The constitutional consequences of Mr. Johnson

Andrew Blick
By: Andrew Blick

Conservative politicians are currently busy distancing themselves from Boris Johnson. But he is more than just an unfortunate one-off episode in political history, as a consideration of his constitutional legacy demonstrates. Johnson brought his own particular approach to the role. But he also channelled wider forces and ideas that will not automatically vanish along with him. Furthermore, he set in motion developments that are likely to continue. Some key constitutional aspects and outcomes of the Johnson premiership are as follows:

·      Violation of basic constitutional norms: Johnson and others in his government are widely regarded as having behaved without due regard to basic standards and rules of the UK constitution that – while lacking a full legal basis – are vital to the functioning of the UK system. They revealed significant vulnerabilities in the way in which these rules are upheld – or otherwise. The spirit and letter of documents such as The Cabinet Manual and Ministerial Code have been violated; and those responsible for promoting them, such as the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests – have been undermined. 

·      Brexit: being a leading figure in the 2016 ‘leave’ campaign brought Johnson to the premiership. As Prime Minister he signed off on both the Withdrawal Agreement and the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Brexit had immense consequences for the UK constitution, creating considerable uncertainty and tension about the future of the legal system; and the balance of power between the UK and devolved tiers. It removed the protections provided by the Charter of Fundamental Rights; and was associated with the creation of extensive new delegated law-making powers wielded by the UK executive. Wide-ranging political discussion of the consequences of Brexit is supressed by a perception that the 2016 referendum in some way settled the argument about EU membership for a prolonged period.

·      Elections and voting: the Johnson governments passed legislation that reduced the independence of the Electoral Commission and – through individual voter-ID requirements – might have a negative and disproportionate impact on participation in elections.

·      Institutions: Johnson and others in his administration behaved in a challenging fashion towards, and even clearly undermined, various public institutions and the values according to which they are supposed to operate. They include: Parliament, the Civil Service, the courts, the BBC and the Electoral Commission.

·      The rule of law and human rights: there has been a critical stance taken towards the role of the courts and their supposedly excessive power; legislation that will reduce the level of general protection for human rights; and restrictions on freedom of protest. Policy towards refugees has challenged basic standards in this area.

·      International law and treaty obligations: UK legislation and policy regarding refugees, as well as seeming to fall short with regards to human rights, appears to violate treaty commitments. The UK has also consistently threatened to pursue courses of action that would represent a break with the Northern Ireland Protocol, the consequences of which for the standing of the UK as well as the peace process could be immense.

·      Destabilisation of the UK as a state: Brexit has undermined the cohesion of the UK, for instance reviving the independence movement in Scotland, and through its impact upon Northern Ireland. Whatever position one takes on the desirability or otherwise of the continued existence of the UK in its current form, departure from the EU and the particular way in which the Johnson governments have implemented it seem to have made its future less secure.

Johnson may not have regarded constitutional matters as a priority. But his approach to the premiership, and the ideas of some of the groups and individuals he aligned himself with, have left a mark upon the political system. Whoever is successful among those vying to succeed him will not be able to avoid engaging with this inheritance. The same forces which Johnson sought to exploit and by which he was to some extent driven may lead them to continue along a similar path. However, an important lesson might be derived from the Johnson experience. Deviation from constitutional norms might appear to be a means of achieving easy successes. But it can end badly.

Andrew Blick is Professor of Politics and Contemporary History and Head of the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London and Senior Adviser to The Constitution Society.

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.