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24 September 2019

Boris Johnson’s law-breaking will make him dangerously appealing to many voters

A 2019 Hansard Society poll found that 54 per cent of voters believe “Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules”.

By George Eaton

Boris Johnson stands humiliated. In the 62 days since he became Prime Minister, he has lost six parliamentary votes, the Conservatives’s majority, control of House of Commons business and a Supreme Court case. 

In normal circumstances, Johnson would resign and become the shortest-lived prime minister in history (surpassing George Canning who died in 1827 after just 119 days in office). But as opprobrium is heaped on him, it bears remembering that, in some voters’ eyes, Johnson has merely grown. His law-breaking is, for them, confirmation of his commitment to Brexit. 

The lure of authoritarianism, in an era of economic stagnation and political gridlock, should not be underestimated. In April 2019, a Hansard Society poll found that 54 per cent of voters believe “Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules”, while 42 per cent believe “many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in parliament”.

Early polling on the Supreme Court’s decision has found that voters side with the judges — but far from unanimously. When asked by YouGov whether they agreed or disagreed with the court’s ruling that Johnson “acted unlawfully in proroguing parliament”, 49 per cent said they agreed, while 30 per cent disagreed. In other words, nearly a third of voters are prepared to disregard the ruling of 11 Supreme Court judges.

To win enough seats to govern, the Conservatives may yet need little more than 30 per cent of the vote at a general election. Mindful of this, Johnson has consistently sought to animate the Leave base. The UK’s centralised political model, its unwritten constitution and its antiquated electoral system have long made it dangerously vulnerable to tyranny. 

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Matters have at least improved since Lord Hailsham warned in 1976 of the danger of an “elective dictatorship”. Under the last Labour government, the Human Rights Act was passed, London, Scotland and Wales were granted devolution, most hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords and a Freedom of Information law was introduced (much to Tony Blair’s later regret: “You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop,” he self-reproachingly wrote in his memoirs).

But the British political system is still easily manipulable. A UK prime minister — provided they have a majority in the House of Commons — is almost unrivalled in their power in Europe. They rule one of the most centralised states in the developed world (with local government enfeebled by austerity), are able to declare war without parliamentary approval — as Theresa May did over Syria — to appoint cabinet ministers and peers (without any confirmation hearings) and to override the House of Lords through the Parliament Act.

The electorate’s recent habit of returning governments with only small majorities — or no majority at all — has acted as a de facto check and balance (no party has won a comfortable majority since 2005 and the Tories haven’t since 1987). But the threat of an elective dictatorship endures.

Lord Hailsham had in mind a strong government with a majority sufficient to override parliament. Johnson, a Prime Minister with no mandate of his own, has sought to disregard MPs precisely due to his lack of a majority (one could call it an unelective dictatorship). Democracy has so far prevailed. But no one should doubt how many wish it had not.