Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
13 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:06am

The Conservatives will use their triumph to ruthlessly reshape British democracy

By George Eaton

After a decade in office, at a fourth consecutive general election, the Conservatives have won their largest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s triumph in 1987. A result such as this is unprecedented in UK electoral history — and has little precedent in any European democracy.

The most immediate and obvious consequence is that the UK will now leave the EU. Forty seven years after it began under a Conservative government, Britain’s formal engagement with the European project will end. Boris Johnson’s Brexit will not be the “soft” variety that some liberals hoped for: the UK will leave the single market and the customs union, ending the free movement of people. 

The result is also a vindication of Johnson’s abandonment of Osbornite austerity and his embrace of what one could call reactionary Keynesianism. Rather than seeking a worthless budget surplus, the Prime Minister promised higher public spending and vowed to borrow for investment (though as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned, outside of health and education, the cuts of the last decade will be “baked in”). 

But no one should believe that the Conservatives’ ambitions will be limited to Brexit and to higher spending in targeted areas. The Tories, who have long craved a victory of this kind, will use their majority to reshape British democracy. Their aim will be to entrench Conservative hegemony for a generation. 

An under-scrutinised section of the party’s manifesto entitled “protect our democracy” makes their intentions clear. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act will be repealed, gifting Johnson the personal right to determine the date of the next general election. A voter identification law will be introduced under the guise of addressing electoral fraud but in the knowledge that those who lack photo ID (such as low-income and ethnic minority groups) will be less likely to vote. 

Parliamentary boundaries will be reformed to equalise constituency sizes, potentially handing the Conservatives a further advantage (the party’s seats are larger on average than Labour’s). The first-past-the-post voting system, which last night gifted the Tories 56 per cent of MPs (364) with 43.6 per cent of the vote, will not be reformed. 

But the most significant threats are more veiled. “After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords,” the manifesto declared. 

The implication is clear: after the Supreme Court ruled that Johnson’s suspension of parliament was unlawful and the House of Lords inflicted multiple defeats on the government over Brexit, the Conservatives intend to take revenge. Perhaps more so than any previous Tory government, Johnson’s administration will ruthlessly deploy power for the purpose of preserving its own rule.  

For decades, Eurosceptics revered the UK’s unwritten constitution: its sovereign parliament, its independent judiciary, its neutral civil service. But an alternative centre of power — the people — has now been established (Johnson’s victory podium declared him head of “the people’s government”). Rather than their loyalty to the constitution, institutions are now judged according to their loyalty to the demos. 

In the UK, liberals have watched in horror as as Donald Trump has trampled on the norms of US democracy. But the disturbing truth is that the UK is still more vulnerable to authoritarianism. Britain’s centralised political model, its unwritten constitution and its antiquated electoral system are all gifts to the incumbent government. A British prime minister — provided they have a majority in the House of Commons — is almost unrivalled in their power in Europe. 

The electorate’s recent habit of returning governments with only small majorities — or no majority at all — had acted as an informal check and balance. But Johnson’s unambiguous triumph has removed even this. Scotland, one of the few areas to defy Conservative hegemony, may soon secede from the UK. 

Britain’s delicate, unwritten constitution and fragile democratic institutions now face an unprecedented test. As Labour will soon learn to its cost, election defeats have consequences. 

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action