JAMES BALL on the unwritten rules in politics that are damaging the system and why.
It’s a common saying that the UK constitution is unwritten. It’s also a false saying. Much of the UK constitution is written, albeit across multiple laws, treaties, and parliamentary procedures – and in the last few weeks, a good few of these have been stuffed into the shredder.
The main culprit is clearly Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief strategist in Number 10, and his reckless apparent sprint towards Brexit at any cost. Cummings’ anarchic strategy has seen the PM threaten to ignore parliament, rip up years of convention, and even break the law.
The damage caused by a prime minister, who as the head of the government is responsible for upholding the law, threatening to break it is so glaring that it has rarely before needed stating. But it is only the most obvious of the long-term dangers our current political chaos is wreaking.
What makes the current mix so toxic is that responding to Cummings’ chaos is requiring Remain to break precedent after precedent in turn – even if they do it sounding far more responsible and sedate as they do so, they are contributing to the long-term chaos.
Take the now foolish-looking decision to prorogue parliament, a move which served to unite and outrage opposition parties, motivate them to concrete political action to delay no-deal, and then led to the loss of more than 20 government MPs and two ministers – all to reduce the number of days parliament was sitting by a small handful.
Proroguing parliament in this way was clearly a nakedly political act and an underhand dirty trick – but the act itself wasn’t especially unusual or unprecedented. By virtue of using prorogation instead of a recess the duration of it appears unusually lengthy and problematic, but the number of sitting days lost was not especially atypical.
A new prime minister wanting a new session of parliament and to set out his agenda is not especially unreasonable. And given prime ministers are politicians, it is not unprecedented for one to time something within his power to suit himself politically.
Prorogation, as one Twitter commentator noted, was not so much the cause of a constitutional crisis as a “constitutional dick move”. It might be the act which stole the spotlight and fuelled the anger, but it’s not this that actually threatens long-term crisis.
By contrast, other actions genuinely erode political traditions and practices built over hundreds of years. Seizing control of the parliamentary agenda and using it to pass substantive legislation is essentially without parliamentary precedent.
Parliament trying to force the executive to act in such prescriptive ways is well outside of our political tradition. The prime minister looking for ways to defy the law – and threatening to break it – is utterly beyond it. The fault for our current crisis lies firmly with the reckless pursuit of no-deal, but has sparked all sides to rip up the rules – and they won’t be put back together at all quickly.
Convention sounds like a small or trivial thing, but in reality it is the deepest level of British law. There is often no written law governing matters such as how the prime minister is selected, when they have to resign, when the royal prerogative applies, and more – it is usually a matter of ‘convention’, which lies well beyond the powers of courts to enforce.
Part of this is due to the bad British habit of harking back to a largely imaginary past governed by gentlemanly behaviour. Many of our key rules are never written down, because obviously no person of character would act in a particular way.
Take, for example, rules governing ministers taking outside jobs after they resign. This is governed entirely by a voluntary code asking people to act in good faith. These go beyond our official laws and into our institutions – the Labour Party found to its shock in 2016 that there was no rule requiring a leader to stand down after losing a no-confidence vote.
In the past, party leaders had stood down after only narrowly winning them (such as Thatcher), but for Labour no rule stated that even if only 20% of your MPs backed you, you had to go.
This British habit on convention is outdated and outmoded – and there’s little evidence of ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour anywhere in Westminster at present. But the problems of constitutional crisis – a future government not backed by the norms and constraints previous ones have abided by – will not easily go away.
We may like the idea of a party we support being free to push its agenda – but deadlock and division fuels extremes, and should we see the rise of a genuinely far-right party, for example, the safeguards against them are weaker than they have been for generations.
Those who hope this could lead to a written constitution which could rectify much of the harm that has been done hope in vain. As many countries have learned, a piece of paper is a very thin shield indeed against harm – and as the UK has learned, many of our recent attempts to tinker with our constitution have had severe unintended consequences, as the Fixed Term Parliaments Act shows.
Cummings is often portrayed as a strategic genius playing a chess game ten moves ahead. The reality is far simpler: he’s the man in the bar willing to flip over the table, confident he’s a better fighter than most in the brawl that will inevitably follow, and to the victor will go the spoils.
Cummings has flipped the table. Anti no-deal MPs have currently held him from the prize he seeks – but they’ve done so by trashing the joint. As they face down their five weeks of forced inactivity, they could do well starting to work out how to piece everything back together. It will be a long task, but a deeply necessary one.