Johnson and His Government are Damaging British Democracy

By Grey G

Consistently throughout his reign, Boris Johnson has ignored and undermined democracy. At the end of August 2019, through the use of his royal prerogative power, he advised the Queen to prorogue Parliament for five weeks in a blatant attempt to prevent MPs from fulfilling their constitutional functions. Parliament is usually adjourned at this time of year, although typically only for five days rather than five weeks. Despite the PM’s denial of the accusation, he was undeniably suspending Parliament in order to avoid scrutiny and accountability for his Brexit policy for which he couldn’t even claim to have a mandate; he had only won a Conservative Party leadership election to achieve his position. The prorogation was quickly taken to the Supreme Court and resulted in a unanimous decision by the justices that the prorogation was “unlawful, null and of no effect”. This attempt by Johnson to go beyond the powers of the executive is a clear example of him contradicting the democratic principles that a Prime Minister ought to stand for.  

A year later, one of his ministers openly admitted that the Government’s Internal Markets Bill would breach the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement and thus be illegal under international law. This bill sought to give ministers the power to rewrite regulations on state aid and customs arrangements between Northern Ireland and the UK, violating the Withdrawal Agreement’s terms. This greatly reduced the UK’s reputation as an upholder of international law and set a bad example that might encourage regimes to use it as an excuse to ignore independent courts. The bill also exempts some of the government’s powers from legal challenge. Lord Neuberger, former President of the Supreme Court, condemned it, saying “once you deprive people of the right to go to the court to challenge the government, you are in a dictatorship, you are in a tyranny”. 

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill provides us with further evidence of Johnson and his government being anti-democratic. Although most measures within it have received broad support, such as extending the prison terms for sex offenders, certain aspects threaten our democratic rights – specifically our right to protest. The bill seeks to criminalise protests that are deemed by the authorities to cause “serious annoyance”; it will allow the police to place conditions on peaceful protests if they are deemed too “noisy” and if they “obstruct” the public. It will also widen the “controlled area” around Parliament. The right to protest almost inevitably infringes on the rights of others. For example, demonstrations against the Iraq war were noisy and obstructed the public, but under this legislation they would potentially have been banned, removing the ability for the public to show their opposition. If this bill becomes an Act of Parliament in its present form (it is still in the “ping-pong” stage), Johnson’s government will have successfully restricted one of our key democratic rights and thus damaged our democracy.

Time after time, Boris Johnson has protected and stood by his allies when they have broken the rules rather than hold them accountable. He continued to support Dominic Cummings when he broke lockdown rules, Robert Jenrick after he fast-tracked an ‘unlawful’ planning decision which saved a Conservative Party donor £45 million, and Priti Patel when she violated the ministerial code. However, the most significant threat to democracy came from his support for Owen Paterson, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Paterson had been found by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to have “repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant”. The Commons Select Committee on Standards then recommended that Paterson be suspended from the House of Commons. Boris Johnson then did not merely support Paterson but issued a three-line whip on Andrea Leadsom’s amendment which would delay Paterson’s suspension and replace the system that had found him guilty with a new one dominated by Conservatives. This incident further highlights the fact that instead of adhering to rules and protocols that hold the government accountable, Boris Johnson has a tendency to ignore them. 

This was made further evident during the Partygate scandal in which Johnson has once again shown no respect for both Parliament and rules. He has been fined for breaking the very Covid rules that he himself set and in doing so he has arguably misled Parliament. Historically, ministers have always resigned following a series of scandals. Johnson’s failure to do so and his party’s failure to remove him has thus set a bad precedent. If misleading Parliament, lying to the public and becoming the first sitting British Prime Minister to have been found to break the law, on top of other scandals, is not enough for a PM to resign then what is? What now will future Prime Ministers do when they find themselves in a position with most of the public calling for their resignation?

Johnson’s actions have even resulted in the UK edging closer towards a “flawed democracy” with the Economist Intelligence Unit giving Britain an overall score of 8.10 out of 10 in the 2021 Democracy Index as opposed to 8.54 the year before. It is clear that he seems to be ignoring the democratic principles of the country he serves. 

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