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Britain’s constitutional knowledge crisis

Rory Stewart’s ignorance smells of Remainer entitlement

Artillery Row

The turmoil surrounding the resignation of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative party and, in the near future, as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has made for a dramatic few days. Yet it has also sparked a good deal of reckless and ill-judged hyperbole from pundits and politicians. The most misleading was the claim that Johnson’s attempt to cling on to power between the evening of 5 July and the morning of 7 July amounted to a “constitutional crisis”.

This is, quite simply, wrong. It was not a constitutional crisis. It was purely a political crisis, and of a straightforward sort. Johnson had been mired in scandal for more than six months, since it became known that 10 Downing Street was the lockdown Hacienda. The Prime Minister himself was investigated by the police and fined for breaking his own laws on socialising. So too were various advisors and civil servants. The sequence of embarrassing revelations over many months exhausted the Conservative party and left Johnson in the last-chance saloon. In truth, his MPs had already lost confidence due to a perceived lack of grip, and alarm over his policy priorities. There was deep concern that the Prime Minister was going to cost a lot of MPs their seats. Prospective rival claimants to the premiership detected blood in the water. Johnson has always had plenty of enemies. Now his support on even the Eurosceptic right of the party was collapsing too.

Johnson triumphed in a vote of no-confidence on 6 June, yet weeks later fresh reports about his knowledge of allegations of sexual harassment aimed at Government Deputy Chief Whip and Treasurer of the Household Chris Pincher MP proved the final straw. The Prime Minister’s MPs resolved, not before time, to get rid of him. What followed was a couple of days of high-political manoeuvring that terminated in the fall of Johnson.

One is tempted to feel sorry for Stewart and his ilk

These occasions always expose the sublunary nature of human affairs. It was not, however, a constitutional crisis. The argument that the constitution was breaking down, or in some kind of lethal danger, because the Prime Minister did not immediately resign when many of his ministers demanded that he do so, was far off the mark. These claims usually emanated from the Remainer establishment Johnson had trounced, but they were also mobilised by some ambitious Tory Brexiteers. Then, inevitably, they were magnified by alarmist echo chambers on social media. There were demands for the Queen to sack him; there were calls for a general election; some, on the other hand, foamed with outrage that Johnson himself might try to force a general election; and there were cries of that old standby, “fascism”.

The most unfortunate intervention of this sort came from Rory Stewart. Johnson’s former leadership rival tweeted that the collapse of Johnson’s premiership should “mark the final end of the old British system. He [Johnson] demonstrated ruthlessly how much damage can be done by someone refusing to respect unwritten rules. We need a written constitution. A new electoral system. And far better leaders”. Stewart later tweeted that “a different electoral system would not have produced Boris J”.

Where to begin with this? For one thing, Johnson had every right to attempt to form a new government, and to then ponder pursuing a public mandate for it. With key ministers resigning, he behaved in a constitutionally appropriate fashion by choosing to soldier on long enough to establish whether he could assemble an alternative team that might command the support of the large Conservative majority in the House of Commons. It is possible to think Johnson is a substandard and dishonest Prime Minister who should depart public life as quickly as possible without lapsing into nonsensical claims about the constitution being in danger. Testing the willingness of MPs to support a government is a core constitutional practice. Over 36 hours it became clear that Johnson could not cobble together a new ministry. So he quit. That was the end of the matter.

There were no constitutional outrages here. Johnson did not go Mad Dog on the Queen or send tanks to blast Rishi Sunak’s house. His desperate manoeuvring signified a failure to promptly accept that the game was up, but it was hardly “unconstitutional”.

With respect to Stewart’s other claim, it is not the case that the British constitution is “unwritten”. In fact, the rules of the system are indeed written down, in lots of different documents from the 1689 Bill of Rights to the Parliament Act of 1911 and the Cabinet Manual. The British constitution is a flexible accumulation of experience — detailing what works and what doesn’t work in the real world, not the abstractions or rigidities of set doctrine. Stewart was really calling for a single, codified constitution — and, presumptuously, one in which the political and electoral systems would be overhauled to his liking.

