'Why does the country have such a clearly inappropriate man as Prime Minister, one who’s making us an international laughing stock and leaving a long-term legacy of disastrous laws and regulations inadequately administered, and a demoralised, deeply damaged civil service?'
On BBC Politics North on Sunday, I was asked to talk about the situation of Boris Johnson. I said I’d rather talk about why we were talking about Boris Johnson.
Why does the country have such a clearly inappropriate man as Prime Minister, one who’s making us an international laughing stock and leaving a long-term legacy of disastrous laws and regulations inadequately administered, and a demoralised, deeply damaged civil service?
Let’s briefly take stock, as we face a potentially long and turbulent hiatus in “partygate” since the police have stepped into the mess.
On the world’s view, I’ll take just one example of the many that could make up a thick library tome. Just one from “Operation Red Meat” (whince – how very Trumpian): the Ghanain government immediately denied any suggestion that it was in talks with the UK about off-sure processing of refugees, or that it would even countenance the idea.
And the laws! I cited on Politics North an unlikely ally, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, Conservative minister under John Major, who in the debate about the latest Bill to reach the House of Lords, on state aid, said: “Again and again… we have had legislation which has not been properly thought through.” Despite the best efforts of the House of Lords, which has been stepping up more and more, as seen in the record 14 defeats for the government on the disastrously repressive, undemocratic Police Bill last week, disastrous laws are being passed, and then badly implemented (see Environmental Land Management schemes, where “lack of detail is preventing farmers from making crucial long-term decisions”).
Then there’s the civil service – eviscerated by austerity under David Cameron, it has been, Politico concluded last week, corroded by pressure to cover up for the man at the top and his minions following his lead. One telling quote: “I think the blatant lies do come from the political side more than us.”
And since Sunday – politics moves fast these days, an insider came out far more strongly about the corruption and disorder at the heart of government. Lord Agnew of Oulton, the anti-fraud minister, in a dramatic resignation speech, said: “Total fraud loss across government is estimated at £29 billion a year… but a combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance freezes the government machine.”
Boris Johnson was elected as Tory leader because the MPs and members thought he could win the next election. They didn’t think – or need to think – that he could win over the majority of the country, just that he could sway swing voters in swing seats (often seats that had been drifting away from a Labour Party that ignored them for decades, “knowing” they would vote Labour no matter what.)
But the problem isn’t just Johnson. You have to ask why is it that we’ve had three such disastrous Prime Ministers in a row?
There was David Cameron, who fell into Brexit with rampant overconfidence, having become PM because he thought he should personally get the role, with no idea of what he wanted to do with it.
It is easy to blame individual behaviour for our current bad governance and poor international standing – and I do – but there’s clearly a systematic problem when the country is so poorly governed, and so undemocratic, with the parliament failing to represent the views of the people.
It only took the support of 30% of the country – that’s the percentage of eligible voters who turned out for Johnson in 2019 (44% of the people who voted) – to give Johnson 100% of the power in the House of Commons.
The irony is that the unelected House of Lords – its composition determined by a mixture of medieval inheritance and 18th-century-style patronage – is weirdly more representative of the country than the Commons, and more effective in its examination of legislation.
In all of the scramble to get rid of Boris Johnson – and this week or next week, or next month, or after the May local elections – it will happen, we need to take a step back and ask why we’re in this situation. It’s not like there’s going to be anything better stepping up next.
This constitution is a result of centuries of historical accident. It’s uncodified (you can’t find an official document that tells us how we are governed), relies on people being “good chaps”, and is profoundly undemocratic. It’s out-of-date, and it doesn’t work.
We need system change – a modern, functional, democratic constitution. It needs to be written down, not because that guarantees people will do the right thing but because many of the current ridiculous elements (see “spider letters”) just would not make it into print and because there’d be clarity about how it works.
And its shape should be decided by the people, through a constitutional convention, a form of the people’s assembly, a form of deliberative democracy that is taking an increasing and successful role around the world.
The New Zealanders decades ago threw out their Westminster style system and chose a proportionally elected parliament, where MPs represent the views of the people. That gave them Jacinda Ahern, who this week cancelled her wedding to comply with Covid restrictions. Boris Johnson couldn’t even postpone a few simple office knees-ups. That’s a contrast not just of individuals, but of systems.
Natalie Bennett is a Green Party peer and a Contributing Editor to Left Foot Forward
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