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24 January 2023

Britain’s democratic rot has continued under Rishi Sunak

The lies and autocratic legislation that defined Boris Johnson’s premiership have endured.

By Annette Dittert

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” the assembled crowds studiously refuse to notice that their august leader is naked. Indeed, it takes a child – as yet blissfully unaware of the adult demands of deference and conformity – to point out the obvious: “But he’s wearing nothing at all!”

Rishi Sunak is, of course, not devoid of clothes. Quite the contrary: the Prime Minister has a wardrobe full of luxury menswear which he pairs with a friendly smile and the promise given at the beginning of his premiership to reintroduce good sense and moral integrity in Downing Street. Yet just shy of 100 days in office it has become impossible to overlook the fact that, under the smart sartorial surface, there is: not much. Or even worse perhaps: beneath the expensive suits, the old chaotic and deeply amoral spirit of Boris Johnson lingers on.  

When, almost exactly three years ago, Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” bulldozer swung into action, a lot of people still did not understand that this was also about wrecking the British economy. When Johnson said “f*** business!”, he meant it – and his wrecking ball wasn’t aimed just at the British economy, either, but also at the pillars of parliamentary democracy. As someone who never showed anything but contempt – disgust, even – for rules and regulations, it was impossible for him to do anything other than stream-roll over the vulnerable checks and balances of British democracy. 

But simply getting rid of Johnson as an individual does not mean that things have returned to normal. Once the moral taboos and gentlemen’s agreements which formerly structured public life have been torn down, it is incredibly hard to re-erect them. In much the same way as, after Donald Trump, things in the US can never be the same, we don’t see a return to the former status quo in Britain under Sunak either.

And so, the ubiquitous sleaze which was the inevitable result of Johnson’s populist leadership continues unfettered – and instead of making good on his promise to clean up the mess Sunak finds himself behaving in exactly the same way as Johnson before him. Witness his recent all-out and all too familiar defence of Nadhim Zahawi over his tax settlement, for instance.

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Yes, while they may be less visible with Sunak at the helm, the three inherent forces of the Johnson era remain very much in effect: the constant distortion of the truth; the increasingly autocratic legislation; and the continued application of the core principle behind Brexit – disruption for its own sake, without so much as a single thought about what might follow. What these three strands of Johnsonism have in common is that they undermine the delicate balance of power in a democracy, tipping the scales in favour of the executive at the expense of the judiciary and the legislature.

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The basis of all of this, of course, is the lies – lies which, in spite of Sunak’s solemn promise on entering No 10, remain endemic under his rule. By the end of his first Prime Minister’s Question Time, he’d already misled parliament, having told the House that Britain had built a record number of homes last year when it hadn’t. Bad enough on its own terms, this inaccurate statement has another pernicious effect – as an encouragement to Tory MPs to keep making equally misleading claims.

Months later and the list of falsehoods is long. The latest is Sunak’s repeated assertion that the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, a piece of legislation designed to further limit the already tightly regulated right to strike in the UK, is by no means extraordinary – and indeed quite common even in EU countries such as France, Spain and Italy. If he didn’t detest Sunak so thoroughly for various reasons, Johnson himself would certainly approve of this move, since it is not only a perfect distraction from what His Majesty’s Government actually intends to do but also wholly, spectacularly untrue.

Yes, in the EU countries mentioned, there is indeed an obligation to uphold minimum levels of service during strikes; but in all three of them, these levels are a matter for negotiation between unions and public-sector employers, and if no agreement can be reached, an independent judiciary body must adjudicate. In none – not one – of these countries does the government have the right to set the rules by itself, and in none – not one – of these countries does the government have the right to simply fire any worker if the minimum service level is not provided. On the contrary, dismissal on these grounds is expressly forbidden by law in Italy, for example.

In interviews Sunak and Grant Shapps, the Business Secretary, stress that it’s all about “minimum safety levels” – except that the word “safety” isn’t mentioned once in the proposed legislation. In reality the act would enable the business secretary to dictate that, say, 20 per cent of trains are legally required to run regardless of industrial action, thereby effectively torpedoing strikes before they have even started; “safety” need not play any role in the decision.

So if this isn’t about public safety, what is it about? It is yet another re-weighting of the balance of power in favour of the executive. And it isn’t just the Minimum Service Levels Bill but a whole cluster of similarly anti-democratic legislation. There is an amendment to the already controversial Public Order Bill, for instance, which substantially increases police powers, allowing the constabulary to shut down demonstrations before any disruption even occurs. This represents a further draconian restriction of rights to peaceful protest for which there is absolutely no need – blocking roads and defacing works of art are already crimes – and it is significant that the police force itself had not asked for these new powers.

And then there is the Online Safety Bill and its attempt to add video footage showing people crossing the Channel in small boats “in a positive light” to a long list of illegal content that all tech companies must take proactive steps to prevent from reaching users. If that phrasing sounds complicated and impractical, that’s because it is – and clearly borders on the kind of censorship normally practised in autocratic states. Apparently, though, it’s all about “protecting children”.

Yet nowhere is the spirit of Boris Johnson more alive than in the now rather dry-sounding Retained EU Law Bill (REUL), formerly known as the Brexit Freedoms Bill. Much has been written about the latest, maybe last, and certainly craziest hurrah of the Brexiteers – about what amounts to pulling the rug out from under the rule of law – so I’ll spare us the details here. Suffice it to say that if Sunak really meant to keep his second big promise – to repair the British economy – then he would already have scrapped REUL. Who, after all, is going to invest in a country without safe and reliable legal protections?

I do assume that, deep down, the Prime Minister understands this; in reality though he doesn’t behave accordingly. If he now regrets to have firmly committed to that bill, since having produced that infamous video last summer in which he shredded printouts of EU laws while Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” played in the background, he doesn’t show it. To this day he hasn’t dared to openly criticise the bill once. It is, after all, nothing less than the ultimate article of faith of the Brexit Ultras, and would confer on ministers the power to modify more than 4,000 laws without any parliamentary accountability whatsoever. As such, it is little more than another massive executive power grab which is also intended to burn all remaining bridges to the EU. Sunak might be hoping for all this to be rebuffed by the House of Lords, but as long as he is afraid that the arsonists might catch him fighting their fire, he is playing their game.

And so, almost exactly three years after the UK left the EU, the populist window that opened with Johnson has not closed in the slightest with Sunak. No, he is not naked, this well-dressed emperor, but his suits are not much more than a façade, behind which the destructive populism of his predecessors is continuing to wreak havoc. It is only a matter of time until Sunak will be torn to shreds by it.  

Translated from German by Brian Melican.

[See also: Rishi Sunak must sack Nadhim Zahawi to retain any credibility]