TL:DR – The system of ministerial accountability is collapsing in Westminster in the face of silence from backbench MPs and evasion from ministers.
The first was from the Director of the Institute for Government, below.
“For the long series of serious misjudgements about schools during the pandemic, the buck should stop with the secretary of state, says Bronwen Maddox“
The second was from the Criminal Bar Association, representing barristers in the criminal justice field, calling for the resignations at the Home Office of those behind an inflammatory video on refugees and migrants, in which they blamed ‘activist lawyers’ for some of the problems.
The Bar Council, representing all barristers across England & Wales generally stated:
“We strongly condemn the use of divisive and deceptive language that undermines the rule of law and those working to uphold it.”
And to show you how fast the political news can travel, since starting typing this blog the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office has conceded the language should not have been used.
Grinding down political opponents and the public with through evasion while breaking long-established conventions designed to help keep ministers accountable.
This reminded me of something Naomi Klein wrote about in Shock Doctrine in 2009. She spoke about it following the 2016 Presidential Election in the USA.
In the UK we’ve effectively had three unexpected shocks that have destabilised three successive governments and brought down two prime ministers. The first was the EU Referendum of June 2016 – Cameron’s Folly. I stayed up all night to watch the results come through, and the following afternoon recorded this vlogpost. The second was the call by Theresa May to call a general election in 2017 – one that robbed her of her majority in Parliament and led to scenes which brought Parliament and its conventions into disrepute. For example her Government ignoring the repeated defeats on motions tabled during opposition day debates. This was followed up by the policy paralysis in the face of the Extinction Rebellion protests when a largely decentralised movement seemed to emerge from nowhere as far as the mainstream media were concerned, and yet successfully bring central London’s roads to a standstill by blocking a handful of busy junctions. We are now in a situation where the present administration under a seemingly teflon-coated Johnson is crashing from pillar to post while his political opponents can’t seem to touch him following his general election victory in late 2019.
Did the 2017 general election lead to a false sense of security for the pro-EU liberals?
I can’t remember who it was that mentioned it – I think it was at some cross-party drinks post local elections many moons ago, but I was told that the Tories understood that holding power is all that matters, while the left and liberal parties are more likely to put ideological purity first over pragmatism to get power. One of the party discipline messages Tony Blair’s administration repeatedly told supporters in the 1990s is that without power you can’t do anything. After coming up to two decades out of power, you can see why this resonated with many in the party at the time. The biggest error made by the opposition parties – on which they paid a very heavy price, was to agree to a general election in 2019 *before* the Intelligence & Security Committee’s report on alleged Russian activities in UK politics.
Ultimately the parties of the political right were able to unite under a single politician (Johnson) while the parties of the liberal and left were not. Why that was…they are still trying to work that one out. The fact that it took the Liberal Democrats, utterly crushed by the FPTP voting model in 2019, so long to elect a new leader – announced today (27 August) speaks volumes. Incredibly, the Liberal Democrats *increased* their share of the vote from 7.4% of the voting electorate to 11.6%. That worked out at over 1.3million extra votes, but one fewer seat net – one of the seats that was lost was that of party leader Jo Swinson.
UK General Election 2019 – main parties
Many of the politicians who re-stood for Parliament but for different parties in different constituencies also failed to get re-elected. One of the most high profile of these was Chuka Umunna, who when he was elected in 2010 was spoken of very highly as a member of the Treasury Select Committee.
Political and parliamentary power not proportionate to the share of the vote
Campaigners for proportional representation such as the Electoral Reform Society have repeatedly raised this as an issue in their campaigns for electoral reform. The problem they have is that there is little incentive for the Conservatives, or for a large part of Labour for that matter, to support such a move. The reason being that the existing system provides both parties with ‘safe seats’. Take Saffron Walden down the road from Cambridge. A safe-as-castles Tory seat, it has only ever had five different people serving as MP since 1922. That’s nearly a century.
Johnson’s record since 2020 arrived
It has been dominated by his administration’s response to the outbreak of the Corona Virus pandemic. And he misjudged the early part of the outbreak badly – as demonstrated by missing the emergency ministerial briefings on the outbreak.
Above – the headline of Peter Walker’s article in The Guardian on 19 April 2020.
The catalogue of errors, mistakes, misjudgements, and resignations that should have happened but did not, is getting longer and longer.
- Matt Hancock, Health Secretary: PPE shortages, along with deaths in care homes, and failures over pandemic planning despite the simulation exercise Cygnus. (The last arguably is the responsibility of his predecessor Jeremy Hunt, who inexplicably is now Chair of the Health Select Committee and in that sense is in charge of marking his own homework on this issue. A massive conflict of interest).
- Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary: See Bronwen Maddox’s catalogue of issues here.
- Robert Jenrick, Housing & Communities, Local Government Secretary: The Westferry Scandal, which led to him being taken to court by Tower Hamlets Council over his decision to try and rush through a planning approval for a party donor that would have deprived the council of one of London’s poorest boroughs around £45million for community infrastructure. Documents later published showed he pushed this through despite objections and huge reservations from the appointed Planning Inspector, and the department’s own civil service legal and policy advisers.
- Johnson’s deliberate withholding of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report, combined with the deliberate delay in forming a new committee for the new Parliament – putting national security at risk.
And those are just four examples. I’ve not even mentioned the Prime Minister’s chief adviser Cummings, who was able to make a statement from Downing Street’s back garden over allegations that he broke Lockdown regulations. He neither apologised or resigned. Which led to the memorable headline below…
…but also his behaviour had a negative impact on the ability of local police and local councils to enforce the emergency laws on lockdown. The fear is that people died unnecessarily early and painful deaths as a result.
“How, and why have they gotten away with it?”
This will be an exam question for students of politics and history for decades to come, I suspect. Three of the top reasons for me are:
- The failure of rebellious Conservative MPs, and opposition MPs in the 2017-19 Parliament to bring in the necessary democratic safeguards prior to the general election of 2019, resulting in the outmanoeuvring of otherwise independent-minded politicians who were replaced by candidates who were loyal to Johnson.
- The failure of the new intake of Conservative MPs to understand the importance of trust, integrity and propriety in underpinning good government and good governance – reflected in the silence by so many of them.
- The failure of the mainstream media collectively to hold ministers to account, acquiescing to ministers selectively briefing to partisan publications – including those behind paywalls, of new policy announcements while refusing to engage with longstanding current affairs programmes and news bulletins.
“Why does this all matter?”
Don’t let this be a winter of discontent. We’ve got enough to deal with in the face of the Corona Virus pandemic. Furthermore…
…Don’t think it can’t happen here.
One of the best Shakespeare reproductions of recent times, it places Richard III in an interwar Britain riven by strife. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching.