Boris Johnson’s Lies Push Britain’s Constitution to Breaking Point
The former Conservative Solicitor General believes ‘good chaps’ in his party should remove the Prime Minister from office
Boris Johnson is a liar and should resign as Prime Minister. That is the overwhelming view of the British public, according to polling conducted in the aftermath of his fine for breaking Coronavirus laws.
It is also the view of the Prime Minister himself – or at least it was when he signed his own Ministerial Code.
According to that code, any member of the Government who knowingly misleads Parliament should stand down. It is now abundantly clear that the Prime Minister did knowingly mislead Parliament.
His repeated denials that any parties took place in Downing Street fell apart as soon as it was confirmed that he had attended them. His police fine for doing so merely confirmed what the vast majority of the public has already worked out: the Prime Minister broke the law and then lied about it.
And yet, far from standing down, Johnson on Wednesday committed to remaining as Prime Minister right up until the next general election. An attempt by opposition parties to force a parliamentary investigation into his conduct could also fail today due to his large Commons majority.
However, not only do opposition parties have little means to hold the Prime Minister to account for his actions, they are not even allowed to explicitly state what those actions are.
Over the past week, multiple MPs have been ordered by the House of Commons Speaker to withdraw their statements labelling, or even implying, that Johnson is a liar.
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It is therefore clear that the checks and balances which are supposed to protect against a rogue prime minister lying to the country, have failed. Not only can Johnson lie to Parliament with impunity, but his political opponents are not even allowed to mention it.
“One key problem here is that there is practically nothing to enforce a Prime Minister – or other minister – to answer questions either honestly, or at all,” legal commentator David Allen Green told Byline Times. “It is always ‘a matter for the House’. And, with a majority, the matter for the House is a matter for the Government’s supporters.”
The defence against this apparent flaw in the UK system has often been defined as the so-called ‘good chaps’ theory of government. As the historian Peter Hennessy has set out, the UK’s constitution relies on having ‘good chaps’ in power who respect the network of conventions and unwritten codes that were established in order to place checks on their powers.
The problem is that this entire theory falls apart with a Prime Minister who holds all such checks and balances in contempt.
‘Good Chaps Must Deal with Johnson’
One effective check on the Prime Minister’s conduct in recent years has been the British legal system. The successful High Court challenge against Boris Johnson’s attempt to suspend Parliament, along with other similar challenges, is the one obvious area in which his contempt for convention has been effectively challenged.
However, the former Conservative Solicitor General, Lord Edward Garnier, told Byline Times that it is far from clear that a similar challenge could be effective in this case.
“As we saw in the prorogation cases, it is possible if there’s a breach of these conventions… to apply to the High Court to challenge that conduct,” he said. “It would be interesting to see whether the courts would be prepared to monitor the Prime Minister’s supervision of the Ministerial Code.
“However, by and large, we’re talking here about a Prime Minister with a political majority in the House of Commons and that’s probably the end point unless the House of Commons loses faith in the Prime Minister.”
Some have suggested that the UK should instead move to a more formalised, written, codified constitution which could in theory explicitly state when a Prime Minister should be forced to resign. However, Lord Garnier is not in favour.
“I don’t think a written constitution would improve matters and, indeed, there’s a degree of flexibility in our system which has its advantages,” he added.
For the peer, the issue of dealing with Johnson is purely a “political problem” rather than a constitutional one.
“If good chaps behave badly, or if bad chaps are caught behaving badly, well then it takes other good chaps to rise to the occasion and deal with it”, Garnier told Byline Times. “It’s not impossible to do that and we’ve seen Prime Ministers, not necessarily quite like this one, who have been brought down by hubris, carelessness, misconduct of one sort or another.”
So will his Conservative colleagues ultimately move to get rid of the ‘bad chap’ in Number 10?
“As soon as they think that the Prime Minister is no longer an electoral asset I suspect that they will very quickly change their mind”, Lord Garnier said. “I’m afraid it’s as simple and as basic as that. As soon as he stops looking like a winner, and starts looking like a weight around their neck, then they’ll take a different view. We don’t need to get too sentimental about it or look for intellectual purity. This is politics.”
Lord Garnier is highly critical of Johnson’s dishonest behaviour. However, he gives short shrift to the idea that changes are required to allow MPs to explicitly label Johnson a liar in the House of Commons chamber.
“The facts are well known to the public and speak for themselves”, he said. “You don’t have to be so blatant as to call somebody a liar in the House of Commons in order to get that point across, it just requires a degree of dexterity. And I don’t think there’s anybody in the House of Commons, or outside of it, who thinks that the Prime Minister has the same view of truth, or falsity, as other people.”
Asked who in his party should replace Johnson as Prime Minister, Garnier was blunt.
“I’m almost inclined to say anybody rather than this one. But I can assure you the right person will emerge at the right time.”