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The disgraced British prime minister, Boris Johnson, was forced to resign by his own backbench MPs on 7 July 2022. Optimists might argue that Johnson’s ejection shows the strength of the British political system; that a way was found to throw out a proven rascal, thus providing the opportunity for a restoration of ‘normal politics.’ But Johnson’s behaviour has raised serious questions about the continued successful functioning of the UK’s unwritten constitution.
This constitution is a subtle and complex combination of parliamentary statutes, case law handed down by successive courts, embedded institutional practices, and a set of expectations about what constitutes decent behaviour by public servants. In the British political tradition, where any elected government can overturn legislation if it has the parliamentary majority to do so, the only device available for judging the legitimacy of new laws or politicians’ actions is the ‘court of public opinion’ represented by a general election.
What all this means in practice is that issues of possible constitutional violations are rarely debated. During his tenure, the question of how Johnson’s actions might be damaging the UK’s constitution was occasionally mentioned, but rarely considered systematically or comprehensively. Yet his actions as prime minister did more to challenge the rules of Britain’s political game than any of his predecessors.
Johnson’s constitutional violations
Frustrated by Parliament’s refusal to support his calls for an early general election, Johnson sought on 28 August 2019 to prorogue Parliament in order to prevent MPs from passing any legislation that prevented him negotiating a no-deal Brexit. The UK Supreme Court subsequently ruled this usage of the Royal Prerogative to be illegal.
He consistently engaged in self-serving lying, including lying to suggest Dominic Cummings had not violated Covid rules, lying about the funding of the refurbishment of 10 Downing Street, and lying that he knew nothing of the multiple illegal parties that took place there during Covid lockdowns.
He ignored both the advice of his ethics advisers and several of the principles of ministerial behaviour laid down by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, most seriously in relation to the bullying behaviour of his home secretary, Priti Patel. After the resignation of two successive ethics advisors, Johnson failed to appoint a replacement: a further measure of his contempt for the Ministerial Code.
Johnson also interfered in the operation of the independent Electoral Commission. When the Commission dismissed Conservative Party claims that the £67,801 used in the refurbishment of 10 Downing Street was ‘not a donation to the party’, and in fact did constitute a donation that should have been reported, Johnson presented proposals to curtail the scope of the Commission’s powers by requiring it to pursue actions that were broadly in accordance with the policy objectives of the incumbent government.
He failed to follow the expectations of integrity laid out in the Ministerial Code when he was fined for attending lockdown parties and refused to resign. Finally, he felt free to violate the established constitutional rules on House of Lords appointments, the most egregious of which was that of Alexander Lebedev, the son of a former Russian KGB agent, in April 2022.
What these various episodes produce is a picture of a prime minister out of control. If a rule or convention got in his way, then his habitual practice was simply to ignore it. Johnson had no respect whatsoever for longstanding British political institutions and practices. But how do voters view Johnson’s behaviour? Have they understood why it was so important he was removed from office, or do they still regard him as a lovable rogue?
The British electorate’s view
Deltapoll carried out a survey of a representative sample of British adults in January 2023. Respondents were asked a series of questions about how British politics works and how the UK Ministerial Code of behaviour ought to work.
Large majorities of voters believe that a prime minister should not be allowed to prorogue Parliament; that ministers who lie to the Commons should resign; that ministers who corruptly award government contracts should resign; that prime ministers should not judge whether they themselves have transgressed the Ministerial Code; that parties should declare the sources of financial donations; that ministers who receive police fines should resign; and that lying is unacceptable.
On most questions, the differences between Conservative supporters and the general population are modest. All of this suggests that British voters, and for the most part, even Conservative supporters, have a reasonable grasp of the implications of the British constitution as it relates to the behaviour of ministers.
On public attitudes to Boris Johnson’s behaviour, the contrast between the attitudes of the electorate as a whole and those of Conservative supporters is more clear-cut. For all voters, the overwhelming majority take a negative view of Johnson’s behaviour. But among Conservative supporters, 49 per cent believe Tory backbenchers were wrong to force his resignation. This is particularly concerning in view of the fact that these backbenchers were defending the British constitution by removing their discredited leader.
Johnson has already inflicted considerable damage on Britain’s constitutional practices. The crumb of comfort for supporters of democracy is that British voters in general appear to have understood how Johnson has violated Britain’s inherently flexible unwritten constitution. Significantly, for the time being at least, they seem to have seen through the bluster and to have judged Johnson for what he is: a corrupt liar.