Balancing accountability and stability: A comparison of 2022 Executive Resignations in the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka

By: Binendri Perera

In November of 2023 I was delighted to be appointed as a Research Fellow for the Constitution Society. My work for the Society will compare the operation of constitutions in the UK and Sri Lanka. In this blog, I explore the interactions between democratic accountability of the executive and government stability in the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system and Sri Lanka’s semi-presidential system in 2022. Accountability and stability are chameleon-like terms, both with a core ideal that applies in many contexts. In constitutional governance, we speak of the importance of accountability and stability without focusing on the nuances and interactions between these two concepts. In the first part of the post, I will briefly describe the key terms. In the second part, I will explain why the UK and Sri Lanka are suitable for comparison. I will then analyse the interactions between democratic accountability and government stability. This is the first of two blogs on the subject, with my full research paper to be published in the first half of 2024.

1. Accountability, Stability, and Institutional Regime Types

Accountability involves acts of narration or explanation by one party while the other party (or their representative) engages in tallying up these accounts to see if those acts are justified.[1] I am specifically interested in the application of accountability within constitutional democracy. While democracy establishes the relationship of accountability between the representatives, institutions of governance, and the people, constitutional law provides the legal tools for holding the representatives accountable.[2] In turn, democratic accountability is achieved by institutional structures that hold elected representatives accountable. 

Members of the executive are subject to intra-branch accountability and inter-branch accountability by the legislature, the judiciary, and the fourth branch institutions (in contexts where these are established).[3] Members are also held accountable to the people through periodic elections and constant institutional responses to public opinion. Meanwhile, government stability refers to the continuity of peaceful politics to meet the interests of the public. Inevitably, assessing whether politics are carried out in the public interest invokes accountability, and consequently the two concepts are inherently linked. 

Parliamentary and presidential institutional regime types balance democratic accountability and government stability in slightly different ways. For example, in the UK parliamentary system, the focus is on continuing democratic accountability with a Cabinet of Ministers themselves accountable to the Parliament. Following long-established convention, the monarch appoints the leader of the party that has won the election as the Prime Minister. The UK Prime Minister leading the Cabinet will be compelled to either resign or resort to dissolving the Parliament if the government is defeated in a no-confidence motion.  

In presidential systems, democratic accountability is established through direct election of the President by the people, but once she is elected, she is in office for a fixed term. The President and his executive officials remain separate from Parliament, as in the United States. Parliament can only impeach the President following a stringent constitutional procedure. The President is directly elected by the people for a fixed term and can only be impeached by the Parliament in Sri Lanka, despite Sri Lanka being a semi-presidential system with a Cabinet of Ministers who work under the President while being responsible to Parliament.

2. The UK and Sri Lanka as Comparators

The Parliament of the UK continues to influence the Sri Lankan Parliament in several important ways. Firstly, the political organisation of Sri Lanka’s unicameral Parliament follows the House of Commons of the Westminster Parliament. Secondly, Parliamentary powers and privileges are based on such powers and privileges of the Westminster Parliament. Even though Sri Lanka codifies them in the Parliament (Powers and Privileges) Act No 21 of 1953, Section 7 of this Act states that the Sri Lankan parliament and its members enjoy ‘the like immunities as are for the time being held, enjoyed and exercised by the Commons House of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and by the members thereof.’ Thirdly, the Sri Lankan legal system and legal profession are influenced by the British system, which in turn leads to the interpretation of laws and conventions of the Parliament based on the UK system. [4]   

Nevertheless, while Sri Lanka followed a Parliamentary system during the post-independence period under the Soulbury Constitution 1948 and the First Republican Constitution 1972, the Constitution of Sri Lanka 1978 (current constitution) marked a radical departure from this. This constitution introduced a semi-presidential system of governance with a strong executive President who is directly elected by the people. The very purpose of this was to prioritise stability. JR Jayawardena, who led the process of enacting this constitution and became the first executive President under this system, was of the firm view that ‘in a developing country the executive should be stable and not dependent on the whims and fancies of the House.’[5] What the drafters of the Sri Lankan Constitution were dismissing as ‘whims and fancies of the House’ were the mechanisms of continuing democratic accountability inherent to parliamentary systems.

Therefore, Sri Lanka’s institutional regime choice in 1978 makes the country an excellent comparison with the UK to assess the significance and costs of accountability and stability, which need to be carefully balanced by the actors within the executive and the legislature. I focus on 2022 since this year tested the political branches of the state in both the UK and Sri Lanka in unprecedented ways and brought into focus the consequences of the different institutional regime choices the countries made.

3. The Need for the Political Process to Balance Accountability and Stability 

In 2022, two Prime Ministers resigned in the UK in the face of failures in political decision-making and economic policy. The UK exemplifies how institutional accountability mechanisms within the parliamentary regime type prompt actions of political accountability. Boris Johnson, who had been in 10 Downing Street since 2019, was steadily losing his credibility due to successive scandals and faced challenges from within his own party.[6] First came a vote of no confidence, which Johnson survived.[7] But given his own party MPs called for the vote and 148 MPs voting against him, the vote showed the weakening support of his colleagues.[8] Shortly afterwards, and in connection with the scandal involving the Government Deputy Chief Whip,  key Ministers of the Cabinet and junior aides began resigning.[9] The Conservative Party’s political response was possible because they are empowered by the parliamentary system to continuously uphold accountability. The final result of the parliamentary institutional accountability process came later in 2023 when the Privileges Committee of the House of Commons released their report finding that Johnson misled Parliament about violating the COVID-19 guidelines imposed by his administration.[10] Consequently, Johnson was forced to resign as a Member of Parliament less he face suspension and a potential by-election. 

