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Leader: Beyond the cynicism of Boris Johnson

The UK needs more than a new prime minister: it needs constitutional reform.

By New Statesman

The Conservative Party has confidence in Boris Johnson. This was the ultimate conclusion of the MPs’ vote held on 6 June. Though the revolt against the Prime Minister exceeded the size of those against Theresa May, John Major and Margaret Thatcher, this is of little comfort – no leader in recent history has debased British democracy as thoroughly as Mr Johnson. Even with the anonymity provided by a secret ballot, 211 Tory MPs endorsed his dismal premiership.

In doing so, the Conservative Party again made itself complicit in Mr Johnson’s misrule. The majority of MPs has stood by as he has broken lockdown laws, illegally prorogued parliament, expelled rebel backbenchers and trampled over checks and balances.

None of the excuses provided by the Prime Minister’s more slavish supporters bears scrutiny. The UK has led Europe in providing military aid to Ukraine (if not in ­accepting refugees) but does anyone believe that Mr Johnson’s Tory rivals, such as the former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, and the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, would have been less supportive?

The insistence that a prime minister cannot be removed during wartime suggests that Tory MPs either do not know or do not care for their country’s history. Herbert Asquith (replaced by David Lloyd George during the First World War), Neville Chamberlain (replaced by Winston Churchill during the Second World War) and Margaret Thatcher (replaced by John Major during the Gulf War) all left office in the middle of foreign conflict.

As for Mr Johnson’s domestic agenda, promises of “levelling up” and economic interventionism have been replaced by reheated Thatcherism – pledges to “cut red tape” and shrink Whitehall. As Andrew Marr writes in this week’s cover story, “At just the time we need a clear way through our economic and social perils, authority at the top and a cabinet with ambition and clarity, we have a paralysed blob of a government.”

Even the cynical plea that Mr Johnson is a “winner” is ever less credible. He is now as unpopular as his predecessor, Mrs May, and the Conservatives are on course to lose both the Wakefield and the Tiverton and Honiton by-elections on 23 June. By retaining Mr Johnson, the Tories have unwittingly constructed an opposition coalition of the kind that recently toppled the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison: social democrats, liberals, greens and moderate conservatives. Here is an opportunity for all progressives.

[See also: Who will replace Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader?]

Should the Tories lose in both the “Red Wall” and the “Blue Wall” later this month, the party’s traditional instinct for self-preservation may finally assert itself. As Harry Lambert revealed, the Conservative 1922 Committee of MPs is already discussing how a second confidence vote could be held (the current rules permit just one a year).

While Mr Johnson’s removal is necessary for the UK’s democratic renewal, it is not sufficient. The Prime Minister’s abuse of power has newly exposed the fragilities of our political system. Britain’s centralised political model, its unwritten constitution and its arcane electoral system are all gifts to authoritarians. Mr Johnson’s government increasingly resembles the “elective dictatorship” that the Conservative peer Lord Hailsham warned of in 1976.

The UK, then, needs more than a new prime minister. It needs constitutional reform. The bloated House of Lords should be replaced with an elected second chamber of the nations and the regions. Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system should be abandoned in favour of a proportional alternative that encourages cross-party cooperation and prevents governments elected on a minority of the vote from wielding excessive power. MPs in traditionally safe seats would be provided with a democratic incentive to heed their constituents rather than the party whips.

The last Labour government granted devolution to Scotland and Wales, introduced the Human Rights Act and removed most hereditary peers from the House of Lords, but it did not transform British democracy. The task facing Britain’s opposition parties (and we will return to this theme in future issues) is to create the conditions for the constitutional, political and economic transformation of the multinational British state. Without it, the unity of the kingdom will not endure and hucksters such as Boris Johnson will continue to flourish.

[See also: The Tories’ fatal attraction to Boris Johnson]

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This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man