It can be easy to get swept up in the drama surrounding Boris Johnson. He, after all, appears to encourage it. But the current instability plaguing the British government raises more important questions than what will happen to one man. As the administration lurches from one crisis to the next and backbench MPs wrestle with what to do about it, the fundamental flaws of the British system are becoming ever more apparent.
At the heart of the matter is a prime minister who is content to ignore the conventions and generally accepted practices of the established system. His story truly exposes how little British citizens are protected from leaders of his ilk.
The country has, in a rather British way, muddled through for years. There have been reports and inquiries and codes of conduct but, unlike countries such as the US, the UK has no single document or “written constitution” which sets out the limits on behaviour.
Instead, there are acknowledged precedents and unspoken agreement. Historian Peter Hennessy has labelled this the “good chap” theory of government – a tacit understanding that there are some things which you just shouldn’t do, there’s a good chap (and we should understand the rather dated term “chap” to refer to men and women alike).
But by ignoring or trampling over traditional norms of behaviour, Boris Johnson has exposed the severe weakness of the system. If the chap at the top is not a good chap, then virtually no rules or restraints seem to apply. As the lawyer and commentator David Allen Green observed in summer 2021, when a Labour MP was criticised for accusing the prime minister of lying in the House of Commons: “When a prime minister lies repeatedly, there is nothing that can be done. But something will be done to a MP pointing this out.”
Johnson has pulled off an effective confidence trick. He may look and sound like a good chap, with his archaic vocabulary and deliberately eccentric tone and posture. He has, as it were, adopted the “habitus” of the traditionally educated – prep school, Eton and Balliol – prime minister.
But he is not a good chap. He prorogued parliament unlawfully, as the supreme court found unanimously. He tried to abolish the parliamentary standards system when it found that a Conservative MP had been a paid lobbyist, again in breach of the rules.
His former aide has accused him of lying to parliament when claiming he thought a party held in Downing Street during a pandemic lockdown was a “work event”. He has repeatedly passed on opportunities to withdraw baseless accusations he has thrown at the opposition leader in parliament that appear to have originated in online conspiracy theories.
Most prime ministers of the last 100 years would have resigned over almost any one of these transgressions.
Norms are usually a social construct. They are not necessarily formally written down but nonetheless provide stability and confidence that society is not a free-for-all on the brink of breakdown. The behaviour of leaders matters. In a corporate setting, governance codes require, for example, board members to question and challenge the executive. Companies should not be dictatorships. Corporate governance has been the subject of a purposeful and quite productive debate for the last 30 years. In the private sector, it is understood that structures matter for anyone trying to run a healthy and successful enterprise.
Cabinet government is supposed to work in a roughly similar way, with the prime minister primus inter pares – first among equals – a Latin phrase which should not test the prime minister’s perhaps fading grasp of the language too severely.
Yet even to discuss the problem in this way can sound quaint and naïve. What is not – at least, was not – quaint is the idea that an effective cabinet secretary at the heart of this system can ensure that prime ministerial excesses are very often curbed. The head of the civil service sees to it that the norms are respected and kept in place. Past cabinet secretaries were masters of this. No such figure is at work in Whitehall today, as the prime minister well knows (indeed, he saw to it that this was the case).
What we see is that a system, without norms, is wide open for abuse. Today only the moral awareness of Conservative MPs can defend a nation from a prime minister determined to stay in office come what may, no matter what he says or does.
Leadership without purpose, other than satisfying the ego, is likely to founder. Governance rules are in place, in business and the rest of society, to try to prevent immoral leaders driving their organisations into the ground. As scandals continued to break, this government’s flagship policy to “level up” more deprived regions was rushed out, apparently before it was ready, as part of the bid to distract attention away from one man and his mistakes.
The true legacy of the Johnson premiership will probably be a growing demand for the hitherto unspoken norms of government to be more formally codified, even put into law. And the two-word verdict on allowing such a person to take charge in Number 10 will be stark and clear: never again.