Nevertheless, the process of holding two Prime Ministers accountable for their political and economic policy failures – the process of remedying an accountability deficit – hindered stability in politics. The appointment of Liz Truss took two months during which Johnson remained as a caretaker unable to make critical decisions.[11] This lag affected government stability in the short term, and this was a cost that Truss had to manage, which she quickly proved incapable of. Her mini-budget that introduced tax cuts, subsidies to halt the rising energy prices and halting insurance costs sent shock waves through the UK economy.[12] Truss resigned in October and this time the Conservative Party was pressed to elect her successor quickly to avoid further instability.[13] It is important to note this cost of short-term instability that the processes of democratic accountability give rise to. Political actors and the public at large should be mindful of this cost. 

While short-term instability is a cost to be managed by the political process, overcorrecting such instability by weakening accountability processes has dire consequences. It creates a continuing accountability deficit that results in a culture of impunity that weakens the legitimacy of political branches in the long term. Sri Lanka exemplifies this danger. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who was elected to office in Sri Lanka in 2019, lost the confidence of the people through a series of misguided economic policy decisions that led to food and fuel shortages from the early months of 2022.[14] The country defaulted on its foreign debt payments for the first time in May 2022.[15] However, impeachment was the only mechanism of political accountability that the semi-presidential institutional regime provided to hold the president to account.[16] This too was politically impractical in Sri Lanka because the President can prorogue the Parliament to frustrate the impeachment process. [17] As a result, the Cabinet of Ministers, Parliament, and political parties in Sri Lanka were helpless, which led to mass protests that demanded the president’s resignation. People had to storm the presidential offices and the president fled the country before he submitted his resignation.[18] Thus, strengthening government stability at the expense of continuing democratic accountability paved the way for the executive to act against public interest without consequences, resulting in country-wide political instability.

Preoccupation with government stability when designing the institutional regime undermines the democratic accountability of the executive. Therefore, the legal framework of institutional regimes should prioritise accountability in the political process. The UK example shows its significance. However, political actors must nonetheless be mindful of the cost of short-term instability that such accountability can create. Institutional regimes should facilitate the management of such costs through the political process since a degree of stability is needed for governments to set in motion long-term visions that promote the public interest. These themes will be considered at greater length in my full-length report for the Constitution Society. I look forward to sharing them with you in the coming months. 

Binendri Perera.

Binendri Perera is a DPhil in Law candidate at the University of Oxford and a Constitution Society Research Fellow. She is on study leave from her position at the Department of Public & International Law at the Faculty of Law of the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.


[1] Carol Harlow, ‘Accountability and Constitutional Law’ in Mark Bovens (ed) et al, The Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability (OUP 2014) 196-8.

[2] ibid 199-204.

[3] For example, the Elections Commission, The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption and the other Commissions listed in Article 41B of the Sri Lankan Constitution 1978. 

[4] LJM Cooray, An Introduction to the Legal System of Sri Lanka (Lakehouse 1972) 45-46.

[5] AJ Wilson, The Gaullist System in Asia: The Constitution of Sri Lanka (1978) (Macmillan Press 1980) xv.

[6] Leila Nathoo, Sam Francis, ‘Why did Boris Johnson resign?’ BBC News (09 June 2023) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-65863730> accessed 13 December 2023.

[7] Rob Merrick, ‘Boris Jonhson wins no-confidence ballot but 148 Tory MPs vote against him’ Independent (06 June 2022) < https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-survives-vote-no-confidence-b2095238.html> accessed 13 December 2023.

[8] ibid.

[9] Robert Hart, ‘U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson Fights For Survival After Wave Of Government Resignations’ Forbes (06 July 2022) <https://www.forbes.com/sites/roberthart/2022/07/06/uk-prime-minister-boris-johnson-fights-for-survival-after-wave-of-government-resignations/?sh=2d5955476400> accessed 13 December 2023.

[10] Committee of Privileges, House of Commons, ‘Matter referred on 21 April 2022 (conduct of Rt Hon Boris Johnson): Final Report’ (15 June 2023) <https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/40412/documents/197897/default/> accessed 13 December 2023.

[11] Rachel Burford, ‘Boris Johnson faces growing revolt over decision to stay on as caretaker Prime Minister’ The Standard (08 July 2022) < https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/boris-johnson-revolt-caretaker-prime-minister-conservative-b1010927.html> accessed 13 December 2023. 

[12] Richard Partington, ‘The mini-budget that broke Britain – and Liz Truss’ The Guardian (20 October 2022) <https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/oct/20/the-mini-budget-that-broke-britain-and-liz-truss> accessed 13 December 2023.

[13] Peter Walker, Pippa Crerar, Jessica Elgot, ‘Liz Truss resigns as PM and triggers fresh leadership election’ The Guardian (20 October 2022) <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/oct/20/liz-truss-to-quit-as-prime-minister> accessed 14 December 2023.

[14] Ayeshea Perera, ‘Sri Lanka: Why is the country in an economic crisis?’ BBC News (29 March 2023) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-61028138> accessed 14 December 2023.

[15] Peter Hoskins, ‘Sri Lanka defaults on debt for first time in its history’ BBC News (20 May 2022) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-61505842> accessed 14 December 2023.

[16] According to Article 38 (2) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka 1978. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court attempted legal accountability by declaring the President, key members of his Cabinet and administration responsible for the economic crisis in October 2023 in Samarakoon v Wickremasinghe SC FR No. 195/2022 (decided on 14 November 2023). However, the case a fundamental rights petition in the interest of entire citizenry and the court did not grant redress. 

[17] According to Article 70 (1) proviso, the President can also dissolve the Parliament after two years and six months of its five-year term. 

[18] Dinesha Samarartne, The People in the Palace’ Verfassungsblog < https://verfassungsblog.de/the-people-in-the-palace/> accessed 13 December 2023.