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Artillery Row

Inadequately in office

Are there any Tories in the Tory party?

The present Conservative government is sick unto death. With the sole, luminous exception of a principled and fearless foreign policy response to Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, the exhausted and rudderless Johnson Ministry finds itself suffering unsustainable losses on all major fronts. 

The Prime Minister is hopelessly exposed by his hypocrisy with regard to the enforcement of his own draconian covid restrictions. A bewildered Chancellor — so recently the darling of party and public — has seen his chances of succeeding Johnson cruelly evaporate upon the revelation of his family’s extravagantly complex wealth, his sometime commitment to emigrate to the United States, and an unprecedented crisis in the cost of living. Sleaze has returned with a squalid vengeance, resulting in imminent and embarrassing by-elections. 

The only major policy achievement of this administration was achieved at its very inception: delivering Brexit, for better or for worse. What now have they to show for their years in government?

The Tory Party’s mask of cultural conservatism has slipped

Plenty of commentators have catalogued this government’s lacklustre administration and invisible legislative ambitions. It is necessary, however, to identify a deeper cultural and ideological malaise in the so-called Conservative Party.

Karl Marx (a decent diagnostician, whose cures have sometimes the unfortunate habit of killing their patients) skewered the fundamental problem a hundred and seventy years ago: “the Tories in England long imagined that they were enthusiastic about monarchy, the church and the beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they are enthusiastic only about ground rent.”

A party that truly revered the past should be thinking in decades and centuries, but this year alone the Tory Party’s mask of cultural conservatism and constitutional fidelity has slipped in two revealing occurrences. They are significant because in both cases a betrayal, or amnesia, of the British constitution has been allied to a grubby defence of an indefensible Prime Minister.

The first instance involved Jacob Rees-Mogg, an am-dram Iolanthe lordling, blithely announcing a constitutional revolution on BBC Newsnight in late January. In the throes of that earlier phase of partygate (honestly, I’ve lost count), Rees-Mogg joined other Johnson loyalists in rebuffing calls for the Prime Minister to resign. The then Lord President of the Council advanced the borderline seditious argument that Britain is now a presidential state, in which Johnson enjoys a personal mandate from the electorate:

I think it’s a very interesting constitutional point. It is my view that we have moved, for better or worse, to an essentially presidential system, and that therefore the mandate is personal rather than entirely party. And that any prime minister would be very well advised to seek a fresh mandate. Gordon Brown didn’t, and that didn’t work. Boris Johnson did, and that did work. I think the days of MacMillan taking over from Eden, or even Callaghan from Wilson, no longer get the mood of the constitution, and our constitution evolves. So my view is that change of leader requires a general election.

This is slippery nonsense. First, Johnson didn’t call an election (or, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, manoeuvre to obtain an election) after deposing his predecessor. The 2019 election was a response to parliamentary gridlock over Brexit. This is a brazen misrepresentation, unworthy of a decent statesman.

More importantly, and as Rees-Mogg surely knows, such a shift is absolutely incompatible with the democratic element of our constitution. Britain is a democracy because the elected House of Commons enjoys an unchallenged dominance in our legislative processes, and because the executive (i.e. HM Government) has to answer to the Commons. We elect our local members of parliament. Nobody outside a Prime Minister’s own parliamentary constituency votes for or against that particular officeholder. The Prime Minister is functionally elected not by the public, but by his fellow MPs.

If Mr Johnson were somehow to have an independent mandate from the British people, this would fatally undercut the authority of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister would no longer rely entirely upon the confidence of our elected representatives. MPs would no longer be able to remove mad, bad or dangerous premiers. This is the mechanism that removed a tired and sickly Neville Chamberlain in our darkest wartime hour, and evicted Mrs Thatcher after her final ministry long outstayed its welcome. The Commons, in turn, would cease to be the fount of democratic legitimacy for our entire parliamentary system. Rees-Mogg’s absurd argument both attacks British democracy at its very roots, and removes the indispensable pressure valve of MPs deposing moribund leaders.

This presumptuous presidentialism further threatens the other, non-democratic source of legitimacy in the British constitution. While the Prime Minister’s democratic authority comes from the confidence of the Commons, he wields the executive powers of the Crown entrusted him by the Sovereign. A presidential premier who claims a personal mandate from the electorate pretends to embody the country’s will, usurps the monarch’s place as national figurehead, and short-circuits the constitution.

Modern English Tories are fair-weather friends to the monarchy

Treating the electorate as a great national whole, rather than as the concert of local communities and constituencies, suggests a notion of popular sovereignty utterly alien to British history. The concrete sovereignty of the Queen-in-Parliament is replaced with the great amorphous abstract of “the will of the people”, open to every conceivable demagogic abuse by those who would wage war against Britain’s institutions from within. This would be a brutalist remodelling of the constitution.

Not sated by dethroning the Queen and castrating the House of Commons, the great minds of the modern Conservative party have turned its eyes on an even higher target: the Almighty, and his servants. Stung by criticism in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon of the government’s Rwanda policy for the processing of asylum seekers, Ben Bradly MP fulminated: “We separated the Church from the state a long time ago … Commenting on government policy is not Justin Welby’s job.”

Mr Bradley is here mistaken. Contrary to the general socio-political vibes he has presumably absorbed from watching The West Wing, we did not separate Church from state in this country. Our Queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. As an ex officio member of the House of Lords, it is very literally the Archbishop’s job to comment on government policy. We even, in far distant Scotland, have a state church organised as per the fashions of the presbyterians. Two state churches not one, and definitely not none. Unseparated, still with us. 

Marx, it seems, was right. Our modern English Tories too are, at best, fair-weather friends to the monarchy, the church and the beauties of the old English Constitution.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In a fit of absent-minded competence, albeit diluted with some low self-interest, the Johnson Ministry did manage to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This is perhaps the only genuinely Tory legislative move made in a generation. Repealing that disastrous, short-termist coalition statute was an act of restoration, returning a significant element of the British constitution to its traditional status quo ante 2011.

Intriguingly, what the Dissolution and Calling of Parliaments Act 2022 restores is a prerogative power. That is, the Queen’s traditional power to call and dissolve parliaments is deemed to exist as “as if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had never been enacted”. This is an interesting Tory precedent to set. Whiggish lawyers and constitutionalists have held for centuries that the royal prerogatives are vestigial, and ever diminishing. Now we know that this is not entirely the case.

The road is open, should enterprising constitutionalists be willing to take it, for a revitalisation of the British constitution. The atrophying of great national institutions — parliament, the civil service, the monarchy itself — is escapable, even reversible, where there is sufficient cultural confidence and political will. 

The tired and directionless Johnson government will not attempt, still less manage to do so. Britain desperately needs a government that will.

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