This was a far-reaching demand. Yet it was wholly without justification. One might well argue that in facilitating such a rapid and straightforward end to the Johnson premiership, the British constitution and its “rules” had once again demonstrated a robust vitality. The reason that Johnson had not been removed earlier in the year was a consequence of the unwillingness of Conservative MPs to ditch him, not some vague constitutional dysfunction.

Stewart’s claim, of course, was purely political. His worldview has been shattered by events since the 2015 general election that ensured a referendum on membership of the European Union was finally going to happen. His own ambitions have flopped. One is tempted to feel sorry for him and his ilk. They may be turning into the new Jacobites, fundamentally unable to reconcile themselves to a reordered political landscape. The fact that they style themselves as “Centrists” when multiple democratic contests have made clear that the “centre” equals Brexit, is revealing.

Stewart’s demand that the constitution and electoral system be overhauled reeks of bitterness. It is as if he is saying, “The baddies keep winning free democratic contests in this country, and this mustn’t be allowed. Meanwhile I, and those like me, can’t persuade people to make us Prime Minister. Therefore we must change the rules.”

The Brexit vote unmoored many parliamentarians from reality

It would be sad if it weren’t so dangerous to the political wellbeing of the United Kingdom. If anyone is aiming to shred the “rules” of British democracy, it is Rory Stewart, not Boris Johnson. Stewart has form here. During the 2019 Brexit crisis, he publicly announced a desire to form an extra-parliamentary “Citizens Assembly” that would somehow magically sort things out. Next he threatened to set up a wholly unconstitutional “alternative parliament” consisting of anti-Johnson MPs that would take over the Methodist Central Hall. This was a direct attack on the core of the constitution, in which the Crown (the executive) and the legislature are fused in Parliament. Stewart was proposing to separate them because the Prime Minister would not give him his own way. Now he proposes that a country scarred by the pandemic and facing long-term economic turmoil wait while parliamentarians indulge themselves in the inevitably multi-year bloodsport that would be the construction of a new constitution.

For Rory Stewart to be accusing others of a ruthless willingness to damage the constitution by a failure to respect its rules, is to underscore how far the Brexit vote unmoored many parliamentarians from reality. Sadly, they have still not come to terms with the fact that if the 2017 Parliament had delivered Britain’s exit from the European Union rather than frustrated it, there would never have been a “Boris” premiership in the first place. This period spawned the Johnson government and its decisive parliamentary majority.

Stewart’s complaints are indicative of a wider ignorance of the British constitution. Studying the development of the constitution used to be a core component of university degrees in History. In recent decades, however, the subject has become increasingly neglected. Even many political historians betray ignorance over constitutional basics. There is an assumption that constitutional matters are dry and boring. Politicians and journalists are often visibly clueless, seeming to imagine that we live in an American-style presidential system, and displaying little grasp of the relationship between government and parliament. Some even kid themselves that there is something supreme about the so-called Supreme Court.

This is a depressing state of affairs. It is also an alarming one. A series of important events over the past eight years — the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the nationalists’ anti-democratic refusal to accept that the “No” vote settled the matter, the 2016 referendum on the EU and then the long struggle to implement or overturn that decision — all raised provocative constitutional questions, and electrified British politics. They will retain their salience for some years to come. The Northern Ireland Protocol poses stark problems for the relationship between the different components of the United Kingdom, and the relish with which many prominent Remainers have seized upon the defenestration of Johnson, linking it with Brexit, implies that there may be fresh attempts to reverse the decoupling from Brussels. Watch this space!

Those who comment on public affairs for a living really ought to take the time to study the rulebook. And those who actually sit in the legislature need to understand the resources, flexibility and power that the constitution — a product of the rich alluvial deposits of past centuries — bestows upon them. The historian Geoffrey Elton wrote that Parliament, undergirded by the constitution, was the epicentre of the lawful order in Britain, and its statutes stand “omnicompetently sovereign”. It would behove the new Prime Minister, their Cabinet and MPs to act like it.

Robert Crowcroft is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Edinburgh.

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