Thursday 7 July 2022

It's not just about an individual


The usual argument against the sort of constitutional reform which would lead to a written constitution which formally acknowledges rights, duties and responsibilities – and limits thereon – is that what we have ‘works’. And so it does, after a fashion, although it’s not too difficult to find examples of where it doesn’t really work at all. But what a crisis of the sort we are currently enduring shows is that a whole system which depends entirely on a mixture of convention and ‘doing the decent thing’ provides no protection if those charged with operating it are without decency, and regard following convention as being optional.

For all the talk of Tory MPs holding a new vote to remove the PM, they can’t. They can hold a vote to remove the leader of their party, but it’s only convention which decrees that that person should be PM. There is nothing at all to stop Johnson carrying on as PM even after he is sacked as party leader. Only the monarch can sack the PM – and because she (unlike him) is likely to feel bound by convention, she is unlikely to do that unless the House of Commons formally passes a vote of no confidence in the government. Any Tory MPs continuing to cower behind the anonymity of a secret ballot might yet be forced to vote openly against their own PM, and in the process trigger an election which will lose many of them their seats.

The PM is apparently struggling to find MPs who are willing to fill all the posts in his government. But it’s only convention which requires the government to have so many ministers. There’s nothing to stop the PM from merging ministries into a much smaller number – even as small as one, perhaps – and appointing himself to all the posts. As an alternative, it’s only convention which requires ministers to be members of the House of Commons – there are no formal rules which prevent the PM ennobling a hundred friends and sycophants and appointing them to government posts.

Theoretically, a government needs to get its legislative programme through the House of Commons – but it’s only convention which requires it to have such a programme at all. The executive branch of government has long wielded most of the power, and recent legislation, such as that following Brexit, has increased that imbalance – there is an awful lot that a government can do and change without ever needing to pass a single bill. The one obvious exception is the Finance Bill implementing the budget, but that’s some way off. There's plenty of time to find a way around that as well. A determined PM could govern for months, at the least, without requiring any consent from parliament. And governments of both parties have acquiesced over the years in a process of gradually neutering parliament’s own ability to act, or even to debate, without the consent of the government.

Perhaps Johnson is weighing up all these factors; perhaps he will opt for an immediate dissolution and a new election as some are suggesting. That doing so might embarrass the monarch is simply a breach with convention, not a breach of any rules. He certainly still seems to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that he is immensely popular amongst the electorate and that an election would see him triumph rather than destroy what’s left of his party. Perhaps he will, after all, resign, however unlikely that currently looks. Even if he does, it would be a mistake to breathe a sigh of relief and believe that ‘the system’ has stood up to his delusions. He has exposed the weaknesses and deficiencies of informal rules and conventions and the change needed is more than the replacement of an individual.


dafis said...

You need not fret about Johnson. He will go in a few months, or so it seems today. Just like Mrs May before him. Doing time as a caretaker is meant to make things easier, but in this case it just means that nothing will get done ! There may be much chatter about what needs to be done but this Tory government's long term inability to deliver anything other than disasters suggests that nowt will change until they get shown the door. That said their prospective replacements in the Labour Party don't fill me with enthusiasm and optimism either. Time to head for the exit. Sharpish.

Whichever way it all goes you will have a steady stream of Westminster wallies lining up as targets well into the future. Comment seen elsewhere – ” People you’ve never heard of, resigning from jobs you didn’t know existed, because all of a sudden they want us to believe they have found integrity. ” Spot on, sums up the entire mess in Westminster and much fodder for the Borthlas pen.

John Dixon said...

I'm not feeling quite as complacent as that. Ten days from now, parliament is due to close down for three months; three months in which the PM will have even fewer checks on what he can do than he does now. It is only convention which requires a caretaker PM to merely administer as best he or she can (a low bar in this case); but for someone unbound by convention who probably believes that if he can only pull off some masterstroke or other all will be forgiven (and his resignation speech showed no indication of any understanding that he might in any way be to blame for anything), three months provides a lot of opportunity to do a lot of damage.