Boris Johnson’s premiership shows why we desperately need constitutional reform

'Allowing him power in a system that is largely dependent on gentleman’s agreements was like allowing a bull into a china-shop.'

Boris Johnson

Molly Scott Cato is the Green Party’s spokesperson on economics finance and was MEP for South West England and Gibraltar between 2014 and 2020. 

Boris Johnson is testing our famously unwritten constitution to destruction. Since the Brexit campaign he led, and that led him to Downing Street, busted both rules and norms, this was only to be expected. And, indeed, we were warned by some of those who had worked closely with him and knew him best that he was a liar and a cheat.

Allowing him power in a system that is largely dependent on gentleman’s agreements was like allowing a bull into a china-shop.

The first and most frightening example of his disregard for the constitution was his collusion with Jacob Rees-Mogg in proroguing Parliament to block a People’s Vote on EU withdrawal. This involved not only an assault on the parliamentary sovereignty that lies at the heart of our Constitution but also deceiving and manipulating the monarch.

These are the two fountainheads of power under our Constitution and both were knowingly and deliberately undermined by a tiny cabal for their own purposes. The rule of law held firm because of the courage of the Supreme Court and of Lady Hale, but never have we been so close to a constitutional coup in this country.

In the UK parliamentary process is not governed by a system of legal rules but by a book written by a 19th-century parliamentary clerk, Erskine May. It is his Parliamentary Practice that governs parliamentary language so that the Prime Minister can tell lies but he cannot be called a liar, and anybody who calls him a liar – as Ian Blackford did – must be sent out of the chamber. I imagine it went beyond May’s imagination that the prime minister could repeatedly lie from the dispatch box and that his MPs would support him in doing this. Such behaviour would have instantly seen one defined as a cad or a bounder and shunned by all decent society. The code of the gentleman and the manners of the dining club were thought to be enough to protect our democratic chamber.

Without the strong rules that a written constitution would offer us we are dependent on norms, those softer codes of behaviour which every institution depends on. It is norms that inform the Nolan principles of public life, of which honesty and selflessness are central. But norms are held in place by codes of decency, as Caroline Lucas pointed out in the parliamentary debate on the interim report from Sue Gray.

When the whole tree is rotten, the weakness of norms is revealed. When so many Tory MPs are ‘complicit in the same decaying system where the pursuit of power trumps integrity’ the ship of state is in very choppy waters indeed. As she pointed out, the Ministerial code assumes the Prime Minister to be a ‘person of honesty and integrity’ an ‘assumption has been so widely and comprehensively discredited’ under this prime minister.

When I studied the constitution as part of the same course Boris Johnson studied and at the same institution, I grew dewy-eyed at the thought of all those trustworthy gents holding our precious, crystalline constitution in their well-manicured hands. I suppose Johnson was taking the opposite lesson and licking his lips at the thought of how little constraint the constitution would exercise over his self-serving power in his quest to be World King.

It is clear that we cannot go on like this any longer. Assuming the decent Tory MPs will finally grow tired of seeing their Prime Minister lie to the Queen and humiliate the country – and this is not as safe as an assumption as I would have hoped – we will see the end of Liar Johnson. But that must be only the first step of a sweeping revision of our 18th-century constitution. This must be a process that involves a whole country through citizens assemblies and Town-hall meetings.

Such a nationwide constitutional convention could ask key questions about which powers should be exercised at which levels, how we can make sure our votes are translated fairly into seats, and might also extend to finding a role for more deliberative forms of democracy such as citizens assemblies. It would need to find a way to include all voices and communities in the governance of our country and indeed in the institutions that hold our society together including the police and the judicial system.

The impulse for change that Brexit brought to the country needs to be expressed in the way we govern ourselves not just whether the EU plays a part in that governance. And at the end of this process I sincerely believe we will have both a fair voting system and a written constitution. We must never again leave ourselves vulnerable to the charlatans and mountebanks who are currently trashing our reputation abroad and humiliating us all at home.

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