28th April 2021
Today’s prime minister’s questions was extraordinary.
Red-faced rage in the chamber as the PM was cross-examined by former prosecutor Starmer over the Downing Street flat refurbishment…A taster of tonight’s report on another extraordinary day in politics.— Beth Rigby (@BethRigby) April 28, 2021
Watch in full on @SkyNews. Produced by @VeryBigNews filmed by @camera_sam pic.twitter.com/a39eFTYIzq
On the two issues of the moment the prime minister Boris Johnson was relentlessly unconvincing and evasive.
In respect of the alleged ‘dead pile high’ quote, it is plausible and – according to the media – well-sourced.
In respect of who paid for the Downing Street decorations, the verbal dodges to the simple query of who initially paid for an invoice were painful to watch.
Not many will care.
A significant number of the population will, no doubt, sympathise with the sentiment which the prime minister expressed about lockdown, and more than a few will agree with the actual wording.
Similarly, the question of the refurbishment invoice will not matter to those who do not mind who paid as long as it was not the taxpayer.
Perhaps there will be hard evidence – either compelling on-the-record testimony or even an audio recording – to prove Johnson as a liar.
Yet even then the only surprise would be that he has been so starkly caught out.
The sad, inescapable truth is that Johnson conducts himself as if he is free from accountability.
And the reason he is able to do this is simple: it is because he can.
Let us look at the available mechanisms of accountability.
Johnson and his government will avoid, as long as possible, any formal inquiry as to their conduct in respect of the coronavirus pandemic.
The prospect of an electoral commission investigation is difficult to get excited about, given their impotence in respect of the lack of compliance during the referendum.
And Johnson just freely lies to parliament.
It appears the @CommonsSpeaker has NO power to stop the Prime Ministers relentless & shameless lying in Parliament.— Peter Stefanovic (@PeterStefanovi2) April 28, 2021
The system, which is based on honour & integrity, has been broken by this Government.
ALL PARTIES MUST NOW COME TOGETHER AND CHANGE IT! pic.twitter.com/HLrxcPfyjX
The examples – all of which are documented and verifiable – just accumulate.
Almost nobody cares.
We have more internal ‘inquiries’ – which may or may not report, or even be heard from again.
Few people keep track.
And as Fintan O’Toole observes, Johnson is not now even bothering to lie in prose:
‘It’s not when Boris Johnson is lying that you have to have to worry. If he’s lying, that just means he’s still breathing. No, the real danger sign is the gibbering. It’s what he does when he can’t be bothered to think up a lie.’
Against this pervasive mendacity, those organs of the state that are able to check and balance the executive are being undermined or removed: the independent civil service, the diplomatic corps, the independent judiciary, and so on.
All because – at last – the United Kingdom now has a prime minister willing – and shameless enough – to exploit to the full the (ahem) opportunities that the prime minister has with a parliamentary majority.
Eventually, of course, Johnson’s hubris will meet nemesis – just as he himself eventually came to meet the costs of the Downing Street refurbishment.
And here we are lucky – for if we had a political leader who was as serious in retaining power as, say, Vladimir Putin, we would have few constraints to look to for checking and balancing power.
Johnson is what we get, however, when politicians stop believing (or affecting to believe in) the ‘good chaps’ theory of the constitution.
Tuttery is insufficient – and the tutting could be three times as loud, and it would still make no difference.
There are indications that political and media supporters of Johnson are moving against him.
If so, there could be a mild political crisis and that this may be enough to dislodge Johnson from office.
But this would not be through any application of any constitutional check or the operation of any constitutional balance.
For all of Johnson’s sheer and endless casual dishonesty, there has been nothing the constitution could do to stop him.
Even if he was proven to have lied to parliament, that would mean nothing politically if he still had support of the majority of members of parliament.
And on a final note.
Usually at this point of this sort of exposition, someone will aver that all this shows the need for a written (that is, codified) constitution.
The universal panacea for every political ill.
A written constitution is as likely to entrench executive power than to limit it.
The problem is not the type of constitution.
The problem is instead a related one: the failure of constituionalism.
And while Johnson’s brazen disregard for constitutional norms is tolerated, there is no point changing the rules of the game, for he would disregard those rules too.
The problem is a political one: and the solution is thereby to show that this conduct means he loses power.
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