honourable man. Johnson is not.
That – his total lack of any sense of honour or shame – is what has enabled him to drive a coach and horses through parliamentary conventions that are founded on the presumption that all Members are honourable. Thus, elaborate penalties attach to anyone who accuses another Member of lying or deliberately misleading the House – they can be summarily expelled and suspended – but no penaltes whatever attach to a member who does lie or mislead the House, because it is presumed that no Honourable Member would ever do so; but if it were to happen, it is presumed that (of course) the member would resign. But what if he does not, but simply returns to repeat the same lies week in week out, even when there is a video compilation documenting the numerous instances he has done so (thanks to the admirable Peter Stefanovic), a video that has been viewed millions of times?
Well, as we have seen, nothing at all happens. There is in fact no mechanism for establishing that an MP has lied to the House even when demonstrable proof exists: the Speaker will not do anything about it, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, absurdly, has no power in the actual chamber (that belongs to the Speaker) [see Lying with Impunity]. A party leader might take action – by withdrawing the whip – but if the offender in question is the party leader, and the Prime minister to boot, then no-one can do anything about it. Of course, anyone with a shred of decency or honesty would resign if they were caught out in that way, but Johnson does not have a shred of either.
Likewise with breaches of the ministerial code, founded on the Nolan principles of conduct in public life, handsomely bound with an introduction by Boris Johnson himself praising their worth – the ultimate arbiter in its enforcement is the Prime Minister. So when the unspeakable Priti Patel was found by an inquiry to have bullied her staff and to be in breach of the code, Johnson simply disagreed and she remained in post; and as regards his own conduct, he is the ultimate arbiter of that, too: absurdly, it is only the Prime Minister who can decide that the Prime Minister has breached the ministerial code and should resign; because of course it is presumed that anyone with a shred of decency – well, you know the rest.
Johnson’s latest wheeze is very much in the same vein: he has resigned as party leader, but not as Prime Minister, following the unprecedented departure of more than fifty members of his government, including senior cabinet ministers, in a 48 hour period. This, too, is in complete defiance of convention. There is, in fact, one sole criterion you must meet in order to be UK Prime Minister and form a government: you do not need to have won an election, you do not need to lead or even be a member of a political party, and indeed I believe you may not even need to be an MP (Alex Douglas-Home was not, though a bye-election was swiftly arranged to enable him to sit in the Commons); certainly you do not need, nor can you get, a personal mandate from the electorate (no mechanism exists for that) – all you need is to be able to command the confidence of the House, that is to say, you must be able to muster sufficient votes to pass your programme of legislation (and crucially the budget that finances it).
When Johnson first became Prime Minister, he swiftly lost his majority in the House and consequently failed to win something like his first ten or eleven votes. There was a real possibility at that point, if parliament had been able to organise itself, that an ad hoc majority could have rallied behind an independent candidate, ousted Johnson and formed a new government – however, they lacked the political will. Whether it would have made any difference is doubtful, given that Johnson resolved the stalemate by calling a General Election which the Conservatives won with an 80 seat majority.
And that 80 seat majority is what has enabled Johnson to work this latest bit of mischief. In the previous case, Johnson could not command the confidence of the House simply because the Conservatives had lost their majority; replacing him as their leader would not have altered the basic arithmetic. In this case, however, the Conservatives still have a substantial (if depleted) majority, and can reasonably claim that they have a mandate from the elctorate to fulfil their manifesto, so there is no need to call an election (and that has been the case for the majority of Prime Ministers since the war – Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Callaghan, Major, Brown, May and Johnson all became PM without an election, although only Home, Callaghan and Brown did not win an election subsequently).
The Conservatives’ problem with Johnson is (or purports to be) personal – after a litany of scandalous revelations stretching back over several months, his inept and palpably dishonest account of the Pincher affair seemed, at the time, to be the straw that broke the camel’s back: as murmurs of discontent grew, two senior cabinet ministers – the Chancellor and the Health Secretary – resigned, rapidly followed by a slew of others in lesser positions. Close confidantes and known supporters of Johnson publicly called on him to go. A delegation from the 1922 committee – the celebrated ‘men in grey suits’ – was reported to be on its way to Downing St. to tell him that the game was up.
And what happened?
Well, he’s still Prime Minister. He has already filled a number of government vacancies, in some cases by reappointing those who had resigned. He has resigned as leader of the Conservative Party but not as Prime Minister, despite having a designated deputy in Dominc (gawd help us!) Raab – the implication is that he will go as soon as a successor is appointed, since it is presumed that he or she will command the confidence of the House. But what of his own position? All those resignations have washed over him like tide over a rock. In theory, they were showing that he had lost the confidence of the House, i.e. of his Conservative majority – but that is all it was, mere show. The expectation, of course, was that anyone with a shred of decency etc. would see that the game was up and do the decent thing: but how little, even now, do they know their man. Johnson simply refused to respond. Figuratively, they left him with the revolver and the glass of whisky, so he drank the whisky, shot Michael Gove, and carried on as before.
He is there even as I write, and unless they actually demonstrate, by a vote in Parliament, that he no longer has their confidence and can no longer continue as Prime Minister, there he will remain, working his mischief while his colleagues fight like rats in a sack to succeed him. And who knows what may happen in the interim?
Johnson loses no power by resigning as Leader of the Conservative Party. By staying on as Prime Minister, he retains an enormous amount (as he has already demonstrated by exercising his patronage in making new appointments). As John Major wisely observed, the hope that he will be constrained by his cabinet is not well-founded, given his conduct till now. I fully expect him to damage this country further before he departs – if, indeed, he does.