I am not a huge fan of Bagehot’s Whiggish and journalistic model of the constitution, but he has been vindicated on one point by recent events: the office of Prime Minister is in no way a dignified part of the constitution.
The present premier (at time of writing) is being dragged out of Number 10 Downing Street, but his desperately clinging claws are leaving unsightly marks on walls, carpets and doorposts. Even his half-resignation, an attempt to relinquish the Tory leadership while temporarily hanging on to some sort of power, plumbs new depths of political bathos.
Johnson’s descent illuminates the ethical degradation of our political class
To offer the Prime Minister a palliatively Classical analogy, his pathetic, grudging resignation resembles Nero’s fall from power. When it became clear that his challenger Servius Sulplicius Galba was securing the support of the Praetorian Guard, Nero made incoherent plans to flee, to throw himself before the mob in search of personal popular support, even to beg the people to be allowed to retain the Prefecture of Egypt. After a night’s fitful sleep, it became clear that even his remaining loyalists had melted away. Fleeing to a villa outside Rome, he in the end proved unable even to commit suicide, requiring this final service from his secretary Epaphroditus. Panic, denial and final irresolution.
Nero’s unworthy end led, of course, to the chaotic violence of the Year of the Four Emperors. While even this arch-pessimist is reasonably confident that the United Kingdom is not about to descend into civil war, and that violent rebellion is almost certainly not on the cards, this is nonetheless a time of real national peril.
Nicola Sturgeon, the populist leader of an nationalist movement actively attempting to rip apart the country in which we live, has popped up with wearisome predictability to argue that the end of Johnson’s premiership fatally undermines the legitimacy of Westminster democracy, bolstering the pseudo-case for secession. While these are the disingenuous and prefabricated pretexts of someone committed to destroying the British state, they touch a nerve.
First, Johnson’s descent into a moral and political abyss illuminates the ethical degradation of our political class. The Conservative party must work to ensure its future leadership is not vulnerable to similar accusations of personal incompetence, moral corruption or shameless self-interest. It should look to the relative but real success of the Labour Party in detoxifying itself after its disastrous experiment in extremist and anachronistic Corbynism. Such a renewal is required not merely for the Tory party’s electoral survival, but for the country’s sake as well.
The country cannot afford to wait months for a new leader
Second, the Conservative party (and others) must recognise that the bedrock of democratic legitimacy in this country is the House of Commons. It is the sole source of an electoral mandate in the British constitutional system. It can have no rivals whatsoever.
Opportunists in the Conservative Party must immediately abandon ill-conceived appeals to personal mandates from the nation, or pretensions to a presidential system. Britain’s political classes and constitutional order have been seriously stress-tested by the tribulations of the Johnson administration. The system requires renewal, with fresh, cross-party commitment to the fundamentals of the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system.
One fault-line in our democratic constitution is the unwise evolution of complex party processes for selecting new party leaders. All the major parties should return to an understanding that the Commons is the source of their political legitimacy. The parliamentary parties, at least in times of sudden leadership collapse during the life of an otherwise viable parliament, should be responsible for selecting a new leader from among their own number. The country cannot afford to wait months for the geriatric apparatus of the Conservative party to determine a new leader. World politics and an economic crisis will not pause for an exhausted Tory party to catch its breath.
Members of Parliament are the only legitimate representatives of the local electorates, and they are also responsible to local party-political organisations. One way to shore up the British democratic constitution, and its key institutions, would be to return to Conservative MPs the grave responsibility of choosing their next leader. Sir John Major has suggested this route out of the present crisis. It has already been endorsed by academics like the political historian Nigel Fletcher at KCL.
In avoiding future Corbyns and Johnsons, and restoring public trust in the responsible government of this fracturing Kingdom, parliamentarians must assume this serious charge.
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