Boris Johnson has always sought to increase his power. The now Prime Minister who once said he wanted to be ‘world king’ now seeks to eradicate any legislation that constrains his authority. His actions provoke the need to write down the constitution.
Johnson has proposed The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which would repeal the 2011 Fixed-Terms Parliament Act (FTPA). The FTPA mandates that voting happens every five years on the first Thursday of May unless a supermajority of MPs supports a change of timing, or that a government loses a no-confidence vote.
It was implemented under the 2010 Coalition Government to reassure the Liberal Democrats that Cameron’s Tory party would not simply call an election when it suited them and leave them high and dry. The FTPA was a botched and rushed job, but it represents something that Johnson and his ilk dread: the beginnings of a constitution.
Unlike most countries, the UK has an uncodified constitution and so has no law of state. Since Thatcher, most British governments have attempted to eradicate any notion of a ‘supreme law’: the idea that there must be a set of fundamental and permanent laws that the government itself is beholden to; a constitution above a cabinet.
This system would guarantee that if a government violates its constitution, judges in a democracy could overrule it. The rumblings toward a constitution have been a long-time coming, most recently in the creation of the Supreme Court and the FTPA.
Yet, Johnson’s administration violently rails against any constraints on his power. Progress towards a constitution is tantamount to a regression of his personal supremacy.
In September 2019, Johnson tried to suspend Parliament. It was a blatant attempt to stifle democratic debate on Brexit, but the Supreme Court was able to rule it unlawful. Now, his government seeks to avenge this humiliation with their proposed bill.
A clause on the royal prerogative powers states: ‘a court of law may not question – (a) the exercise or purported exercise of the powers’, or ‘(b) any decision or purported decision relating to those powers, or c) the limits or extent of those powers.’
In 2019, Johnson’s antidemocratic agenda was blocked, but this clause seems specifically designed to crush the powers that foiled him. It is the latest chapter in the battle between those that believe in responsible governance, and Johnson and his cabinet – a slavering Westminster executive which opposes any constraints, criticism, and division of its power.
History had never provoked the need for a written constitution. The UK had successfully trundled through the centuries on an understanding; the ruling elites, out of decency and respect, would never plunder the astonishing lack of written constraint on the Westminster executive power.
This precedent means nothing to Johnson and his cabinet. If found to have broken the ministerial code, a resignation would be expected. Priti Patel, Matt Hancock, and Gavin Williamson should have resigned long ago for what can only be described as miscarriages of statesmanship. Instead, they cleave to the offices they shame like parasites.
As for expecting decency and respect from Johnson, one may as well wait for the Queen to convert to Catholicism. Throughout his career, he has rebuffed every scandal and pathologically lied to suit his ends.
His premiership, the inevitable heir of Blair’s and Cameron’s, continues in this trend: shameless and truthless. Johnson represents a fundamental shift from the pursuit of politics for the people to the politics of a person. Namely, himself.
Anything that constrains his supremacy is treated with utter contempt. He advances no cause save those that suit him at that moment, and his track record for the cruelty and irreverence with which he treats the control he gains serve as warnings against giving him more.
The task then is to oppose this bill and all it represents. The FTPA, a flawed document, must be replaced with an article that acknowledges that the government is subject to a supreme law. The discussion that this bill prompts is invaluable for the UK’s future: do we continue with an exploitable system, based on conventions predicated on honour and duty, when the incumbents have no sense of either? Or do we begin the preliminary writing of formal constraints on the power of the Westminster executive?
The old system used to be venerated by those in it; now it is exploited. The fightback against the Westminster executive must begin. The arguments against a codified constitution are predicated on trust: trust of those elected not to abuse the absence of restraints on their power. With Johnson, we can have no such faith: the proposed Bill, in his hypocritical hands, has the features of an encroachment on democracy.