A government that seeks to change the rules whenever it feels disadvantaged by the system suggests a hazardous path for British democracy. The only way to achieve and maintain public trust in politics is through faith and goodwill in the process of constitutional checks and balances.
By Joanna George
Research Associate, University of Cambridge
The intense 48-hour political and media whirlwind surrounding Owen Paterson’s lobbying controversy, Boris Johnson’s sudden U-turn on parliamentary standards and Paterson’s resignation as an MP has once again brought parliamentary standards firmly back into the public gaze. This is in line with growing evidence of the government’s willingness to question, challenge or undermine constitutional ‘checks’, such as the courts and the Electoral Commission, that may criticise or question its conduct.
After last week’s finding by the Commons Standards Committee that Paterson had ‘brought the House into disrepute’ by repeatedly using his position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, it was recommended that he be suspended from the House of Commons for one month. What is significant about this case was the fact that the government ordered its MPs to vote for an amendment to protect him from suspension by proposing an overhaul of the Commons Standards Committee. The government’s knee-jerk response to the constitutional ‘check’ that found Paterson’s breaches to be ‘egregious’ showed disregard for ethical considerations and prompted a very predictable public backlash. Tellingly, if the government was genuinely serious about reforming the system they could have advocated this long before Paterson’s suspension.
Within the space of 24 hours the government was forced into a major U-turn in response to the intense criticism from the media, opposition parties and some Conservatives MPs, arguing — unconvincingly — that questions about Paterson had been unintentionally ‘conflated’ with wider questions about reform of the standards regime. In a speech at the Institute for Government Lord Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, declared that the government’s proposals were ‘deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy’ and ‘an attack on standards’. The ‘standards’ to which Lord Evans refers to are the ones set out in the Seven Principles of Public Life which were established more than 25 years ago for holders of public office. The robust response to the government’s conduct highlights that even if the government fails to uphold proper standards for MPs within the party of government, opposition parties and the constant surveillance of the media will always point out irregularities – to the detriment of the government’s reputation. But at what point will the government itself wake up to the political, constitutional and wider cultural significance of breaking the norms and the legacy it will leave in its wake?
The growing accumulation of instances where public standards fall short – such as defending Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock over breaking lockdown rules and pushing to one side findings that Home Secretary Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code by bullying – the government inevitably risks alienating voters, including — if history is any guide — eventually its support base. Indeed, it is striking that the government hasn’t learnt from the legacy of previous governments who suffered serious political backlashes in response to the ‘cash for questions’ scandal and MPs expenses scandal. Such instances of sleaze and impropriety unfairly paints all politicians with the same tarnished brush. This is not only unfair to the rule-abiding politicians who enter politics to make a positive contribution to public life, are respectful of the UK’s long-held constitutional conventions, but also creates the deeper risk of eroding public trust in politics and the political process more generally.
Principles and norms shape the constitutional framework of public life in Britain with democratic backsliding becoming a real risk. If trust and confidence in the political process is to be strengthened for the benefit of future generations then meaningful checks and balances must exist and must be accepted and respected by the government — from the Prime Minister down. For a very long time, the UK constitution has functioned for the most part satisfactorily thanks in no small measure to the willingness of politicians to ‘play by the rules’, even if, as in this case, the rules in question do not have the force of law.
If recent evidence is a reliable guide, that willingness is beginning to break down — which in turn raises some very basic questions about whether the UK constitution remains fit for purpose. If politicians are not only able but also willing to tear up rules and undermine institutions that have found them to be at fault, then that suggests a fundamental problem at the heart of the constitution and of the democratic system.