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Saturday, July 2, 2022

After years of breaking the rules, Boris Johnson must now hope that his lawmakers won’t change the only one keeping him in office

Britain does not have a single document that describes what its democracy looks like. The British Constitution is made up of a massive amount of laws, all of which can be rewritten when needed, and rules and conventions that are widely accepted by all politicians.

This reliance on tradition and accepted standards works if everyone accepts them. When rules are broken, politicians resign, whether they are backbenchers, cabinet ministers or party leaders and prime ministers. Without this acceptance of gentlemanly (or gentlemanly) standards, the parliamentary system would be impractical and more stringent standards would be needed.

For its proponents, this flexibility is one of the strengths of the UK parliamentary system – everyone follows the rules without requiring them to be written down and debated. It is a system that has served the UK well to this day. Constitutional arrangements are bent when necessary – although critics would argue that this makes for an archaic system with limited scope for meaningful change. But the system has survived and evolved over time. So what happens when the leader isn’t playing by the rules? And what happens when they replace them and the system has no way of challenging it?

Presently MPs find themselves in such a situation. In Boris Johnson he has a prime minister like no other. Past leaders have been experts at bending – but breaking – rules within the parliamentary system to suit their purposes. The purpose of the three-line whip is to get your party to accept your policy and the whip has historically used every tool at its disposal to put rogue lawmakers in line.

There are legends of the whip office. From Gavin Williamson’s pet tarantula to the indiscreet black books of the past, Whip was and is an expert in persuading lawmakers to support his legislation.

But there should be some parliamentary rules. For example, the Ministerial Code was supposed to set minimum standards for behavior in public life. And it came with the expectation that anyone found breaking it would be punished—and that they would accept their punishment, even if they didn’t like or agree to it.

play fast and loose

The prorogation of Parliament in 2019 was the first clear sign that the Johnson government would not allow any strange rule to come in the way of its plans. In late August 2019, Johnson advised the Queen to suspend or shut down parliament for five weeks at the height of the Brexit crisis, to prevent lawmakers from stalling a government deal to leave the European Union. This advice was later termed “illegal” by the Supreme Court. It was only the first rule with little or no penalty.

In November 2021, Backbench Conservative MP Owen Patterson was suspended from parliament for 30 days after lobbying two companies to act as outside consultants – hardly the harshest punishment. The government machine swung into action to vote on whether a new committee full of Tory lawmakers should decide their fate and the future of the Standards Committee. This proved to be a violation of the rules by far and, despite winning the parliamentary vote, the government agreed to new cross-party talks and a further investigation into Patterson, forcing him to resign his seat.

More rule breaking followed, including the partygate scandal. The Prime Minister has broken one rule after another and in some cases has refused to resign or even apologize. The individual terms have been interpreted and reinterpreted repeatedly by backbenchers to offer some defense of their leader. But at what cost?

In some ways no price has been paid for it. Johnson remains prime minister with a majority of 80 seats.

But public trust in politicians in Britain is at its lowest level on record. Labor leads in many opinion polls and Johnson has just faced a vote of confidence in which 148 of his lawmakers voted against him.

Read more: Boris Johnson wins ‘no-confidence’ vote: but the difference will leave him uneasy

hoist by your own petard

Ironically, the only thing Johnson keeps breaking may come to his rescue: the rules. The rules of the Conservative 1922 Committee of Backbenchers make it clear that a leader can only face one vote of confidence every 12 months – therefore, as of June 2023, Johnson’s position cannot be challenged through the 1922 Committee Is. However, much is being said about whether this rule can be changed.

The chairman of the 1922 committee, Sir Graham Brady, does not appear to be in favor of changing the rules. But never say no. The Conservative Party is excellent at recognizing that a leader is an asset and, perhaps more importantly, when they are a lame duck.

Decision: Sir Graham Brady, 1922 Chairman of the Committee, leaving Downing Street during the final months of Theresa May’s prime ministership, January 2019.
EPA-EFE/Andy Ren

They will oust any leader – whoever they are – if they feel it benefits the party and its members. Margaret Thatcher learned of this when she asked her cabinet whether she should contest a second round during a leadership contest in 1990 after 11 years in government and 16 years as party leader.

But, while Johnson may be in an uncomfortable position, he is not in an unbearable position. While other prime ministers would almost certainly have resigned if many of these rules were broken, Johnson remains in office. He cannot be coerced by the Labor Party, nor voters currently – at least, not until the next election, due in December 2024.

Until this election, only the Tory party can punish anyone who breaks this rule in any meaningful way. Though they may not do so today or tomorrow, they will not hesitate to sack him if they feel that he has become an election disaster. The upcoming by-elections in Wakefield, Yorkshire and Honiton in Tiverton and Devon on 23 June may give many MPs reason to reconsider their current donations to their leader and rulebreaker-in-chief.

World Nation News Desk
World Nation News Deskhttps://worldnationnews.com/
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